Over the past few years, I’ve heard it said quite often that when you find your franchise quarterback you have to pay them. On the surface it makes sense, the quarterback is the most important position on the field, and without a good one, it is very difficult to compete in today’s NFL. That being said I started to notice a trend that contradicted this idea. It started with Aaron Rodgers, who won a Superbowl in his third year as a starter, got paid, and hasn’t been back to the big game since. Then it was Russel Wilson. The same thing, he led his team to a Superbowl win in 2013, got back and lost in 2014, signed an extension, and hasn’t played in another. This got me thinking about it and I realized that Drew Brees, Joe Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger, and Carson Wentz all helped lead their teams to Superbowls early in their career, got paid, and never got back. I used this baseline information to build a hypothesis that overpaying quarterbacks is actually hurting teams’ chances at future Superbowls.
Let’s first talk about why this is happening. The NFL has a salary cap, so each team is only allowed to pay out a certain amount of money each year. Obviously, if your quarterback is on a rookie deal it allows you to allocate more money to other areas of the team, like the offensive line, the defense, and skill positions. But as soon as you pay the quarterback you have to start cutting back in other areas. In the cases of the Packers and Seahawks, it was seemingly the defenses that took the hit. In my lifetime the Packers have never really had a good defense and after Russel Wilson got paid the “Legion of Boom” slowly was broken up in Seattle. I’m not saying it has to be the defense, in the case of the Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger they’ve maintained a good defense but were unable to retain key offensive players like Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. Wherever the cutbacks have been the fact remains that these teams seemingly regressed after investing heavily in their quarterbacks. I decided to dive deeper and look at the last 20 years in the NFL to see if this is just my perception or if there’s actually some truth to it.
I started in the 2000-2001 season and looked at both teams that made the Superbowl all the way up until now. From there, I looked at their quarterback’s salaries and what percentage they were taking of the overall cap. I had to use two different sources for this, Spotrac from 2000 until 2011 and then OverTheCap.com from 2012 until 2020 because neither had complete information. The table below breaks down what I found, the QB on top of each year (green) was the QB of the Superbowl winning team.
|Year and Salary Cap||Super Bowl QBs||Contract Cap Hit||
% of Salary Cap
|2000 – $62.172 Mil||Trent Dilfer (27th)||$1 Mil||2%|
|Kerry Collins (15th)||$2.21 Mil||4%|
|2001 – $67.405 Mil||Bledsoe/Brady (6th)||$5.048 Mil||7%|
|Kurt Warner (15th)||$2.334 Mil||3%|
|2002 – $71.101 Mil||Brad Johnson (4th)||$6.8 Mil||10%|
|Rich Gannon (13th)||$3.714 Mil||5%|
|2003 – $75.007 Mil||Tom Brady (18th)||$3.323 Mil||4%|
|Jake Delhomme (27th)||$1.78 Mil||2%|
|2004 – $80.582 Mil||Tom Brady (10th)||5.062 Mil||6%|
|Donovan McNabb (2nd)||$8.709 Mil||11%|
|2005 – $85.5 Mil||Ben Roethlisberger (16th)||$4.22 Mil||5%|
|Matt Hasselbeck (11th)||$6.6 Mil||8%|
|2006 – $102 Mil||Peyton Manning (7th)||$8.55 Mil||8%|
|Rex Grossman (33rd)||$1.530 Mil||2%|
|2007 – $109 Mil||Eli Manning (4th)||$11.716 Mil||11%|
|Tom Brady (10Th)||$7.345 Mil||7%|
|2008 – $116 Mil||Ben Roethlisberger (14th)||$8.247 Mil||7%|
|Kurt Warner (17th)||$6 Mil||5%|
|2009 – $123 Mil||Drew Brees (15th)||$10.347 Mil||8%|
|Peyton Manning (1st)||$23.216 Mil||19%|
|2010 – Uncapped||Aaron Rodgers (23rd)||$6.5 Mil||NULL|
|Ben Roethlisberger (15th)||$10.355 Mil||NULL|
|2011 – $120 Mil||Eli Manning (4th)||$14.1 Mil||12%|
