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DangeRuss Territory: The Price of Paying a Quarterback

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DangeRuss Territory: The Price of Paying a Quarterback

Matt Milligan

Russell Wilson is getting paid. News broke of the imminent extension: a 5 year, $89 million contract with a still yet to be determined signing bonus (rumors are floating around in the $20-30 million range). And, at least for the time being, @DangeRussWilson will be the highest paid player at the position. That is, until the salary cap increases and Andrew Luck signs his new contract which will inevitably make Russell’s look like a happy hour deal at Ruby Tuesday.

It's been interesting to see how these teams respond after forking over major cash to their quarterback. Over half the league is paying at least $12 million to their QB for the upcoming season, and yet less than half of them have a ring on their finger. 

The Good:

  1. Aaron Rodgers has worked out so far with one ring on his finger, but still has 3 years left at $22 million a year.
  2. Though they haven’t looked the same since their 2009 season Super Bowl run, Drew Brees’ five-year deal, at least statistically, was worth the investment.
  3. For a hall of fame quarterback, a $34 million contract for Peyton Manning and the Broncos ain’t so bad, though he inevitably won’t bring them any glory.
  4. While we’re on the topic of Mannings, the one with the more rings still stands around the middle of the pack in terms of money per year.
  5. Bargain of the decade? 4 time champ Tom Brady makes less annually than ringless Sam Bradford, Philip Rivers, Andy Dalton, Carson Palmer, Alex Smith, Tony Romo, and Jay Cutler.

The “We’ll See:”

  1. On the flipside, at 26 and 30 years old, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan may still prove to be sound investments if their teams can build around them in the worst division in the league.
  2. WR to QB convert Ryan Tannehill is making almost $20 mill a year and hasn’t really done shit, but continues to progress nonetheless.
  3. The Steelers and Cowboys, among a few others, currently sit on the fence together, as it’s too early to tell how heavy extensions for a 33 and 35 year old quarterback play out. Roethlisberger has brought the rings. Romo’s brought nothing but pain and suffering.

The "Oh My God We're Going to Suck For a Very Long Time:"

  1. After extending their quarterback through 2020 for $126 million ($54 million guaranteed), the Bears eventually benched Jay Cutler last season for Jimmy Clausen, and at one point actually considered releasing him and eating the rest of his guaranteed money.
  2. The Lion’s Matt Stafford has yet to live up to the hype or his contract with one of the best receivers in the history of the league on his team, and has yet to win a single playoff game; the two of them combined will eat over 30% of the team's cap next year.
  3. If last season was any indicator, the 49ers will be rotting at the bottom of the NFC West for quite a few years whilst absorbing the blunt of the Colin Kaepernicks $114 million ($61 million guaranteed are you serious!!!) extension from 2014.

The difference between Wilson and the QBs mentioned in the previous paragraph: track record. None of the guys mentioned above have been able to accomplish what Wilson has, much less in the first 3 years of their careers. It could be argued that much of Wilson’s contract should be calculated into what he’s already given them ­– three straight playoff appearances, including a 2012 divisional round lost by his own coach, a Super Bowl win, followed by a gut-wrenching Super Bowl loss at the 1 yard line this year. It sounds weird to say, but with a career record of 42-14 and at only 26 years old, he has very little left to prove – only Tom Brady currently holds a better career win percentage. Peyton, Roethlisberger, Rodgers, Luck… Wilson trumps them all.

I don’t think anyone will argue Wilson’s talent and charisma. He’s an unselfish player, dates pop stars, got drafted by the MLB and stays out of the negative headlines – he’s the young Derek Jeter of football. He’s got a fan base that adores him, and the #1 defense in the league that picks him up when he’s down (see: Wilson’s 4 interceptions in Seattle’s 28-22 OT win in the NFC championship last year). But in my opinion, that #1 defense that’s kept his name so clean over these incredible playoff runs is the thing that’s going to wind up suffering the most at the expense of that shiny new contract. And as much as I hate to predict it, I think Wilson suffers equally from it.

It hurts to predict something like that because I genuinely like the guy and his swagger. I followed DangeRuss a bit at NC State and was passing out liquor drinks on the bandwagon at Wisconsin. He seemed to have this unfazability about him that I envied, and I just loved to cheer for the guy. Come the NFL draft, he was an afterthought for me; I figured he might go undrafted and wind up backing up Carson Palmer for a few years before I had to watch his name fizzle into the sunset.

