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Can you pay a quarterback and still be competitive?

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Elite Quarterbacks: Can’t win with them (and pay them at the same time), can’t win without them. Or can you?

Denver Broncos v Washington Redskins Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

One needs only look at the past decade of Super Bowl winners, or watch the Broncos offense over the last two years, to recognize that good quarterback play is essential for success in today’s NFL.

While this is certainly not the only thing required, history would suggest that unless you have this factor present, you don’t have much of a chance. This is not news to Broncos fans who have seen four different quarterbacks start over the last 33 games (five if you want to count the pre-season and Denver’s brief fling with Mark Sanchez).

John Elway and Vance Joseph made it clear at the end of the season they weren’t happy with the quarterback position and would begin looking for a new answer.

So the need for a solid answer at the quarterback position isn’t the debate. The real question, which will remain unanswered until March, is how does one go about acquiring the new answer?

I don’t know you, but I feel this off-season’s quarterback search is a bit like a dog chasing a car. You don’t know what to do with it even if you catch it.

If you draft a quarterback in the top of the draft, can Denver develop him properly and put the coaching staff and pieces in place for him to be successful? Even if those are in place, the hit rate on first-round quarterbacks isn’t exactly a sure bet.

Which leads to a lot of folks, John Elway included it seems, leaning towards free agency. Get an established veteran with a proven track record of success at the position, so at least the question about can he even play the game are answered.

However, that leads to it’s own set of potential problems and questions

The one most relevant to Denver Broncos fans is:

How do you afford him?

The overall sentiment on this topic is that the biggest problem with getting and keeping a top tier quarterback is their salary often becomes cost prohibitive to building the rest of team around them.

Look no further than teams like Detroit, Baltimore, or Miami who have spent big on the quarterback position over the last few years and have received poor returns in the win/loss column.

Which leads to our topic today

Can you pay a quarterback and still be competitive?

Do you have to catch your quarterback in his rookie deal like Seattle did with Russell Wilson, or do they have to take a hometown discount like Tom Brady, in order to be competitive with him?

I did some research on the last decade of Super Bowl winners, and some of the Super Bowl losers that had top quarterbacks, to see how much they payed their franchise quarterbacks.

Last Decade of Super Bowl Quarterbacks

Year Cap QB (W) Cap Hit % of Cap QB (L) % of Cap
Year Cap QB (W) Cap Hit % of Cap QB (L) % of Cap
2018 $178,000,000 Cousins $27,500,000 15.40%
2017 $167,000,000 Brady $14,000,000 8.40%
2016 $155,270,000 Brady $13,764,706 8.90% Ryan 15.30%
2015 $143,280,000 P. Manning $17,500,000 12.20%
2014 $133,000,000 Brady $14,800,000 11.10%
2013 $123,000,000 Wilson $681,085 0.60% Manning 14.20%
2012 $120,600,000 Flacco $8,000,000 6.60%
2011 $120,000,000 E. Manning $14,100,000 11.80% Brady 11.00%
2010 $123,000,000 Rodgers $6,500,000 5.30%
2009 $123,000,000 Brees $14,000,000 11.40% Manning 17.20%
2008 $116,000,000 Ben R. $8,000,000 6.90%

(Author disclaimer: The 2018 season section is just speculation for this exercise, because let’s all be honest, the possibility of signing Kirk Cousins is why this conversation is currently relevant.

This is a good time to put forth my disclaimer: any theoretical numbers thrown out there are just that, theoretical and are merely to facilitate a philosophical conversation.

My counter-part Taylor Kothe will be digging deeper into the specifics of an actual contract structure with cap implications. Our resident cap expert, Ozark also has a series of articles on the topic.)

So looking at the chart above, we can see that despite these quarterbacks (mostly) being the cream of the crop at their position, the highest percentage of the cap that a quarterback was paid in the year his team won the Super Bowl is 12.2% for none other than Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos.

I also included the losing quarterbacks that added color to this discussion as they were often just a play or two away from becoming the victor themselves, so their success can still be a helpful model, even if luck didn’t bounce their way for one game.

Thus, while a ~15% cap hit is on the high side for a quarterback, it isn’t without precedent as we see Matt Ryan in 2016, Peyton Manning in 2009, and Manning again in 2013 carrying a hit in that same range. It’s also worth noting that Manning’s cap hit in 2012 was 15%.

Granted, that is just looking at Super Bowl winning quarterbacks. There further league-wide precedent with Derek Carr and Matthew Stafford taking up around 15% of their team’s respective caps next year. I didn’t include these, however, because as my mom used to say: “if everyone jumped off a cliff, would you do it to?”

