By Julian Reed
Value in professional sports is relative. Your only as valuable as your ability to play, stay healthy, help your team win, at a compensation rate agreed upon with a specific club. This is most true in the NFL where the average career lasts 2.5 seasons. Unlike all other pro sports, you as an NFL player have a very small window of time to accrue the money that will sustain yourself and most likely a family for the rest of your natural life. Contracts are non guaranteed (Unlike NBA, MLB, etc) which creates a devout culture of urgency.
Urgency is the seminal word to describe the NFL. Win now, earn now, stay healthy or play injured or we’ll escort you to the exit while we welcome a replacement. This dichotomy is a very horse and carrot approach to the pro sports business model. Essentially, owners have created a profound sport and television product by dangling job security (or lack there of) over its players heads seemingly everyday. On a 52 man roster, maybe 13-18 players are truly safe independent of production and health. That’s less than 50% for those of you counting at home.
Meaning, vast majority of NFL players are at risk everyday of their lives of losing their job and career in an instant. One severe injury, one season of down production or merely a change in coaching regime. This creates a culture of extremely hard intensive work by largely humble individuals living paycheck to paycheck. All players dream of one day attaining a big contract with a lot of guaranteed money to provide at least some degree of true value to the organization and in turn, job security. Very few players ever reach this plateau, reserved typically for the most skilled superstars and hard to replace key cogs on the roster.
This is a large part of the reason the NFL is as dominant a pro sports league as it is. Shrewd clubs and a highly progressive commissioner. Tomorrow is never promised in the NFL. Thus, coaches get every once of potential out of the vast majority of their players. However, this standard does not apply to all players. Quarterback as Im sure you’re aware, is far and away the most valuable and important position in all of sports. Because of evolution of rules in recent years, the position is as required to even have a chance to win as its ever had prior.
No QB, no chance in the modern NFL. This reality has created an unprecedented mad grab proliferation to find and develop QB’S from the time their six to eight years old. Coaches success and job security is directly tied to the position as well. The desperation to find a franchise QB has led to many college players drafted very high in the NFL draft who were unworthy, and huge contract extensions for QBs who haven’t earned it on the field. Beacuse the truth is, the barometer for value, and the notion of earned take on different meaning with passers.
The NFL QB is the only position in the NFL that inherently has job security. Besides being the most important and valuable position in sports, its also the most difficult to replace. Its taken teams like the Broncos, Dolphins, and Lions 15-20+ years to replace legendary QBs with even average play at the position. Every year the same trend largely holds true at the top of the NFL draft where the teams with the worst records pick first. Majority (In most drafts, all) of those teams are instable at quarterback. This has immensely benefitted those NFL QBs already established. They’re some of the highest paid players in all of sports and get the most money guaranteed to them in contracts.
Because of the difficulty in finding a franchise QB, any player resembling one has respective NFL franchise at their mercy. The negative culture this has created is one of Teflon bulletproof armor. Many QBs on the fringe of being considered by pundits as a franchise guy like Tony Romo, Matthew Stafford, and Jay Cutler exemplify the problem. Each has major flaws in their game and haven’t brought their teams winning.
Football is the ultimate team sport. Although one position can’t be faulted entirely for lack of team success, the age old adage that “Quarterbacks receive all the credit in victory and shoulder all the blame in defeat” is indeed reality. So I (and many others) reserve the right to judge the most difficult position in sports on a different scale than any other player/position. The QB is simply more valuable than anybody. Unlike any other offensive skill position player, they touch the ball every play. So what’s the problem here?
The major problem the NFL has created, in a sport built around parity, with seemingly nothing monetarily given without it being earned, Quarterbacks operate under different jurisdiction. Quarterbacks are allowed to underachieve, to make missed opportunities and bad flame outs a thing of regularity. They’re immune to being cut, being traded (mostly), being mandated by the organization to take a pay cut when necessary etc. This reality is widely accepted as a necessary evil. It isn’t as though NFL clubs enjoy investing (risking) large sums of millions on passers. But they all understand the nature of the beast.