I’m still amazed at the progress he’s made so far, but the guy has his limits. He picks his passes pretty carefully, as evidenced by only throwing over 25 attempts once in his last 5 playoff games. The guy doesn’t make mistakes, and when he does his defense saves his ass. To contrast, Tom Brady has only thrown over 25 times all but twice in his entire career’s worth of 29 playoff games. Those two games: 2002 when he was hurt in the second quarter and Bledsoe had to come in, and at Heinz Field in 2005 when the temperature dipped below 10 degrees. 

I bring it up because there’s a similar situation in the league that I can’t help but think of when considering Russel’s new situation. Fresh off a Super Bowl victory in March 2013, the Ravens signed young Joe Flacco to a 6 year, $120.6 million contract, despite some question marks around whether or not he was ”franchise quarterback” material. The Ravens were able to finagle some numbers for the 2013 season and spent 47% of their cap on defense despite the Flacco contract, still good for 1st in the league. But as that contract number started to become more of a reality, so too did the reality of losing out on some of the young prospects anchoring the defense. In 2014, that cap number slipped to 36%, and Baltimore comes into the 2015 season with 30% of their cap allocated to the defense, good for 31 out of 32 lowest in the league. 

That contract number may only be revolving around one person, but it has such a deeper impact than most people realize. Before Wilson signed his contract this year, the Seahawks were pegged for spending 2.16% of their cap on quarterbacks for this upcoming season, which would have ranked last in the league. Not surprisingly, 1.52% of Seattle’s cap was allocated to the QB position for the 2014 season based solely on Wilson’s rookie contract, coupled with Tarvaris Jackson as the backup (hint: there was no backup plan). 1.52% at the most pivotal position in the league – that is absolute highway robbery.

Don’t believe me? Of the 32 teams in the league, 9 of the 12 playoff teams last season ranked in the top 12 for money spent on the quarterback position. Translation: only 3 of the remaining 20 teams made the playoffs. Those 3 teams: the Carolina Panthers, who play in the absolute worst division in football; Arizona, who made the wildcard after blowing a 9-1 record to start the year; and of course Indy, who still has yet to bend over for the spanking from Andrew Luck and what will be his nuclear missile of a contract.

To be more direct: the Seahawks had the 2nd best deal on a quarterback of any Super Bowl champ the last two decades. Wilson accounted for an absolutely absurd 0.56% of the Seahawk's cap for the 2012/2013 season. For perspective, Flacco will eat up almost 19% of Baltimore's cap next year.

So for all of you who hope and pray a franchise quarterback falls into your lap, know this: since 1994, only 5 out of the 20 eventual Super Bowl champs had over 10% of their cap allocated to their quarterback: Young, Favre, Eli, Peyton, and most recently Brady at 10.4%. That's it. Elway won Super Bowls back to back coming in at 5% of the cap each season. The Rams rode on Kurt Warner's magic to their ring while paying him 1.3%. The only better contract steal than Wilson's over that span? Naturally, Tom Brady: the Patriots ponied up a whopping 0.47% of their cap for their 2002 Super Bowl MVP (although they were still paying Drew Bledsoe). 

Now make no mistake: the 'hawks will contend this year -- there’s no doubt about that. The defense is still anchored by a lot of the same guys who’ve been getting them there. They’ve lost crucial defensive playmakers but have drafted well enough to mask it. But with contracts like Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Earl Thomas, and Richard Sherman on the roster, that clock’s going to strike midnight a lot sooner than Seattle fans would like to imagine. That’s even before we discuss:

  •          the addition of Jimmy Graham's $10 million a year;
  •          Cam Chancellor’s holdout;
  •          K.J. Wright's $27 million extension that makes him the second highest paid at his position behind Lance Briggs;
  •          Marshawn Lynch’s $12 million a year extension, second highest behind Adrian Peterson.

Seattle has some decisions to make, but it appears their bed is made. Much like Flacco, Wilson and company will start the steady decline to mediocrity and make his fan base question the legitimacy of his contract. The Seahawks have been riding on the tailwinds of the perfect storm; Wilson has been more than anyone could have hoped for out of the the 3rd round of the draft. But as that storm starts to die, light will be shed on the fact that the Captain was given credit and paid accordingly for what his crew had been mostly responsible for... and that ship's gonna start to go down real quick because of it.

In the end, Wilson is not a  QB who can hoist a team on his shoulders and mow down opponents for 3 consecutive playoff games -- paying him like he can will ultimately be their undoing. So for those of you waiting on Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Football, Blake Bortles, Geno Smith, E.J. Manuel, (I can’t keep going -- it’s too painful), it seems to me there’s only one solution: ride the wave of a rookie contract (Wilson, Flacco, Roethlisberger), or find a quarterback whose wife is worth more than he is and pray he’s willing to play at a discounted rate long term because of it. It’s your only hope.