The football translation would be that just because other teams are handing out massive contracts, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the most effective strategy.

Now, looking at quarterbacks as a percentage of the cap has some problems. The Seattle Seahawks site, Field Gulls, took on this very question a few years ago when Seattle was deciding to extend Russell Wilson. They made some great points that I think should be taken into consideration:

  • “The chart shows only the quarterback’s one-year cap hits, without regard to variations caused by cap growth, uneven contracts, or extensions.”

Note that Tom Brady’s 2010 contract made him the highest-paid player in the NFL. That didn’t stop the Patriots from winning 14 games that season and leading the league in DVOA, nor did it prevent Brady from going to two Super Bowls in the next five years and winning the Lombardi -- when his cap hit was listed at about 10%.

  • The 2011 CBA with cheaper rookie deals mean that a higher percentage of the cap can be allocated towards veteran players i.e. the franchise quarterback. Thus, historical examples of cap % isn’t particularly helpful past 2014 (when the new rookie deals would have four years to fully integrate into the teams cap allocations, freeing up space for veteran players to receive a higher percentage of the cap).
  • Lastly, the author takes issue overall with inferring a causal relationship and actually provides data to the contrary. His conclusion:“Overall, a higher QB salary has a positive correlation both with team success (DVOA) and playoff games.”

The one caveat is this, and I believe the Field Gulls author summed it up well:

“I’ll make one concession in that if you pay your quarterback like an elite player and he performs below league average, you aren’t in good shape to win a Championship.”

This is the real issue here. The nightmare stories around the league of teams crippling their cap by paying exorbitant salaries, are because these quarterbacks aren’t living up to those contracts.

Take some examples from yet another excellent article from Field Gulls written this past season:

Joe Flacco: Since signing his 2013 contract, Flacco ranks 35th in passer rating (minimum 500 attempts) and if you up to to, say, 1,500 attempts, only Blake Bortleshas a lower rating in that time. He’s thrown a TD on 3.5% of his attempts since 2013, which ties him with Brian Hoyer and Matt Cassel. And behind Bortles, Sam Bradford, Josh McCown, and Trevor Siemian. His yards per attempt of 6.6 ranks 35th, behind Robert Griffin III, Bradford, Geno Smith, and Case Keenum.

Ryan Tannehill ranks sixth at $20.3 million, and he is out for the season. Even absent of any injuries, Tannehill was often in the bottom third of some of the most important QB categories. From 2014-2016, he ranked 18th in rating, 20th in TD%, 19th in INT%, and 21st in Y/A. He posted career-highs in comp%, rating, and Y/A under Gase in 2016, but the numbers still weren’t great overall.

With Odell Beckham, Jr., Eli Manning is maybe the 20th-best QB in football. Without him, he’s barely good enough to start, as we’re about to see. $19.7 million.

Cam Newton has the worst completion percentage in the NFL since entering the league in 2011, out of 21 QBs with at least 2,000 attempts. If you take back to the start of 2014, Cam ranks 37th out of 37 in completion percentage, just behind Blake Bortles. Sorry for smirking, I just kinda find it funny to hear a Cam Newton talk about routes.

However, teams like Atlanta, Green Bay, and Pittsburgh have consistently payed their quarterbacks at the top of the market. Matt Ryan, as you saw above, had a 15.3% cap hit while making the Super Bowl, and Big Ben counted for 15.4% of his team’s cap in 2016 when his team made it to the AFC Championship game.

So what does all this mean (this is the Jeff’s opinion portion of the article)?

The precedent is there to pay a top dollar quarterback and still remain competitive. Paying a quarterback 13% - 15% of the salary cap is not the death sentence for a team that I have seen some people online make it out to be, especially when what is 15% now, will become 11% - 12% in a few years as the cap continues to rise.

(I’ll dig further in a later post on the historical precedent of paying a quarterback top dollar while also paying a player like Von Miller, as this is a unique situation.)

The caveat, is that whoever you pay that money to needs to consistently perform at a high level to make it worth it.

Statistically, it seems that Cousins fits the bill.

So, in my assessment, strategically this move makes sense for Denver. Paying a top dollar quarterback is only a death sentence if you pay it to a mediocre quarterback. That the decision John Elway and his staff have to make.

If you think Cousins falls on the average side of the argument, this likely isn’t the route you would advocate for. If you think Cousins can be/is at least a top 10 guy season in and season out, then make the move.

That said, if Denver goes this route, they must recoup some of the cap space by getting significant production from cheap contracts already on the roster, or the ones they will acquire through the draft. Those five (possibly 6) draft picks in the top 125 become the key to whether this strategy works or not.