|Tom Brady (7th)||$12.95 Mil||10%|
|2012 – $120.6 Mil||Joe Flacco (16th)||$8 Mil||7%|
|Smith/Kaepernick (8th)||$10.414 Mil||9%|
|2013 – $123 Mil||Russell Wilson (53rd)||$0.681 Mil||1%|
|Peyton Manning (3rd)||$17.5 Mil||14%|
|2014 – $133 Mil||Tom Brady (12th)||$14.8 Mil||11%|
|Russell Wilson (53rd)||$0.817 Mil||1%|
|2015 – $143.28 Mil||Peyton Manning (6th)||$17.5 Mil||12%|
|Cam Newton (15th)||$13 Mil||9%|
|2016 – $155.27 Mil||Tom Brady (18th)||$13.764 Mil||9%|
|Matt Ryan (3rd)||$23.75 Mil||15%|
|2017 – $167 Mil||Wentz/Foles (23rd)||$7.662 Mil||5%|
|Tom Brady (20th)||$14 Mil||8%|
|2018 – $177.2 Mil||Tom Brady (11th)||$22 Mil||12%|
|Jared Goff (26th)||$7.619 Mil||4%|
|2019 – $188.2 Mil||Patrick Mahomes (31st)||$4.479 Mil||2%|
|Jimmy Garoppolo (15th)||$20 Mil||11%|
|2020 – $198.2 Mil||Tom Brady (6th)||$25 Mil||13%|
|Patrick Mahomes (32st)||$5.346 MIl||3%|
My first takeaway from all of this was that in the last 20 years a top three highest-paid quarterback has never won the Superbowl. A top-three QB has made it to the Superbowl three times, twice done by Peyton Manning (2009 Colts and 2013 Broncos) and once by Donovan Mcnabb (2004 Eagles). But, when you look at these teams individually you will notice a common thread. The 2009 Colts had 13 starters still on rookie deals, the 2013 Broncos had 15 starters on rookie deals, and the 2004 Eagles had 13 starters as well. So what that tells me with these three particular cases is the teams drafted incredibly well for a few consecutive years and went “all in” before having to pay everyone. I say that because the Eagles and Colts never made it back to the Superbowl the Broncos only did once Peyton’s cap hit came down to 12% in 2015. This leads me to my next observation.
No QB in the last 20 years has won a Superbowl when their cap hit has exceeded 13% of the team’s total cap space. Looking further, if your name isn’t Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, or Eli Manning, your team has never won a Superbowl when the QB takes more than 10% of the total cap space (Brad Johnson in 2002 was 9.56% rounded up to 10% in the chart). Of the 42 quarterbacks that made the Superbowls on this list, 30 of them (including Brad Johnson) were taking less than 10% of their team’s total salary cap. So how can we use this looking forward?
We don’t know the exact salary cap yet for the 2021 season but the monetary issues caused by Covid-19 will cause it to decrease. Nothing is confirmed yet but reports have estimated that the cap will be around $180 million. If that number stands, it will be very interesting to see how this data holds up and how teams manage the cap. The Cheifs and Buccaneers are already the betting favorites for Superbowl LVI, but Brady’s cap hit is $28.375 Mil (15.76% of 180 Mil) and Mahomes’ cap hit is $24.807 Mil (13.78% of 180 Mil). That being said, Brady is currently the 10th highest paid on the list for next year, and Mahomes is 12th so many teams will have salary cap issues. Below is a table of every quarterback set to make over $1 Mil next year (2021-2022).
|Player||Team||Cap Number||Cash Spent|
As I mentioned, Brady and Mahomes are relatively high but I probably wouldn’t write them off as potential Superbowl winners given the circumstances. I will, however, go out on a limb and say that the Steelers, Packers, Rams, Seahawks, and Titans (all playoff teams this past year) will absolutely not win the Superbowl next year. Especially Green Bay, who has seemed so close the last two seasons. Unfortunately, Rodgers’ cap hit was only $21.642 Mil this year so it would seem illogical to think that the Packers will be able to improve the pieces around him when his cap hit jumps to over $37 Mil in 2021. With the Bucs and Cheifs in better financial situations than them (and all of the teams I mentioned), I find it very hard to put them in the Superbowl ahead of Tampa or Kansas City.
