Overpaid Passers: Explaining the Quarterback Market

Professional athletes are overpaid. This is a universal truth. While they are some of the best athletes in the world, ultimately, they are just playing a game, and it’s baffling that they make so much money. Having said that, they do generate a lot of money as the MLB, NBA, and NFL are all making a ton of money, and it’s only fair that they get their share. Having said that, quarterback contracts are getting out of hand. Players that don’t necessarily deserve to be the NFL’s highest paid player have been. So why is it like this? Why are quarterbacks being the paid they are, regardless of proven ability?

Overpaid Passers: Explaining the Quarterback Market

First thing’s first, you can’t understand the current state of the quarterback market without understanding supply and demand. For those of you who don’t know, supply and demand is the amount of a commodity, product, or service available and the desire of buyers for it, considered as factors regulating its price. How does this apply to football? It’s simple.

Demand

Over the last twenty years or so, the importance of the quarterback position has advanced to the forefront of the entire sport. The rules have changed drastically in favor of the passing game, and now, the position is probably the most important in football. Since the year 2000, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, and Tom Brady have played in 13 of 19 Super Bowls. It’s true that a well-rounded team is required to win a championship, but if a team is a deck of cards, the quarterback is the ace of spades.

So for teams that want to win and want to win now, a franchise quarterback is a must-have. There’s your demand. There’s a reason that since 2000, 13 quarterbacks have been taken first overall. In 19 years, the only first overall picks that weren’t quarterbacks were Courtney Brown, Mario Williams, Jake Long, Eric Fisher, Jadeveon Clowney, and Myles Garrett. Every coach, coordinator, general manager, or owner wants that guy.

Unfortunately, not every quarterback can be that guy, and that’s where supply comes in.

Supply

Let’s rewind to those quarterbacks taken with the first overall pick for a second. Sure, there have been some gems. Michael Vick was one of the most exciting football players in NFL history, Carson Palmer and Matthew Stafford have had some good moments, Eli Manning won two Super Bowls, Cam Newton is a league MVP, and Andrew Luck is fantastic when healthy. But what about the other guys?

The jury is still out on Jared Goff and Baker Mayfield (obviously), but what about the other five quarterbacks? David Carr (no, not Derek), is first and third all-time in most sacks received in a season with 76 and 68, and never really came into his own. Alex Smith is a fantastic game manager, but he’s on his third team, has never won a Super Bowl, and has incredibly pedestrian statistics. As a Raiders fan, I can assure you that JaMarcus Russell was the worst quarterback in NFL history. Sam Bradford just couldn’t stay healthy and didn’t necessarily impress when he was healthy. And even though he was just taken in 2015, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are on the verge of moving on from Jameis Winston.

These are just the guys that were taken first overall. Teams spent first round picks on Paxton Lynch, Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, EJ Manuel, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, Brandon Weeden, Jake Locker, Christian Ponder, Blaine Gabbert, Tim Tebow, Mark Sanchez, Josh Freeman, Brady Quinn, Vince Young, Jay Cutler, Matt Leinart, Jason Campbell, J.P. Losman, Byron Leftwich, Kyle Boller, Rex Grossman, Joey Harrington, Patrick Ramsey, and Chad Pennington since 2000.

It is not easy to find a quarterback. The draft is an absolute crapshoot, and even if you find a guy who is decent, it’s so hard to find someone who is a proven franchise quarterback. While the trio of Manning, Roethlisberger, and Brady prove that franchise quarterbacks are important, the fact that only Russell Wilson, Eli Manning, Kurt Warner have played in more than one Super Bowl over the last twenty years. It’s hard to make that jump. Everyone’s looking for that next elite quarterback, but they are few and far between.

So everyone wants to win now, and it seems as if a franchise quarterback is the key to doing that, but it’s not easy to find one. Different teams try to fix this problem in different ways. Some go after a “finished” product in the first or second round of the draft, some go with the developmental pick in a later round, and others throw cash at proven options in free agency, and that last option is what really messed up the market.

The Flacco Effect

The year is 2012, and good-not-great Baltimore Ravens quarterback, Joe Flacco, is entering the final year of his contract. After being a first round pick in 2008, Flacco had done a good job of leading the team’s offense, but he wasn’t anything special. During the first four years of his career, Flacco averaged 3,454 yards, 20 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions a season. When you’re a run-first team that depends on elite defense to win games, that’s acceptable. Those numbers fine, but nothing to write home to Mom about, and certainly not the kind of numbers to earn Peyton Manning-type money.

The team tried to re-sign him before the 2012 campaign, but he bet on himself and wanted to revisit contract negotiations after the season was over. During the regular season, Flacco was the same quarterback he had been his whole career. He threw for 3,817 yards, 22 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, which is pretty close to his average season.

Then the post-season happened. Whether it was the firing of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron or the fiery inspiration of Ray Lewis’ return and retirement announcement, the Ravens got red hot in the playoffs. They beat the Indianapolis Colts, Denver Broncos, and New England Patriots on their way to a 34-31 win over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl, and Joe Flacco played like a man possessed.

In four playoff games, Flacco completed 73 of 126 passes for 1,140 yards, 11 touchdowns, and zero, that’s right, zero interceptions. That’s one of the best post-seasons in NFL history, and it left the Ravens in a very precarious situation.

Lose-Lose Situation

Had the Ravens gone one-and-done in the playoffs, it would’ve been a really easy negotiation for Ozzie Newsome and company. Instead, he went on a tear, almost single-handedly carrying the team to a championship, and now his contract was up. This limited the team to three options.

Option A. Pay Him.

