Disclaimer: With the small sample size the NFL provides, it can be hard to learn anything. But I’ve read 300+ football books and I’m pretty sure of a few things. Other than “situational football is the most important thing”, there’s this:
Overpaying a QB hurts your team more than it helps your team.
It’s not a stoned Friday without a good-natured Twitter spat. Today it was with one of my idols. Maybe he’s right. Maybe QBs should be overpaid. Maybe “you have to”. But I’ll believe it when 10 consecutive Super Bowls are won by overpaid QBs.
I’d put the factors of a team winning (consistently) as these (in no order):
- organizational stability
- complementary football
- situational football
- Lady Luck, that bastard
It’s hard to put them in order because every team and every game is different. We’d have to go play by play through a decade of football to list all the examples. But the important takeaway is the QB has a little to do with a few of those. For many, he’s not even on the field. Certainly not enough to pay him more than 13% of the salary cap. Why such a seemingly arbitrary number? Because Steve Young was paid 13.1% of the cap in 1994 and the Niners won the Super Bowl. Nobody has crossed the threshold since. The most dominant team since, the 2013 Seahawks, paid their QB less than 1% of the cap. I’m not saying you have to do that. THAT would be crazy. I’d pay the worst of the lot (HEY, JOE!) before I’d just draft a 3rd rounder every 4 years and throw him in there (but I’d consider it, as I think Russell Wilsons, Jimmy G’s, and other players are fairly easy to find and while they are good, much of their success is due to roster depth, coaching, etc – intangibles which we’d probably never agree on).
Part of the trouble is it’s hard to know which QBs deserve to be close to the line. I’d argue Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees [and Peyton Manning when he played] comprise the entire list. Let’s look at QBs dancing around the threshold now (the first 2 are great, the others in the order they cross my mind):
- Aaron Rodgers – great QB who was part of a strong roster (including a great defense) won the SB in an uncapped year, has only been to one conference championship since, usually misses the playoffs of burns out in an early round
- Drew Brees – great QB who was part of a strong roster (including a great defense) won the SB in 2009; has never been to a conference championship since, usually misses the playoffs
- Matt Stafford – a train wreck who has played in 1 playoff game
- Joe Flacco – a train wreck who was part of a strong roster (including a great defense) that won the SB in 2012 while on a decent contract; has played in 2 playoff games since
- Kirk Cousins – an “efficient” QB to some who has 0 playoff wins and was terrible in both his big games so far (that playoff game and a Week 17 win and you’re in game that they lost)
- David Carr – a train wreck who has played in 0 playoff games
- Big Ben – an average QB who went to 3 SBs with a strong roster; hasn’t been to a Super Bowl since the uncapped year of 2010
- Andrew Luck – 1 good season that ended in a blowout loss; may never play again because his owner guaranteed he’d play Week 1 of 2017 and he played 0 snaps all season
- Cam Newton – 1 good season that ended in a SB loss due to bad situational football
- Matt Ryan – to many, almost proved you can win and overpay a QB; on the other hand, I’d argue that was 1 of his 2 good seasons (in 10 years) and they lost due to situational football and roster depth
- Jimmy Garoppolo – has 5 games with his current team, who knows, maybe he’s the unicorn who will “prove me wrong” by just being an exception to the rule
Note: Due to all sorts of shenanigans, the exact % can vary but is around 13 from year to year. Again, I’m not saying you can’t pay your QB a lot, just that you can’t pay him so much he hurts your roster. Some teams can get away with more, such as the 2015 Broncos, who had Von Miller on a cheap contract, but that’s based on them being terrible and having a high pick, the luck that another team didn’t draft him, him panning out (the draft is an absolute crapshoot no matter what you hear), him staying healthy and out of trouble, and timing (Peyton Manning hitting the market, which is exceedingly rare, in part because teams overpay their “franchise” QB).
