Do Expensive Quarterbacks Kill Your Chances at a Championship?

I was listening to the Rich Eisen show recently, and he did a great segment where he took a look at the past 10 Super Bowl championship teams (so since 2011) and what percentage of their salary cap they spent on their starting quarterback. He was trying to see if there was some magic number that teams should shoot to be under (i.e. above which it makes it exceedingly difficult to win a Super Bowl).

He found that 4 of the past 10 Super Bowl championship teams had QBs on rookie deals:

There’s a reason people talk so much today about how the best time to make your run at a Super Bowl is when your QB is on a rookie deal. That’s because if you’re fortunate enough to find a good, young QB, then you can fill out the rest of your roster with lots of talented players

The 6 remaining Super Bowl winners, obviously, had QBs who were past their rookie deals. Here’s the breakdown of them:

So it would appear that if you’ve got a QB on a post-rookie contract, you’d ideally want him to be at or below ~12% of the salary cap. No team in the past 10 years has been able to win a Super Bowl with a QB at greater than 12.6% of the salary cap.

Now of course 4 of those 6 are Tom Brady. It’s nice to have the GOAT.

But part of the reason Brady is the GOAT is that he consistently takes less money than he’s worth, and this allows his team to build out the rest of the roster. The predictable retort to that is something along the lines of “But he’s married to Gisele, and she’s super rich! He doesn’t have to take big contracts because his wife has tons of money!” Fair, but Brady married Gisele in 2009, after he’d already won 3 Super Bowls and been to a fourth. Plus, when Brady married Gisele, he was on a 4yr/$42.8m contract, and in 2010, he signed a 4yr/$72m contract–obviously far larger than the contract he was on before/when he married her. He didn’t take a pay cut when he married Gisele, he actually took a significant pay raise.

Top earners in NFL History, accurate up to July 24, 2020:

  1. Eli Manning: 16 seasons, $252m. Avg: $15.75m
  2. Peyton Manning: 18 seasons, $249m. Avg: $13.8m
  3. Drew Brees: 20 seasons, $245m. Avg: $12.25m
  4. Tom Brady: 21 seasons, $235m. Avg: $11.2m
  5. Big Ben: 17 seasons, $232m. Avg: $13.6m
  6. Matt Ryan: 13 seasons, $223m. Avg: $17.1m
  7. Aaron Rodgers: 16 seasons, $219m. Avg: $13.7m.

With Rodgers the numbers are kind of skewed because he was Brett Favre’s backup for his first three seasons (2005-2007). Through 2009, so his first 5 seasons in the NFL, he was still on his rookie deal (5yr/$7.7m). Meaning $212m of his $219m career earnings have been over the past 11 seasons. If you break that down into average yearly salary, you get $19.2m per year on average, which would put him above every other QB on this list in terms of average salary per year. Of course we’d have to go through and do the math for every other guy excluding their rookie deals, too. For example, Brady only made $866k over his first three seasons, so if you subtract that $866k from his career earnings and divide the rest by 18, you get $13m a year on average. Still significantly lower than Rodgers.

The point here is that Aaron Rodgers has been consistently been more expensive for his team than the other guys. This is not to say Rodgers doesn’t deserve to be as paid as highly as he is, because of course he’s worth every penny. But there are tradeoffs when a QB decides to secure the bag. I don’t want to use the “selfish” word because that’s not it; there’s nothing wrong with maximizing your earnings during the relatively short time you are an NFL QB. But it is telling that when Rodgers led the Packers to the Super Bowl in 2010, he was making $6.5m a year. Now he’s making more than double that.

This chart shows how much of the cap each team devoted to its QB in 2020. The league average was $16.6m:

There’s obviously a very strong correlation with success and quarterback spending. 8 of the top 10 highest spenders on QBs were playoff teams (the Raiders and the Lions were the exceptions). The Colts were the top spenders, but that was because they were paying Philip Rivers $25m and Jacoby Brissett $21m. The Raiders were also in a similar situation, albeit not as bad: they paid Derek Carr $21m and Marcus Mariota $9m.

