BY J.A. SCHWARTZ
Stanford’s Andrew Luck was the top overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft by the Colts. Indianapolis earned the #1 pick in that draft after going 2-14 in 2011, and Luck paid immediate dividends. Starting every game as a rookie, he led the Colts to an 11-5 record and a playoff berth, a stunning turnaround. He would propel his team to postseason play in four of his seven NFL seasons, playing in all 16 regular season games in each (2012, 2013, 2014, 2018). Injuries would cut short his 2015-2017 seasons, during which he played only 22 of a possible 48 games. The Colts missed the playoffs during those seasons, going 10-16 without him. During training camp in 2019, Luck stunningly retired from football. The Colts, whose odds to win the Super Bowl were 16-1 with Luck under center, quickly plummeted to 50-1 after his announcement.
How can one player exert so much control over the outcome of a game ? Watch any NFL contest, and focus on the QB when he’s on the field. As he comes to the line of scrimmage, he’s scanning the defense, looking for clues as to the type of defense that is being deployed against his teammates. Only he knows if the play that is called is likely to be successful against the defensive array he perceives, and only he can audible, changing the play call, to improve the likelihood that his team gains yardage that might sustain a drive, or lead to a score. He’s doing all of this within the 10-15 seconds of time once the play is wired from his coach into his helmet speaker, and he’s communicating his decisions to every teammate on the field by using hand signals, foot movements and verbal commands.
Once the play actually begins, and the ball is in his hands, the QB is responsible for reading the defense in real time, finding the weak spots in their coverage, and identifying the receiver who represents the best chance for a successful completion. On a play that is designed to be a pass, he needs to process all that information within split seconds, so that he reads the defense, targets his receiver and unleashes the throw in 2.5-3.0 seconds, all while 300 LB defensive linemen bent on his destruction whirl and claw their way towards him to interfere violently with his efforts. The acumen with which those decisions are made, and the accuracy with which those throws are delivered can mean the difference between victory and defeat.
The best quarterbacks are the ones who make the right decisions most often, and avoid costly sacks, fumbles and interceptions, all of which can doom or end a drive and minimize the potential for a win. Year after year, those select men lead teams to winning seasons, playoff opportunities and ultimately Super Bowl appearances. Their coaches, teammates and fans (most of the time!) agree on their value, and the men who own the teams who employ them are usually more than happy to pay them salaries commensurate with their impact on the game. What is remarkable is just how much more they are paid than the players on the field with them.
Professional athletes are compensated handsomely, and the elite level performers are paid a premium based on their talent. Quarterbacks, however, eclipse even the upper echelon of salaries paid to other players relative to the salary cap in the NFL.
Of the top 20 salaries being paid to NFL players in 2019 (based on the average annual value of the contract), 16 of them belong to QBs, including each of the Top 10 on the list. Only DE Khalil Mack, DT Aaron Donald, WR Julio Jones and DE DeMarcus Lawrence break into the Top 20. The Top 10 QBs, ranked by their salaries in 2019, average $30.55 million, which equates to 16.2% of the $188.2 million salary cap teams have to spend this year. That figure is nearly double the average of the Top 10 salaries being paid to other positions this season, led by DE and WR, who average $17.55 and $17.33 respectively (9.3% and 9.2% of the cap).
In every other major sport, there is no such stratification between positions. Pitchers and position players are represented among the highest paid baseball players. Centers, forwards and guards are sprinkled among the NBA’s largest salaries. In the NHL, the top 20 salaries are all within $3 million of each other, with goalies, wings, centers and defensemen all represented similarly among the biggest contracts. In each of those sports, there is no singular position that is regarded as being more valuable, or critical to team success, and the salary rankings reflect that. Quarterbacks, however, have dominated the upper stratosphere of league earners for decades, and 2019 is no different.
Why should the QB position be regarded as so much more important than any other position on the field? The results speak for themselves. In 2018, 11 of the 12 teams that made the playoffs featured a QB with a Quarterback Rating of 95 or better. Only three of the top 10 QB’s ranked by that metric failed to make the playoffs last year. If a team’s QB is not playing at a high level, the chances are good that that team will fail to qualify for postseason play. What about the Super Bowl ? Every team’s goal is to win the Vince Lombardi Trophy, not have a highly ranked QB. Going back to 2010, the Super Bowl has featured QB’s who are ranked in the top 12 by the Quarterback Rating in every year aside from 2015, when Peyton Manning, arguably one of the greatest QB’s ever to play, was at the helm as the Broncos defeated Carolina (and MVP Cam Newton). There is a very strong correlation between the quality of quarterback play and team success, and the entire NFL knows it.