Although I’m not writing off Tampa or Kansas City there are a couple of teams that, if they draft and manage free agency well, will be in much better situations with the cap. The first team that catches my eye is the Buffalo Bills. Josh Allen had an incredible year this year and is only slated to take $6.91 Mil in cap space next year, only 4% against the overall cap. The Bills proved that they were a legitimate contender this year, and with the flexibility of not having their QB on a huge deal, they may be able to add some pieces that put them over the top. I also think the Ravens, Colts, Cardinals, and Browns will be interesting teams to watch throughout the draft and free agency. But I’ll save that discussion for another day.
The last thing I wanted to take a look at is how the information gathered correlates to the two monster contracts that were signed this past season. I’m of course referring to Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson. There’s a lot of speculation as to what the salary cap will do in the next five to ten years but I think when I break it all down you’ll realize that it may not matter.
I’ll start with Patrick Mahomes, who this past summer signed the largest contract in NFL history. The details are below but one thing to take note of is the fact that there’s no language pertaining to the salary cap.
Compensation update: Patrick Mahomes’ 10-year extension is worth $450 million, sources tell ESPN.
The injury guarantee is $140 million, per source.
The contract does not contain language that ties its value to a percentage of the salary cap.
Richest deal in sports’ history.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) July 6, 2020
Many people will argue that he is worth every penny of this contract. While I do believe Mahomes deserves to be the highest-paid player in football, when I really dive into the numbers I find it very hard to imagine the Chiefs winning many Superbowls after 2023. Let me clarify, Mahomes still had two years left on his rookie deal so this contract had no effect on this season’s cap hit nor will it have any on next seasons. The first year this contract kicks in will be 2023.
We have no idea what the salary cap will be in 2023 yet but Mahomes’ cap hit for that year will be $42.45 Mil and hover around that $40 Mil until 2027. There have been rumors and reports that by 2023 the cap is expected to be “well over $200 Mil.” Even if that’s the case, Mahomes’ cap hit is still enormous. I already mentioned that Brady’s 13% of the cap this past season is the highest for a Superbowl-winning quarterback. Well, even if the cap were to go as high as $300 Mil (unlikely), $40 Mil is still slightly over 13%. Then, Mahomes’ cap hit jumps to $59.95 Mil in 2027, $44.45 Mil in 2028, $44.95 in 2029, $50.45 Mil in 2030, and $52.45 Mil in 2031. Again, we have no idea what the cap will be but considering it only increased about $80 Mil in the last 10 years I highly doubt it will increase $200 Mil over the next 10 years to get his contract below that 13%. Anything can happen but based on this info I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Mahomes and the Cheifs don’t win another Superbowl.
Then there is Deshaun Watson, who signed a 4 year, $160 Mil extension with the Texans. Again the details are below.
Deshaun Watson’s contract is worth a total of $177.54 million with nearly $111M in guarantees. Other than Patrick Mahomes 12-year deal, this is the largest total contract, as well as guarantee in NFL@history.
Asked about the deal, agent @DavidMulugheta confirmed it.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) September 5, 2020
Watson’s contract is obviously not as long as Mahomes’ but the AAV is very similar and their cap hits are also very similar. Starting in 2022 and going until 2024 Watson’s cap hit hovers around that $40 Mil mark before dropping to $32 Mil in 2025. Again, I don’t know what the cap will be but other than in 2025 when his cap hit drops I feel pretty confident saying that Watson will not win a Superbowl. If the cap is over $250 Mil in 2025 and Watson gets traded to a perfect situation I could MAYBE see it, but the Texans organization has shown over the past year that they aren’t capable of making the moves needed to keep this team competitive.
There’s obviously a lot to be determined over the next ten years but using the data from the previous twenty I think there’s definitely an argument to be made that signing your QB to a huge contract is an organizational mistake. As we’ve seen, most Superbowls not won by Tom Brady have been won by rookie quarterbacks or by QBs on team-friendly deals. And again, not once has a top three highest-paid QB in a given year won. Honestly, I’m not really sure how teams should handle this. While all the data supports it, how do you justify not extending a guy like Patrick Mahomes to your fanbase? These are questions for people smarter than me but one thing I do know for certain is that, as an Eagles fan, I am praying HARD that the Dallas Cowboys extend Dak Prescott. Dak is no Watson or Mahomes, and I know for a fact that that mess of an organization won’t win a Superbowl if his cap hit is more than 10% of their overall cap space.