Dead Money Ball
Cooperation between athletes and organizations is the most important aspect needed to successfully build a contending roster in the NFL. While the salary cap continues to grow bigger and bigger every year, the market set for the salary of certain positions also continues to grow exponentially annually. General Managers of sports franchises now face the difficult challenge of distributing their salary cap to an entire 53 man roster while some positions, namely the Quarterbacks, continue to occupy close to a quarter of the salary cap yearly.
It is my belief the NFL should institute a policy limiting just how much of the salary cap a single player can receive which would result in a better product for the league rather than allowing franchises to be handicapped and hamstrung by their most important players. The players themselves should also sacrifice some of their earnings accordingly in order to create ultimate team success as displayed by longtime New England Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady. To support this belief, a 2015 study conducted by Max Winsberg of Claremont McKenna College on the relationship between player compensation and team performance found that there is no real positive correlation between the overcompensation of players and overall team performance.
This type of policy has been instituted among giant corporations and businesses successfully in the past. An article released in The Baltimore Sun written by Blanca Torres outlines the general overview of CEO salaries and what he or she means to their respective companies. Torres suggests that the system for setting CEO pay is “flawed and not based enough on performance.” This can be very similar to the NFL in that the absurd amount of money the Quarterback receives can cause teammates to become resentful as they are who help him win games and he is restricting them from getting the money they feel they deserve.
Being a “team player” is one of the most important qualities to have being a professional athlete. Former Patriots Quarterback, Tom Brady, is the prime example of how working with your organization can result in much success in the athletic industry. Logically speaking, taking less money would result in an organization or franchise having more money to move around the rest of the roster and better the 21 other positions to take the field on Sundays during the NFL season.
Tom Brady spent every season while in a Patriots uniform taking less money “sacrificing to put his team in a better position” as stated in Business Insider’s Scott Davis in his article “Tom Brady sacrificed at least $60 million in his career helping the Patriots buld Super Bowl-winning rosters”. Davis in his investigation found that if Brady consistently signed equal deals to the top Quarterback contracts in his contract years, he would have made $60 million more than the $287.6 million he actually made in those seasons. Through all of his negotiations and contract restructures, he allowed for his team to re-sign key players in free agency resulting in successful roster constructions and one of, if not the best dynasty in all of professional sports.
Winning the Super Bowl is the goal of every franchise heading into each NFL season. One of the best ways to do this ironically enough has nothing to do with on field player performance. While players and their performance are very important for teams and their championship quests, the events behind the scenes of player development and evaluation can have just as big of an effect on a teams success as on field performance.
The 2013 Seattle Seahawks are a perfect example of how successful drafting can lead a team to success. Bleacher Report reporter Ty Schalter and his article “The Art of Navigating the NFL Salary Cap” details just how the Seahawks were able to successfully win a championship through number crunching and player evaluation. The Seahawks offensive and defensive units were led by two elite level players at premium positions who were signed to mid round rookie deals in QB Russell Wilson and Cornerback Richard Sherman allowing for the cap flexibility to address their other needs heading into the season.
How you may ask, was this accomplished? Through the advantages of rookie contracts. Having that type of cap flexibility allowed for the team to bite the bullet on certain players who did not perform up to the standards of their contracts, such as Percy Harvin in particular on that Seahawks roster who was essentially paid millions to play ONE complete game for that entire season. While it may not be the most ‘sexy’ method of roster construction, being a General Manager or a Scouting Director has just as big of an effect on the performance of a team than the players do.
A study done by the International Journal of Forecasting on the effectiveness of allocating resources revealed that the Seattle Seahawks were among the teams with the highest uncompensated wins from 2011-2015 due to their successful drafting and high level production from players on low rookie-contract salaries (Russell Wilson and Richard Sherman).
Ultimately, the goal of every sports franchise is to build a team to win a championship at all costs. It is commonly believed that the best way to do this in the NFL is to substantially overpay the best player on the team, the Quarterback, to achieve this goal. However, history has shown that this method of team building has come back to hurt teams and their championship aspirations more than it has helped them achieve that goal. Obviously, the Quarterback is the most important in football (maybe even in all of team sports), but it should also be clear by now that spending more than half of your salary budget on one player makes it all but impossible to surround him with the necessary talent he needs to be successful.
