Can You Pay a Quarterback and Still Win a Super Bowl?

It’s more of a tagline than a secret these days, but the NFL is a passing league. More quarterbacks have had 5,000 yard passing seasons in the last five years than in the rest of NFL history combined. Getting a quarterback that can deliver comes with a price though, as the Baltimore Ravens and Oakland Raiders learned the hard way. With Patrick Mahomes, Baker Mayfield, and Dak Prescott creeping towards contract time, teams are gonna have to pay up soon, but I’m gonna ask the hard question. Is it worth it?

Can You Pay a Quarterback and Still Win a Super Bowl?

Because of how crazy the market for a quarterback is, is it actually possible for a team to pay a quarterback while fielding a competitive unit? If you’re giving one player nearly $30 million a season, can you afford an offensive line, weapons, or, dare I say, a defense?

To dig deeper, we took a closer look at every Super Bowl winning quarterback since the turn of the century. We gathered their salary cap hit, where it ranks against other quarterbacks (or at least we tried), and how old they were when the Super Bowl was won.

I say we tried because believe it or not, the internet wasn’t what it is now 19 years ago. As the years go by, more and more contract information becomes available.

2000. Trent Dilfer of the Baltimore Ravens, $450,000

28 years old.
Dating back this far, it’s really hard to track down quarterback contracts. However, a jouryman backup like Dilfer probably wasn’t tearing it up, especially when I was able to find that Peyton Manning was making $6,699,333 a year, Troy Aikman was making around $5,915,892, and Brett Favre was making $3,675,000.

2001. Tom Brady of the New England Patriots, $310,833

24 years old.
It gets a little easier in 2001, but the data still isn’t complete. However, as an umpteeth round pick, Brady was making pennies compared to the likes of Manning and Favre, who were making well over eight million dollars a year. Though it is worth noting that Brady’s teammate, Drew Bledsoe, was making $3,400,000 that season, with an $8,000,000 bonus.

2002. Brad Johnson of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, $3,500,000

34 years old.
In 2002, Jon Gruden’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Oakland Raiders handily in the Super Bowl, and their starting quarterback made roughly seven million dollars less than the league’s highest paid quarterback, Peyton Manning. Considering that Manning was only making around 10 million a year, it’s safe to say Johnson was closer to the middle of the list than the top.

2003. Tom Brady of the New England Patriots (2), $3,318,750

26 years old.
It gets a little easier to track quarterback contracts around 2003, where, as far as I can tell, Tom Brady was the sixth or seventh highest paid quarterback in the NFL. That’s based off of an incomplete chart from OverTheCap.com though, so take it with a grain of salt.

2004. Tom Brady of the New England Patriots (3), $5,058,750

27 years old.
Not much changed in 2004. Tom Brady and the New England Patriots were Super Bowl Champions again, and the quarterback we would all grow to hate was still somewhere around sixth or seventh in the quarterback paypool.

2005. Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers, $4,220,250

23 years old.
Finally, the contract information is coming pretty easily, as I can tell you Big Ben was the 11th highest paid quarterback when he managed the Pittsburgh Steelers to Super Bowl number five.

2006. Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts, $10,560,668

30 years old.
Peyton Manning was the sixth highest paid quarterback in football when he finally got the “can’t win the big one” monkey off of his back. Remember how great the 2006 AFC Championship game was? If not, go back and watch.

2007. Eli Manning of the New York Giants, $10,046,666

26 years old.
Eli Manning was the fourth highest paid quarterback in professional football when he won his first Super Bowl, and good timing too. There were those (namely Tiki Barber) that questioned if the Ole Miss product would ever live up to the hype.

2008. Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers (2), $7,970,000

26 years old.
The young Ben Roethlisberger was just rounding out the top ten when he won title number two for the Black and Yellow. This was during the first year of his second contract, where he actually made more than the contract was worth. In an age where everyone wants fully guaranteed contracts, Ben went over.

2009. Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints, $10,660,400

30 years old.
Drew Brees was the 12th highest paid quarterback in football back in 2009, narrowly edging out Chicago’s Jay Cutler. Brees was still on the contract that initially brought him to New Orleans when he was coming off of an injury and losing his job to Philip Rivers. NFL history can be so crazy in hindsight.

2010. Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers, $6,500,000

27 years old.
Freshly emerged from Brett Favre’s shadow, #PABAR was the 19th highest paid quarterback in football when he won his only Super Bowl. It wasn’t long after this that he got his first real quarterback contract.

2011. Eli Manning of the New York Giants (2), $14,100,000

30 years old.
Eli Manning was the fifth highest paid quarterback in the National Football League when he delivered title number two to the New York Football Giants.

2012. Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens, $8,000,000

27 years old.
On the final year of his rookie deal, Joe Flacco was the 15th/16th highest paid quarterback in football. I say 15/16 because Alex Smith was getting paid $9.25 million by two different teams, lucky guy. Little did we know it would be Mr. Flacco that would totally compromise the quarterback market forever.

2013. Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks, $681,085

25 years old.
God bless a good rookie deal. In the second year of his pro career, Russell Wilson was only the 53rd highest paid quarterback in the NFL. His teammate, Tavaris Jackson, actually made more money that year ($840,000).