How should we define a franchise QB? I’d say “a guy who the new owner would pay more for if the team was for sale” and I’d limit that to Brady, Rodgers, Brees.
Overpaying a QB makes almost every position on your team worse. The strength of an NFL team is the middle of the roster, and when those players are squeezed into taking less money they are almost always lesser players. Your swing guard, backup slot receiver, 2nd TE, sub pass rusher, sub LB, 5th and 6th DB are all gonna be worse players over the time you have that albatross of a contract on the books.
Often people think I’m saying “overpaying your QB means you lose in the conference championship instead of win the SB” and that’s not at all what I’m saying. I’m saying it’s much worse. Usually you miss the playoffs entirely or lose in an early round. If I was wrong, Rodgers and Brees would be playing in the NFC Championship every year. But they’re almost always sitting at home by the 3rd week of the playoffs, and it’s rarely because of another overpaid QB. This past year it was injury for Rodgers, backup QB Case Keenum for Brees. So yeah, feel free to overpay and tell yourself “it’s the only way to do it.”
If you could guarantee a conference championship game appearance, I’d actually be on the other side of this argument. THAT would be worth it. But that isn’t the situation. Look at the most recent conference championship QBs: Bortles, Brady, Eagles backup Foles, Vikings backup Keenum. That’s my point. Brady (who fits neither side of the argument, but is “vastly underpaid” no matter the scale you use) and 3 cheap QBs on strong rosters.
Sure, some years you’ll get a Brees or Rodgers, but not enough to justify hurting your roster. It doesn’t need to be collusion. The QBs have no power. What are they gonna do, go lose somewhere else? Good for them, you can build a better team. The Jaguars and Vikings didn’t lose the conference championships last year cause they “didn’t have a great, overpaid QB.” They lost for many reasons, few of which even involve a QB. Mostly, they were against the two best situational coaches in the NFL. And there’s the foundation of my argument. Not the always underpaid Brady. Nick F. Foles, Super Bowl champion, acquired (and paid GOOD backup QB money) in 2017 mostly because the team had Carson Wentz on a rookie deal. They also were able to cut their previous backup and absorb the cap hit, further proving the point.
With (soon) almost half the QBs being overpaid, it’s only a matter of time before the argument gets tough to make, but for now, I’m 24-0.
You CAN argue that since NFL owners value revenue over winning, overpaying the QB is worth it for tickets, merchandise, etc but I’m talking about winning consistently, not “my revenue is $700 mil” like gloryhole-seeker Jerral Jones, who overpaid Romo year after year and never came anywhere close to winning anything. He’ll soon overpay Dak Prescott, and yet he’ll blame things like “it’s tough to win in this league” for the lack of success. But that would lead us to a discussion of Jason Garrett’s piss-poor coaching, and I’m too high to worry about that today. I’ve covered it before, and lord knows I’ll have to cover it again in a few months. But at least they’ll have a chance this year with a low-cost QB.
Uh-oh. Did I just make a case for the Cowboys way of doing business?!?!?!?!?!
You’ll notice I’ve left Eli Manning out of this discussion. That’s because most years the Giants miss the playoffs (5 of 7 years under the current CBA – 81% of the time) and both Super Bowls he won featured low-scoring games with dominant defensive fronts built mostly through the draft in one of the few stable organizations in league history. Analyzing that is like analyzing the Patriots. You can draw many conclusions, but the Patriots will mostly win, and the Giants will mostly lose, except for when the Patriots play the Giants, and that will be a one-score game, which means you can’t learn much. This NFL analysis is tough, but at least I’m not claiming Sean McVay time-traveled and stole a play from Sean Payton, as Tony Romo did on live television last season.
I’ll probably never agree with overpaying QBs, and the “experts” who see no other way to do business will probably never respect my opinion. Such is life. At the end of the day, all we really have is weed and Coen Brothers quotes, which often go hand in hand:
“The more you look, the less you really know.” – Freddy Riedenschneider