You need a top flight passer most weeks to have a chance in the modern NFL, which requires top flight QB contracts. The National Football League contract works for all positions along the lines of a precedent format. Meaning, a player (independent of position, but typically reserved for stars) signs a new deal with their team. That deal then becomes the benchmark for all other top flight players at that position. The agent and player meet with the general manager and team owner and ask for logistical dollar figures in line with league trend.
With the quarterback position most notably, a player gets a huge contract that becomes the standard for the league. Two years ago, Drew Brees contract extension with the New Orleans Saints became the industry standard for QB 100 million dollars deals. Last season, Baltimore Ravens QB Joe Flacco turned down the deal the team offered him initially and decided to stall negotiations until after the season to have a chance to earn a better deal with a big season. That decision proved fruitful for him. He led the Baltimore Ravens on one of the most legendary runs in NFL history, ending with a Super Bowl ring and a 100+ million dollar deal for Joe. In the time since quite a few QBs also received new contracts.
As mentioned, Flacco, had he accepted teams first offer would’ve gotten far less money. What he did was admirable. Took great risk in foregoing the negotiations to prove he was worth more to the organization. If he’d been injured or played poorly during the season, he could’ve risked receiving anything. Despite all of this, he bet on himself and it paid off. This hasn’t been the case with many of the other QBs who signed new deals, which is where the controversy stems from.
Unlike Flacco last season, Jay Cutler, Tony Romo, and Matt Stafford have ended the last two seasons in similar fashion as well as in line with the tale of the tape of their NFL careers. Injury prone, throwing crucial interceptions that cost their team games, and ultimately missing the postseason. Despite those facts, each was rewarded with a 100 million contract with over 50 million guaranteed. This is a bad precedent for the NFL.
What’s the motivation to go out and play great as an NFL QB? The answer for the elite like Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, originates from inside. Burning fire in the gut to want to be the best and to win. For everyone else, the verdict is still out. Why put the extra work in as an NFL QB to be the best? Because of supply and demand, there almost exists a sort of parity among NFL QB contracts. The highest annual salaries are not reserved for the elite. The top 12-15 top NFL QBs all make similar figures.
As I mentioned earlier, its not a question of “Deserved” or even “Earned” with these contracts. Its fundamental supply and demand. If teams dont pay these QBs the money determined by market trend, they will receive it (or more) in free agency. The proverbial handcuffs. Ultimately, it is what it is. But, I think in the big picture, this new reality portends potentially negative results down the road.
Nothing good can come from a player that doesnt have half the talent and on field success of Tom Brady by market demand being able to be compensated equally to him. This creates a culture of entitlement. Quarterbacks are already more powerful than any individual in an organization (Including most coaches/GM’s) short of the owner. Now they’re compensated at an unprecedented level independent of their track record. If you dont accomplish anything, why should you be compensated like you have?
To date, rarity of quality QB play has been extremely difficult to find. This has been the chief validation for why teams have no choice but to pay underachievers like Jay Cutler because no better option seems likely to be acquired. Despite all this, when I look at the landscape of football on all levels, I see more and more young high school and college players who have been bred from youth to come into the NFL tomorrow and have some success.
Make no mistake, Peyton Manning’s don’t grow on trees (tragically). But, I think their can be many more Joe Flacco’s and Cam Newton’s. Players with one or two highly coveted skills that can be very productive and win games/Super Bowls with great supporting casts and coaches. More and more QBs enter the NFL every year with talented arms and or athletic ability. The cerebral pocket passer will never go extinct because of its effectiveness and perfect fit for current rules. However, there will continue to be more and more ways the top coaches find to have success without that type of player, which is the hardest and most rare to find.
So in my opinion, it isn’t necessary for teams to noose their necks in a perceived desperation play under guise that no other options exist. If you’re trying to find another Tom Brady, you’re going to be searching a long time. If you’re looking for a steady QB who can grow into the position over time, with a chance to eventually become elite (and be compensated as such), not nearly as difficult to find and hone. The ridiculous contracts that float around aren’t going away. But it doesn’t hurt to ask these QB’s to go earn it.