2014. Tom Brady of the New England Patriots (4), $14,800,000

37 years old.
“Tom Terrific” was the 12th highest paid quarterback in football when he won his first Super Bowl in almost ten years. It’s really funny to go back and look at the guys making more than him. Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Jay Cutler, and Sam Bradford join Drew Brees in the top five highest paid while Brady sits at 12.

2015. Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos, $17,500,000

39 years old.
This one is actually kinda funny because Peyton Manning was just outside the top five highest quarterbacks when he won his second Super Bowl. How crazy is that? All the time he spent in football, and he wins a title as the sixth highest paid quarterback in the league both times.

2016. Tom Brady of the New England Patriots (5), $13,764,706

39 years old.
Tom Brady was the 18th highest paid quarterback when he won his fifth Super Bowl. That’s a crazy stat, especially when you consider that Colin Kaepernick was making more money just riding the bench in San Francisco.

2017. Carson Wentz and Nick Foles of the Philadelphia Eagles, $6,062,804 and $1,600,000 respectively.

Carson Wentz was 25 years old, Nick Foles was 28 years old.
Wentz was the 28th highest paid quarterback, and his back-up-turned-Super-Bowl-MVP Foles was 47th. Foles was a journeyman back-up at this point and Wentz was only in his second season.

2018. Tom Brady of the New England Patriots (6), $22,000,000

41 years old.
Last year, Tom Brady was only the 11th highest paid quarterback in the NFL. That might not sound high, but you’ve gotta remember, there are only 32 starting quarterbacks in the league. Brady made less money than Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Russell Wilson, Drew Brees, Kirk Cousins, Andrew Luck, Joe Flacco, Derek Carr, Matt Stafford, and his former back-up, Jimmy Garoppolo.

What Does This Tell Us?

Using only the rankings we have for sure, and excluding Russell Wilson’s ranking, the average Super Bowl quarterback from the millennium’s salary is usually just outside the top 10. If I included Wilsons? They would literally be 32nd in the NFL. Even if I said that Brad Johnson, Trent Dilfer, and 2001 Tom Brady were inside the top ten, it still averages out to the bottom of the league with Wilson’s rookie contract.

Another thing it’s showed us is that Eli Manning is the only guy on here to win a Super Bowl while having one of the five highest paying salaries in the NFL, and even then, he wasn’t taking up 10% of the team’s salary cap in 2007. But for all the times that Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Ben Roethlisberger have made Super Bowl cameos, they’ve never done it as the highest paid quarterback. In fact, nobody has.

The Highest Paid Guy

As any sports fan can tell you, stats can be misleading. Sure, the highest paid quarterback has never won a Super Bowl, but that’s only half the equation. For fun, I also went back to each year (that I could find) and looked at the highest paid guy. Here’s his cap hit+team record for that season.

2000. Peyton Manning, $6,699,333.* Indianapolis Colts: 10-6
2001. Brett Favre, $9,535,333.* Green Bay Packers: 12-4
2002. Peyton Manning, $10,331,333.* Indianapolis Colts: 10-6
2003. Peyton Manning, $15,357,335.* Indianapolis Colts: 12-4
2004. Brett Favre, $9,533,333.* Green Bay Packers: 10-6
2005. Brett Favre, $10,133,333. Green Bay Packers: 4-12
2006. Tom Brady, $13,823,750. New England Patriots: 12-4
2007. Carson Palmer, $13,480,000. Cincinnati Bengals: 7-9
2008. Peyton Manning, $18,700,000. Indianapolis Colts: 12-4
2009. Peyton Manning, $21,199,998. Indianapolis Colts: 14-2
2010. Donovan McNabb, $24,775,000. Washington Redskins: 6-10
2011. Mark Sanchez, $17,228,125. New York Jets: 8-8
2012. Peyton Manning, $18,000,000. Denver Broncos: 13-3
2013. Eli Manning, $20,850,000. New York Giants: 7-9
2014. Eli Manning, $20,400,000. New York Giants: 6-10
2015. Drew Brees, $23,800,000. New Orleans Saints: 7-9
2016. Eli Manning, $24,200,000. New York Giants: 11-5
2017. Joe Flacco, $24,550,000. Baltimore Ravens: 9-7
2018. Jimmy Garoppolo, $37,000,000. San Francisco 49ers: 4-12

*-Incomplete Data.

As you can see, it’s not like having the most salary cap committed to a quarterback cripples a team. There are 10 double-digit win teams up there. In fact, only two of those teams finished with fewer than five wins, and the 2018 49ers were without Garoppolo for most of the season. Obviously you’re going to struggle if the guy you’re paying 20% of your salary cap isn’t even playing.

The Bottom Line

In a way, I think the 2018 San Francisco 49ers almost prove the point. Without their expensive quarterback, they were the second worst team in the National Football League. But with them, they had won six of their last seven games.

You almost can’t win. If you don’t have a great quarterback, you can’t compete, but if you pay your great quarterback, you can’t afford to build a roster around them. So you’re stuck between hoping they choose to make less money and trying to find cheap role players to work around them.

Here’s hoping your quarterback would rather win championships than get the bag, or at the very least, that they marry a supermodel who makes more than they do.

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