One of the most successful franchises in all of professional sports operated against this method and resulted in the longest reigning dynasty in the history of sports. This franchise was the New England Patriots and they built their roster under the belief that while the Quarterback is one of the most important players on the roster, he should be willing to limit his earnings to allow the organization to surround him with the necessary talent needed to reach the “promised land” so to speak. The Quarterback who was willing to cooperate with this method was Tom Brady who is widely considered the Greatest of All Time by many of his peers and those whose careers ended in a Hall of Fame induction.
Scott Davis, a writer for Business Insider, wrote a piece detailing just how Brady negotiated his contracts allowing the Patriots to successfully build the team around him. The article revealed that Brady “sacrificed at least $60 million throughout his career, and maybe as much as $100 million” which resulted in 6 super bowl winning rosters being built around the future Hall of Famer. Now, that may not sound like a lot of money when talking about a man who has been in the NFL for now 21 seasons, but that money given up through his frequent restructures allowed the Patriots to divert their funds to positions of need for team success, such as the signings of key players such as Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman.
The 2013 Seattle Seahawks were another team who defied the necessity of paying the Quarterback a crippling amount of money to win championships. This Seahawks team was by all accounts led by their defense dubbed the “legion of boom” for their heavy hitting and lockdown defense displayed on a weekly basis. Something to take notice of with this team was the Quarterback, Russell Wilson, was still under a mid-round rookie contract worth just $526,000 in the 2013 season, per Bleacher Report’s Ty Schalter, which ultimately allowed the team to go out and sign multiple big name free agents along the defensive line which was a big reason for the team’s success that season. The cap flexibility created by the Quarterback being under a ‘cheap’ contract by NFL standards today also allowed the team to survive the catastrophe of some bad signings, such as receiver Percy Harvin who was given a contract worth $64 million over a six year span. Harvin only played one game the entire season, which was the Super Bowl.
This method is something the NFL franchises and Quarterbacks of today have yet to adjust to and work around. In today’s NFL, there are substantially large Quarterback contracts being handed out year after year, each one bigger than the last. Over the past three seasons, there have been 5 contracts given out to Quarterbacks that were worth $130 million or more. 3 of which being Carson Wentz, Jared Goff, and Deshaun Watson are currently not on that team’s roster today or are trying to find a way out of the organization.
Both Carson Wentz and Jared Goff for this upcoming season will still cost their former team $22 and $34 million this upcoming season. These two situations alone should be enough to why paying a Quarterback massive amounts of money to win is a flawed concept as now both the Eagles and Rams are paying their former Quarterbacks substantial amounts of money to play for other teams in 2021.
Deshaun Watson, currently of the Houston Texans, just recently signed a 4-year $156M contract right before the start of the 2020 NFL season. Less than 3 months after signing that contract, because of creative differences between him and the organization, he formally requested a trade because things were not going as he believed they should. The penalty for a potential trade would more than likely deal major damage to the Texans cap space. This is the major downside of dealing massive contracts to players who may or may not perform up to an organization’s standards as no team will be willing to take all of the financial heat for another team’s mistake.
I feel as though the best way around this predicament is for action to be taken on behalf of the NFL league office. At the end of the day, the NFL makes the rules for rookie Quarterback contracts and team salary caps. It would be more effective if the NFL could limit the amount of money given to certain positions, like the Quarterback, in order to avoid this financial predicament. The goal of the NFL is to field the best product possible and since Quarterback salaries today are currently prohibiting teams from fielding that product, it would be in the best interest of the NFL to begin working on setting a maximum salary cap per POSITION rather than per roster.
Overall, the general concept that the Quarterback is the end all, be all of team success is a flawed one. As history has shown, the best way to successfully build a championship team has nothing to do with substantially overpaying one player on a team, but diversifying and more efficiently distributing money to all positions on the roster.
In football, there is a common misconception that paying a certain player more than half of the salary cap or very close to it is the best way to build a championship roster. The idea that a vastly overpaid quarterback will guarantee a Super Bowl is easily disproved by comparing the number of underpaid QBs to the number of overpaid QBs who go to or win championship games. This belief, however, is flawed in many ways as history has shown it has actually done more damage to sports franchises than actually assisting them in achieving their goal of winning a championship.
In the NFL, there has been a growing belief that if you heavily pay the Quarterback of your team, he will lead you to the promised land. Contrary to this increasingly popular belief, there have been more situations where the teams who either get to or wins the Super Bowl actually do it with a Quarterback on a rookie deal or one on a cheap deal as a veteran backup. There has been one instance within the past 4 years where a verteran Quarterback on a cheap contract has won the Super Bowl for his team.