But then you look at teams like Cleveland, Buffalo, Kansas City and Baltimore: they all made the playoffs and were well below the league average for QB spending.

I also wanted to expand on the original idea and look at Super Bowl-losing QBs and how much of their teams’ caps they represented.

  • 2019: Jimmy Garoppolo was 8.6% of the cap.
  • 2018: Jared Goff was just 4.2% of the cap.

Unfortunately at Spotrac, they only let you go back as far as 2018 for team salary numbers. I didn’t want to sign up for an account at the site so that’s all we have.

But still, you can see that in 2019, Garoppolo was on a team-friendly deal, and in 2018, Goff was, too. Jared Goff did not get his big contract until the 2019 season.

The bottom line here is not that you shouldn’t pay your quarterbacks big contracts. It’s that you shouldn’t be afraid to move off of a guy if you’re not fully convinced he can lead you to a Super Bowl. It feels like teams these days panic and overpay for good QBs because they don’t want to end up with nothing. I guess they think it’s better to overpay for a decent QB than pay market value for a terrible QB (and even “market value” is inflated in today’s NFL).

As for the quarterbacks themselves, there’s nothing wrong with taking every last penny you’re offered. But they should be aware that there are tradeoffs if they decide to secure the bag in full.

The more you pay your quarterback–no matter how great he is–the harder it’s going to be for you to win a Super Bowl. Take a cue from the guy who has won the most of them, Tom Brady: maybe it’s better to take 75-80% of what you are truly worth if it will make the team better.

In fact, Brady just did it again: two days ago, he restructured his contract with Tampa and, according to Adam Schefter, the move will save the Buccaneers $19 million against the cap:

According to Rich Eisen, here’s how much the biggest NFL QBs represent as a share of their teams’ caps for 2021:

  • Dak Prescott: 10.6%. They just signed him to a big extension, but most of that money doesn’t kick in til 2022. So for 2021, it’s actually very team-friendly. The Cowboys are actually in decent shape after Dak’s contract. It was a very smart contract on both sides, at least for 2021. Last year, on the franchise tag, Dak was 14% of the cap. We’ll see how smart this contract looks in 2023 when Dak really starts raking in the dough.
  • Mahomes: 13%
  • Wentz: 13% of Indy’s cap.
  • Big Ben: 13%
  • Brady: 15% (the video was made before he restructured his deal, so this number is outdated).
  • Goff: 14%– not good.
  • Stafford: 10%. Very good. This is part of the reason I’m very high on the Rams in 2021.
  • Jimmy G: 13.5%.
  • Kirk Cousins: 16%.
  • Russell Wilson: 17%. Yikes.
  • Aaron Rodgers: 20%. Double yikes.
  • Matt Ryan: 22%.

An important point to note: Justin Herbert is only 3.5% of the Chargers’ cap. That roster already has some decent talent on it. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Chargers make a run at a Super Bowl while Herbert is still cheap. They obviously have a lot of work to do, but turnarounds in the NFL these days happen quickly, and a lot of it has to do with finding a great, young QB who significantly outperforms his contract.

3 thoughts on “Do Expensive Quarterbacks Kill Your Chances at a Championship?

    1. No doubt. That’s the point: if you pay your QB too much, it prevents you from building out the rest of your roster and becoming a true Super Bowl contender. It forces the QB to do too much, and most QBs can’t carry their teams singlehandedly.


      1. As great as Peyton Manning was, going to 4 Superbowls and winning two, one wonders if he might have won more had he “inspired” his team-mates and not micromanage every play. Peyton was amazing. Tom inspires others, getting on them when they don’t believe, but he sets the tone then expects everybody else to bring their “A” game. That’s why he does give up some money, though still a millionaire many times over, but to get better players.


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