They could pay Flacco whatever he wanted, hoping he’d continue the play from the post-season at the expense of being able to retain some of their own players or bring in free agents. It was a calculated risk with long-term team-wide ramifications.

Option B. Give Him The Franchise Tag

What we now know as the “Kirk Cousins Approach”, the Ravens could’ve given him the franchise tag, which would’ve postponed the problem for another year, giving Flacco a one-year extension worth around 14 million dollars (which, incidentally is about what he ended up getting a year anyway). The downside is that you risk the player balling out again, raising their asking price, holding out, or developing some resentment for the front office.

Option C. Let Him Test Free Agency

The Ravens could’ve tested fate, letting Joe Flacco’s contract expire and hoping they’d be able to lure him back at their own price. That’s a nice idea in theory, but so many teams were desperate for quarterbacks that someone definitely would’ve backed up the Brinks truck and paid Flacco whatever he wanted.

So what did the Ravens do? They went with option A, giving Flacco a six-year, $120,600,000 contract. They went all in, expecting Flacco to maintain his post-season success and become the elite franchise quarterback they always hoped he could be.

He did not. The following year, he actually threw more interceptions than touchdowns and failed to break 4,000 yards passing yet again. He had a decent year in 2014, but since then, thanks to bad surrounding talent, injuries, and his own ineptitude, he’s averaged 3,416 yards, 17 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions a season. This gaff not only hurt the Ravens, but the rest of the National Football League.

QB See, QB Do

When Joe Flacco got paid and then didn’t live up to the expectations, every other starting quarterback in the league beamed. When contract talks rolled around, they could simply gesture at Joe Flacco and say, “Well I’m better than he is” and expect to be paid as much, if not more. Aaron Rodgers got paid, and then Matt Ryan got paid, and then Colin Kaepernick got paid.

Pretty soon, if you were a franchise quarterback, you were expecting to get, at the very least, what Joe Flacco did. Sure, Tom Brady takes pay cuts, but for the most part, quarterbacks, or more likely, their agents, are ruthless when it comes to negotiations to the point where there are some ridiculous contracts out there.

They Paid Him How Much?

Here are just a few of the most ridiculous contracts that in recent memory.

  • Last off-season, Mike Glennon, a career Tampa Bay Buccaneer back-up, made 18.5 million dollars for one season with the Chicago Bears, who traded up to draft quarterback Mitch Trubisky.
  • This off-season, Sam Bradford, a draft bust, signed a one-year, $20,000,000 contract with the Arizona Cardinals, who also spent a first round pick on a quarterback, Josh Rosen.
  • Good-not-great quarterback Kirk Cousins was able to get a fully-guaranteed three-year $84 million dollar contract from the Minnesota Vikings.
  • Case Keenum, who has been completely mediocre with the exception of one season, received a two year, $36,000,000 contract from the Denver Broncos, with $25,000,000 being guaranteed.

But of all these examples, the most ridiculous gamble, and most damning proof that supply and demand has surpassed actual worth, is San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo.

Jimmy Garoppayday

Make no mistake, “Game Day Garoppolo” has been nothing but impressive in his very young career. He’s undefeated as a starter, 2-0 when filling in for Tom Brady with the New England Patriots and was 5-0 when he took over for the 1-10 49ers last season. As we’ve referenced here, the job of a quarterback is to win games, and so far, that’s what “Jimmy G” has done.

However, his contract was up after last year, and the 49ers found themselves in a very similar situation to the Baltimore Ravens and Joe Flacco. He had just turned their season around and looked to be the franchise quarterback they’d been look for, basically since Steve Young retired. They ended up making the same choice that the Baltimore Ravens did, paying him.

They gave him a five-year, $137.5 million contract, making him the highest paid player in NFL history. In 2018 alone, he’s going to make over $30 million. It’s true that he is undefeated as a starter, but his numbers are pretty unimpressive. As a starter, he only threw for 1,542 yards, six touchdowns, and five interceptions in five games.

Sure, he could live up to expectations. He could cut down on the interceptions, continuing to win games for the 49ers. But what if he doesn’t? Superstar corner, Jalen Ramsey, insinuated that the reason Garoppolo experienced success was a lack of film and clever scheming.

Whether or not Ramsey is correct or not remains to be seen, but the deed is done, the 49ers have paid the man based on five games where he didn’t blow the doors off. He’s making more money than Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, and Drew Brees. How do you justify giving the biggest contract in NFL history to a player with seven career starts?

Supply. And. Demand.

It’s simple. Supply and demand. With guys like Mike Glennon and Sam Bradford summoning the Brinks truck, an undefeated quarterback would be able to name his price on the open market. If the San Francisco 49ers let Garoppolo hit the open market, the likes of the Cleveland Browns or New York Jets would’ve emptied the bank for him.

So even though logic dictates that Garoppolo (or any football player, really) doesn’t deserve the money he’s been given, it’s important to remember that it’s a business, and one that depends heavily on supply and demand. As long as quarterbacks are associated with championships, they’ll be paid handsomely.

With quarterback contracts continuing to grow more and more expensive, it will be interesting to see if teams try to build around defense and the run game to save costs. While the salary cap rises almost every year, paying a quarterback can make it very difficult to retain other talent, just ask Flacco what happened to the Ravens after they lost Jacoby Jones, Anquan Boldin, and Ed Reed in 2013.

The Philadelphia Eagles have a franchise quarterback in Carson Wentz, but they were still able to win a Super Bowl with Nick Foles by leaning (Super Bowl performances notwithstanding) on an elite defense and an adequate run game. It’ll be interesting if other teams (looking at you, Jacksonville Jaguars), take the same approach.

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