In 2017, the Philadelphia Eagles lost their young franchise Quarterback in Carson Wentz due to a complete ACL and PCL tear. The offseason prior, they brought back a familiar face in Quarterback Nick Foles who was originally drafted by the Eagles but had become a journeyman and bounced around to a few teams before being brought back to Philadelphia. After Wentz went down with his injury, Nick Foles was able to come in and lead the Eagles on an incredible 6 and half game stretch which culminated in a 41-33 win vs the New England Patriots in Super Bowl 52.
Laura Albansese, a reporter from newsday.com, wrote an article how back in 1986, the New York Giants drafted Quarterback Jeff Hostettler in the third round. After their starting Quarterback Phil Simms got hurt in 1991, Hostettler was also able to come into the starting lineup and lead the Giants to a Super Bowl victory over the Buffalo Bills and their Hall of Fame Quarterback Jim Kelly. Jon Renne of sbnation.com wrote an article describing how in 2003, the Carolina Panthers signed Jake Delhomme, an undrafted free agent, to a short term and low money contract and led the Panthers to their first Super Bowl in franchise history later that season. They ended up losing that game to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
Two of the situations above involved the signing of cheap free agent Quarterbacks in Jake Delhomme and Nick Foles, and both of them played against Tom Brady who is known for restructuring his contracts and taking less money for his team to build around him and give him the help he needs to win. Jeff Hostettler, a third round pick in a draft three years prior to the 1991 season, beating Hall of Fame Quarterback Jim Kelly in the Super Bowl is also a great example of why you don’t need to commit close to 50% of your salary cap just to win a championship. Many of the franchises today who are falling victim to this flawed concept, are either in a deep hole financially in regards to the salary cap and are setting themselves up for failure for years to come.
For example, JP Finlay of NBC Sports Washington wrote an article detailing how the Philadelphia Eagles crippled their entire team by signing Carson Wentz to a 4-year $128M contract that amounted to nearly 50% of their entire payroll for the years the contract covered. Fully $100M was guaranteed whether Wentz played well for them—or played AT ALL for them—over the life of the deal. Not surprisingly, they were unable to build a solid team of difference-makers around him with so little money left to pay for quality skill players. Two years later, with a woeful roster around their franchise $30M/year Quarterback, Carson Wentz has been deported to Indianapolis, and the Eagles still have to pay him $34.7M to play for the only team they could find to take him.
The Los Angeles Rams are currently in a similar situation to the Eagles with their now former Quarterback, Jared Goff. Also in summer of 2019, the Rams signed Jared Goff to a 4-year $134M contract worth an astounding $110M in guaranteed money per Cameron Desilva of USA Today. Not even two years after that ink dried, the Rams traded him away in February of 2021 to the Detroit Lions. The contract given to Goff was so financially crippling for the Rams, that they had to give up extra compensation to Detroit just for them to take on more of Goff’s contract.
Between both the Rams and the Eagles now incurring both $20M+ and $30M+ in dead money against their cap to pay their former Quarterbacks to play against them for different teams, the flaws of this belief as well as the alternatives are starting to come in to light more and more as the years go on while Quarterback contracts continue to become increasingly crippling to a team’s financial outlook.
As you can see, there are many more alternatives to paying Quarterbacks big money to have success. Between the signing of veteran free agent Quarterbacks to cheap deals, successful drafting of mid-low round Quarterbacks, and Quarterbacks being willing to financially cooperate with the team, offers plenty of alternatives to paying ONE player close to half of their salary cap and allow them to build an entire team of talented players to help the Quarterback rather than overpaying for him and sending him out under equipped to succeed. There are several contractual situations currently unfolding in the NFL as we have yet to see if Chiefs Quarterback Patrick Mahomes contract and Texans Quarterback Deshaun Watson’s contract will have the same result as so many crippling Quarterback contracts that have been doled out in recent years.
As previously stated, Quarterbacks are almost always the highest paid players on any roster because of their importance to overall team performance. As important as the Quarterback is to an NFL team, these utterly massive contracts being doled out to them are having a serious effect on their teams ability to surround them with enough talent to allow them to succeed as a team. For example, FanNation’s Conner Christopherson in his article “Do Massive Quarterback Contracts Limit Teams in the Long Run” talks about the most recent massive extension given to Kansas City Chiefs Quarterback Patrick Mahomes which was worth $500 million.
The most important factor in the Chiefs recent success has been the complete roster that has taken the field year after year around Patrick Mahomes. Mahomes has been very successful in the past 2 seasons with that complete roster which leads many to question when the extension begins, will this level of success be sustainable? Recent history points to no.
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