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The emergence of the NFL’s middle class

| March 19th, 2015

I recently wrote an article explaining why Jay Cutler’s contract is actually right in line with the NFL’s quarterback market, as dictated by other quarterback contracts around the NFL.  Near the end of that article, I wrote a sentence that intrigued me: ” Whether or not giving an average quarterback that kind of money is a good idea remains to be seen.”

Today, I want to look in greater detail at that question, or at least a slightly reworded one: is paying a massive portion of your salary cap to a non-elite quarterback a good idea?

looked at this issue in 2013, and found that “The early results suggest big contracts for non-elite quarterbacks will come back to haunt their teams, but it is too early to say for sure.”  Remember, having more than just a few of the top quarterbacks take up massive amounts of salary cap space is a relatively new trend in the NFL.  Now that we have another years’ worth of data, let’s see if the same trend holds.

Methods

I split all 32 teams in the NFL into one of six groups based on their current quarterback status.

  1. Elite veteran: these teams have one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL locked down on a big contract.  He’s expensive, but he’s also really good.  I applied this to Denver, Green Bay, New England, and New Orleans.  I’m not 100% convinced that Drew Brees is in the same tier as those guys, but I had him there last year, so I figured I’d leave him here again.
  2. Non-elite veteran: these teams are committed to their starting quarterback for 2015.  He’s on an expensive deal and is not as good as those top guys listed above, but is still a solid player.  I applied this to Atlanta, New York Giants, San Francisco, San Diego, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Arizona, Baltimore, and Dallas.
  3. Established young guy: these teams have a starting quarterback they feel good about on a rookie deal.  I applied this to Miami, Carolina, Indianapolis, and Seattle.
  4. Need a quarterback: these teams need to upgrade their quarterback situation, as they don’t have the answer on their roster currently.  I applied this to Tampa Bay, Tennessee, New York Jets, Houston, and Buffalo.
  5. Recent Pick: these teams spent a 1st round pick on a quarterback last year.  They all experienced varying success, but are likely to get another shot as the starter in 2015.  I applied this to Jacksonville, Oakland, Cleveland, and Minnesota.  Note: I almost put Minnesota in the established young guy camp, but since this study looks at 2014 results and Teddy Bridgewater wasn’t established until the final few games, I decided to leave him in the recent pick camp for now.
  6. Up in the air: these teams have potential answers for the quarterback situation on their roster, but the teams are not clearly committed to those guys.  I applied this to Washington, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Chicago (as the Bears have indicated through their actions they are not sold on Cutler as their guy long term).

This isn’t a perfect method, especially for the non-elite veterans, as there is clearly some differentiation between guys like Ben Roethlisberger and Tony Romo compared to Andy Dalton and Alex Smith.  However, for the purposes of this study I believe it will suffice.

2014

I then looked at the 2014 on-field success for teams in each group, examining the average number of wins, the number of teams they put in the playoffs, and how successful they were in the playoffs.  Let’s take a look in the table below.

This more or less follows the same trends as 2013.  Teams that need quarterbacks are generally pretty bad, as are teams with rookie quarterbacks learning how to play in the NFL, though some of the teams in that group approach respectability with .500 records.  Teams with quarterback options on the roster that are not fully entrenched did a little better, but still not very good, and none of them made the playoffs.

Teams with highly paid non-elite veterans seemed to form a middle class.  These teams ranged from bad (5 wins) to good (12 wins), but none of them were among the league’s truly terrible or truly great teams.  Over half of them made the playoffs, but none of them did much once they got there, as they all bowed out before the conference championship games.

The groups with the most success are teams with elite veteran quarterbacks or proven starters on rookie contracts.  Most of these teams made the playoffs, and they were the only real title contenders, making up all of the last 4 teams standing for the second year in a row.

2013+2014

In order to increase the sample size and see the trends more clearly, I combined the data from 2013 and 2014, so we are now looking at 64 teams instead of 32.  Let’s see how it looks now.

Here we see the same pattern.  The worst teams are those that need a quarterback, and the only teams that make the playoffs have a starting quarterback they feel good about (the one exception was Cincinnati in 2013; I put them as up in the air because rumors were they might move on from Dalton when I wrote that article in January; they later gave him a big extension and moved into the established non-elite quarterback category for 2014).

Here’s the kicker: when teams get to the playoffs with a highly-paid quarterback who is not elite, they lose.  Sure, they have managed three playoff wins over the last two years, but those three wins were over Cincinnati, Detroit, and Pittsburgh, 3 teams with non-elite quarterbacks themselves.  When going up against teams with quality starters on rookie deals or elite veterans, teams with non-elite veterans are 0-5.  All 8 teams in the conference championship games the last 2 years-the true title contenders-have been teams with either an elite veteran or a solid starter on a rookie deal.

Conclusions

This is still a very small sample size, so it is dangerous to draw too many conclusions.  But it is beginning to look more and more like the new glut of highly-paid, non-elite quarterbacks are dooming those teams to an NFL middle class.  They are never bad enough to truly be terrible, but spending so much money on a good but not great player also prevents them from being good enough to win a championship.

If this pattern continues to hold over the next few years, it will be interesting to see how teams respond.  Will the secondary quarterback contracts begin to take up less of the salary cap?  Will the top few quarterback contracts continue going up, while the middle class remains fairly steady, thereby creating more of a financial difference between players like Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford? Will teams be willing to let good but not great players like Andy Dalton or Colin Kaepernick leave in free agency, deciding they’re better off trying their luck in the draft instead of handing them massive extensions?

Of course, the problem with that last option is that it’s an incredible risk.  There are worse fates than being a good but not great team.  If you let a solid quarterback leave instead of overpaying him and then whiff on his replacement, you’re stuck being a terrible team for several years, and it typically only gets better once you find another quarterback, at which point you’re likely right back where you started once their rookie deal runs out.  And that is the seeming catch-22 of having a good but not great quarterback in today’s NFL.

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