It’s all about the quarterback: Catch-22

| January 21st, 2014

So here we are.  It is painfully obvious that you cannot win in the NFL without a good quarterback.  It is equally apparent that, if you find that quarterback, you are eventually going to need to pay him a lot of money to stick around.

If you pay your quarterback too much money, it can hamper your ability to build a good team around him (a must for a championship winning team), leaving you with a good team that will be consistently competitive but probably come short of winning a title as teams with comparable quarterbacks playing on much cheaper deals are able to pass you by (before they have to pay their guy as well).

You have to think that there is some sort of tipping point where teams would be better off dumping a high-priced veteran and taking their chances in the draft, and the rapid recent inflation of quarterback contracts may make it that we are passed that point.  But it will take more time to really know for sure.  To date, no quarterback has won a Super Bowl on a contract averaging more than $16.5 million per year, but the first contract exceeding that didn’t come until two or three years ago, so that’s a very small sample size.

Differentiation at the top

Of course, one other thing you have to consider here is that there is a difference between quarterbacks like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Drew Brees and guys like Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Jay Cutler, and Tony Romo.  All have similar contracts paying them massive amounts of money, but the second group needs better talent around them to perform at a high level (and will still likely not reach the same level as the first group on a consistent basis).

You can build a championship team around Romo, Cutler, Flacco, or Ryan, but I am not sure if you can do so while paying them that much money.  This will be an issue for teams like Seattle, San Francisco, and Carolina in upcoming years; their quarterbacks will be due for new contracts and go from being underpaid to overpaid, forcing the teams to let some of the talent around them leave because they can no longer afford to pay them.

Let’s look one more time at the groups of teams based on quarterback situation and how they performed in 2013.  One twist this time: I’m splitting the thirteen teams with established veteran quarterbacks into the four elite quarterbacks (Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Drew Brees) and the other nine.  Let’s see how the data looks.

Well that’s interesting.  Paying established non-elite veteran quarterbacks  big money, at least this year, didn’t seem to pay off.  Teams with those guys actually fared slightly worse, by and large, than teams with slightly worse but significantly cheaper quarterbacks.  Consider that the group that might be looking for new quarterbacks this offseason-Cincinnati, St. Louis, Tennessee, and Arizona-paid their starting quarterbacks an average of just under $5.4 million in 2013, while the nine teams with non-elite quarterbacks on veteran contracts-Atlanta, Detroit, New York Giants, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Dallas, Kansas City, and San Diego-paid their quarterbacks an average of $12.6 million.

This is only one year and is a small sample size, but it certainly suggests that paying a non-elite quarterback big money (which every one of those nine teams except Kansas City has done) is not a recipe for success.  Those teams were worse on average in wins than the teams with unsettled quarterback situations going forward, put roughly the same proportion of teams in the playoffs (two out of nine compared to one out of four), and neither group found much playoff success (combined 1-3 playoff record, with the one win coming when San Diego beat Cincinnati, so one of the teams in these groups had to win).

Paying your elite quarterback, meanwhile, appears to be an investment well worth making.  Elite quarterbacks got paid big money-an average of $15.2 million in 2013-but delivered.  All four of them made the playoffs, three of them won at least one playoff game, and one of them will be playing in the Super Bowl.  The performance of elite quarterbacks, in fact, is nearly identical to that of established quarterbacks on rookie contracts, which will be something interesting to monitor in future years.

Looking ahead

One way or another, we will see in the next several years just how intelligent the recent quarterback salary inflation is.  The early results suggest big contracts for non-elite quarterbacks will come back to haunt their teams, but it is too early to say for sure. If teams can continue to win consistently after giving quarterbacks big money, the salaries should only continue to grow.

But what if new teams like Seattle and San Francisco keep cropping up for two or three year runs when they find a good young quarterback who is extremely cheap and are able to contend by using that extra money to put a great team around them?  What if recent large contracts handed out to second-tier quarterbacks (and ones soon to be given out to guys coming off rookie deals) end up hurting teams more than they help?

It’s all about the quarterback in the NFL, but the next five to ten years should help illuminate just how much a good quarterback is worth.

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