When a franchise manages to draft a QB they believe is capable of being an above average performer, they rarely let that player leave the team. To insure that such stars stay on the teams that drafted and developed them, the teams have to pay their QB the going rate to retain their services, and that rate continues to escalate. The top salary being paid to an NFL player in 2019 is the $45 million the Steelers will pay QB Ben Roethlisberger, which is slightly more than the $44.75 million the Falcons will give QB Matt Ryan. In 2020, the top salary (for now) will be paid to Seattle QB Russell Wilson, who will earn $53 million for his services under center. Every passing season sees a new threshold of compensation for signal callers established, and Wilson’s current claim as the highest paid player for 2020 may not last very long. It will surprise nobody to see a new contract record set by the next franchise QB whose team wants to secure his future.
Of the top 25 QB’s ranked by QBR for 2018, only three played for a team that didn’t draft that player out of college (Drew Brees, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Kirk Cousins). Every other QB on that list is still with the team they broke into the league with. Teams without consistent play from the position are in a constant search for a solution to that problem, because without it, success on the field is difficult to come by. The Cleveland Browns have had 28 QB’s in the twenty seasons since 1999, and until they drafted Baker Mayfield in 2018, none of them were regarded as worthy of being a long-term fixture on the roster. It is not difficult to explain the Browns futility during those twenty seasons by noting their ineptitude at the position, which led them to an 0-16 season in 2017, fresh off a 1-15 season in 2016.
In contrast, the New England Patriots drafted Tom Brady in 2000, and he’s led that franchise to six Super Bowl victories in his 19 seasons. The 42-year old is still calling the signals in New England, and will do so as long as his body allows him to perform at an elite level. During roughly the same period of time that the Browns cycled through 28 QB’s searching for their savior, the Patriots have had the same singular superstar slinging missiles into the end zone for their franchise. During that period, New England has been to the playoffs 16 times, making the Super Bowl nine times. The Browns have yet to appear in the Super Bowl in the history of their franchise, and haven’t even won a playoff game since January 1, 1995.
The men making decisions about the future of their teams place such a high value on finding the next star QB that those teams have routinely chosen a quarterback as the #1 overall pick in the draft. In the history of the draft, dating back to 1936, QB’s have been taken first in 34 of those seasons, far more than any other position. In the past 20 seasons, a quarterback was selected as the first player to come out of college that season 14 times (DT/DL were chosen four times, and OL twice). Teams that have poor records, thus earning the top pick in the draft that follows the season, are usually in need of improved QB play.
The impact of being able to finally find a quarterback to help change the fortunes of a franchise is dramatic. In 2017, the year before the Browns drafted current starting QB (and 2018 #1 overall pick) Baker Mayfield, their odds to win the Super Bowl was 200-1. In 2018, a year in which Mayfield was not projected to play much, Las Vegas estimated their chances of winning it all at 300-1. Coming into the 2019 season, after Mayfield established himself as the starting QB in Cleveland and showed flashes of greatness ( setting the rookie record for touchdown passes with 27), the Browns perceived chances to win the big game improved significantly. Before the 2019 season, the Browns were 14-1 to win Super Bowl LIV. They had made other moves that improved their roster (trading for Odell Beckham Jr., among others), but Mayfield’s play as their QB was the signal to the rest of the sports world that the Browns might finally be ready to compete at the highest level.
The history of the San Francisco 49ers is an excellent case study for the impact a QB can have on a franchise. Beginning in 1981, Joe Montana’s first year as a full time starter (he had started seven games in 1980 as the team transitioned from Steve DeBerg to Montana as their primary signal caller), the 49ers would make the playoffs nine of the 10 seasons Montana was under center. During the prior eight seasons, they had not qualified for a single postseason, and had only had one season above .500 (1976, when they went 8-6). Montana would rank in the top 10 in passer rating in every season he played in San Francisco, leading the team to four Super Bowls, each of which they won.
San Francisco would be blessed with another Hall of Fame quarterback, Steve Young, who took over as the starter in 1991. Young led the 49ers to the playoffs in seven of his eight seasons with the franchise, winning the Super Bowl in 1994. San Francisco would win at least 10 games in every year Young was at the helm, and Young was never rated lower than the sixth best QB in the league during his tenure as the starter. In fact, Young led the entire NFL in passer rating an astounding six times in eight years from 1991-1998, and he ranks seventh on the All-Time list of quarterbacks by that rating.
The team would transition to other quarterbacks once Young retired, from Jeff Garcia to Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick to the current starter, Jimmy Garappolo. During the period from 1999 (Garcia’s first year as a starter) through the current season, San Francisco has made the playoffs just five times in those twenty seasons, without winning a Super Bowl, and only reaching one, losing to Baltimore after the 2012 season with Kaepernick leading the way. In the five seasons they qualified for the playoffs, their QB’s ranked 3rd, 12th (Garcia in 2000-2001), 9th (Smith in 2011), 13th and 10th (Kaepernick in 2012-2013) in the league by passer rating. In every other season during that span, their QB rating was no better than 15th. Thus far in 2019, Garappolo is rated 14th, at 96.3, and the team is 3-0 heading into their upcoming Monday Night Football showdown against Cleveland. The correlation is unmistakable: When a team has a quarterback playing at a high level, that team is far more likely to have seasons that result in playoff, and ultimately Super Bowl appearances.
San Francisco and Cleveland have been searching for a player to fill that position and excel there for the better part of twenty years. Cleveland has used five first round draft picks looking for its next franchise savior, including the first overall selection in both 1999 (QB Tim Couch) and 2018 (Mayfield). San Francisco used the top pick in the 2005 draft on Alex Smith, who led them to the playoffs in just one of his seven seasons. In Baker Mayfield and Jimmy Garappolo, both teams hope their long search has ended, and that the future with those players leading the way will be filled with playoff berths and Super Bowl titles.
Quarterbacks are still seen as the face of a franchise, and are positioned as such in marketing campaigns. Five of the top 10 biggest endorsement contracts in 2019 will go to QB’s, led by Tom Brady. Three of the top four marketing deals also went to quarterbacks (Brady, Patrick Mahomes and Mayfield), who routinely rate as the most recognizable players on any given team. It stands to reason that the players who have the largest impact on the outcome of any given contest will be compensated at the highest level on the field (as has been discussed earlier in this article), but that same group of athletes also garner the lion’s share of marketing dollars available to NFL players.
If your team doesn’t have its franchise QB in place, chances are this NFL season will end without a playoff appearance. An unsuccessful season, painful as it may be, might afford your team’s front office the chance at a high draft pick, which could be utilized to find the player to be the new face of your franchise. Top QB’s rarely, if ever, become available as free agents, so drafting them is usually the only way to secure one. The Vikings signed free agent QB Kirk Cousins following the 2017 season, paying him a fully guaranteed $84 million over three seasons to insure they would outbid other quarterback needy teams.
Not every team is in a position with regard to their salary cap situation to allot such lofty sums to free agents, but above average QB’s are seen in a far different light because they become available so infrequently. Most teams are proactive, choosing to extend the contracts of their signal callers so that they never have the chance to reach free agency. Such negotiations have been publicly discussed around Dak Prescott in Dallas, and it would be a shock if a new deal isn’t reached prior to the end of the season. The Cowboys can’t afford to let their star QB go, and it’s only a matter of time before Prescott ascends the rankings in terms of his average annual salary.
In the NFL, you either have a “franchise” quarterback on your roster, or you’re looking for ways to obtain one. The performance of your team is very closely tied to the skill of your signal caller, and has been for quite some time. The NFL celebrates its 100th year of existence in 2019, and the league has changed and evolved in myriad ways during that century of combat. Players are now bigger, stronger and faster than they’ve ever been before, and training methods, coaching and statistical analysis have ushered in a new era of game management.
The advent of the forward pass in 1933 (when a pass could be made from anywhere behind the line of scrimmage, which changed the rule that required forward passes to be thrown from at least five yards behind the line) positioned the quarterback to be the man who decides the fate of any given play, and whose skill could be the difference between success and failure. One hundred years later, despite the evolution of nearly every aspect of the sport, the simple fact remains: Quarterbacks are the key to victory. If your team has one, be grateful. If not, hope for the top pick in next year’s draft.