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Expensive quarterbacks, football’s final frontier, and Howie Roseman’s gambit

If the Eagles win the Super Bowl with Carson Wentz under center, they will have solved one of modern football’s most challenging puzzles

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Before I dig into this post (which is almost 2400 words, you’ve been warned), a quick shoutout to how awesome Malcolm Jenkins is for reporting to minicamp. He would have had the public support of the vast majority of the fanbase should he have decided to hold out, and yet he set an example for young rising players by accepting what I assume was a good faith gesture from management. Hopefully the front office returns the favor in due time. He also gets the Eagles out of the bind of potentially either looking like they’re complete stiffs to their best players or looking like they’ll cave to any productive player who demands more money. All in all, this should be a win-win-win for everyone involved as long as a deal gets done.

Now, onto the player who actually did get more money from the Eagles - franchise quarterback Carson Wentz. The Eagles’ signal caller received a historic 4-year, $128M extension late last week, with $66M guaranteed at signing and $107.9M guaranteed overall. Taken with his current contract, it comes out to a 6-year, $154M deal with a $25.8M annual average value.

A lot has been said about the contract, so I’m going to try and avoid rehashing as much as I can. We all know how it’s a great deal for both sides and how the $32M AAV of the extension doesn’t kick in for 2 more years. But I wanted to focus on something that has been touched on lightly in the comments and in some posts: the ability to pay for other quality talent so you are able to compete with your expensive quarterback under center. More specifically, I’m going to discuss the historical impacts of what I’ll call “The Curse of 13” and “Salary Cap Blackjack,” and how the challenges they present to building a championship roster represent football’s final frontier.

The Curse of 13

This is probably a statistic you’ve heard before: no team who has won the Super Bowl employed a quarterback that consumed more than 13% of the salary cap. This is especially a favorite of Patriots fans, who can say this because they have a quarterback who is paid under his market value because Bob Kraft funnels money into his shell company he is technically the supplementary earner in his own household.

Technically, the figure is 13.1%, and this was actually accomplished in 1994, the very first year the salary cap was implemented. That season, Steve Young led the San Francisco 49ers to their fifth Super Bowl win, defeating the San Diego Chargers 49-26 in a drubbing that featured 6 touchdown passes by Young, which is a record that still stands to this day. He was paid $4.43M that season, which is 13.1% of the $33.8M salary cap - a number that seems hilariously low today.

Since then, no team has accomplished this feat. The closest was Peyton Manning in 2015, but he was dragged to that win by the defense more than being instrumental in the victory. Of course, this begs the question: with the salary cap steadily increasing ($11M per year since 2013, in fact), how much cap space will Carson’s monster contract actually consume?

Thankfully, through the miracle of spreadsheets, I can answer this in table form (all figures from Spotrac):

This projection assumes the cap continues to increase by $11M per season into the new CBA (we’ll touch on this later) and that his $32M AAV of the extension is equally prorated (which isn’t necessarily true). None of his extension cap hits are below the 13% threshold, but they are close. On the flip side, since 1994 the average salary of a Super Bowl winning quarterback was 6.9% of the cap (nice), and he will more than double that from 2021-2023. So, history is not on the Eagles’ side, but that doesn’t mean it needs to repeat itself.

And of course, there is something else we need to consider: everyone else on the team gets paid, too.

Salary Cap Blackjack

There is another statistic about player salaries and winning Super Bowls that is not tossed around as much as the “13% quarterback” factoid: no team that has spent more than 21.6% of its cap on its two highest-paid players has ever won a Super Bowl. That team that spent the 21.6% was... you guessed it, the 1994 San Francisco 49ers, who devoted 21.6% of their salary cap to Steve Young and Jerry Rice. So if we’re looking at that 21.6% figure, how will the Eagles compare with their two highest-paid players? Once again, a spreadsheet saves the day (all figures from Spotrac):

So, a couple things to get out of the way here first. The asterisk (*) in 2023-2024 is due to the fact that the only other player signed through those seasons is Brandon Graham, and even if he sees the end of this contract it is unlikely that he will be the second highest-paid player on the team. So I projected that, by 2023, Dillard will have signed an extension earning him $25M per year. If you want to argue that a left tackle wouldn’t make that kind of money, fine, but that’s not really the point - by 2023, quarterbacks will (presumably) be making north of $40M annually. Another position making $25M is not out of the realm of possibility, and personally paying the blindside protector $15M less than the quarterback himself felt reasonable. But if it really bothers you, just pretend it’s someone else.

The table also assumes that the players under contract through 2022 - Wentz and Cox - will see all of that money. A lot can change in 4 years, and perhaps Cox has signed an extension that lowers his cap hit at that time for money later, or perhaps he has been cut, or traded, or retired - but his cap hits for those seasons is in the $22M range, and like I said about Dillard above, to me it seemed reasonable that someone on the team is making that kind of money. I doubt that Howie is worried about 21.6% enough to let premiere talent at premiere positions walk. I just left it as Cox because he had real figures that I can use.

Now, looking at the actual numbers themselves, the Eagles will be well north of 21.6% for their two highest-paid players once Carson’s fifth year option kicks in for the 2020 season. The highest disparity comes in 2021, the first year of Carson’s extension, where he and Cox will consume 26% of the projected cap. That 5% difference might not seem like much in a relative sense, but with the projected numbers it’s still $10.5M. That sounds like more than enough to prevent the Eagles from signing a critical player (or two, or three) that pushes them over the edge into Super Bowl contention.

If you’re looking for a take that’s a little more palatable, it’s worth mentioning that the 2016 Falcons - who shoulda-coulda-woulda beaten the Patriots in the Super Bowl - had almost 25% of their cap devoted to Matt Ryan and Julio Jones (another QB/WR combination, interestingly enough). That figure is much closer to what the Eagles are projected to be spending on 2 players, and it can be argued that the Falcons had the talent in place to win the big game, but blew it in coaching and game management. Ultimately, making them an exception would mean I’d have to go and analyze the spending of almost Super Bowl winners back to 1994, and that simply did not seem like a worthwhile exercise when we’re talking about hypotheticals anyway. So I stuck with the line of Super Bowl winners, which has to exclude the Falcons, regardless of how that game played out.

I’ll also say there’s one more layer deeper I could go with this. As it turns out, the most successful teams in recent years spend approximately 60% of their salary cap on their top 10 highest-paid players. I ignored this because looking at 2 players is already enough guesswork. Trying to project the salaries of 10 players 6 years into the future is simply a fool’s errand. But it is something worth keeping an eye on moving forward.

The Bottom Line

If the Eagles win any (or all?) of the Super Bowls between 2020-2024, they will have done so as pioneers on a lonely frontier, flying in the face of recent history in terms of cap spending and accomplishing a feat no team has managed since 1994 (unless another team does it first in the meantime, but we won’t think about that). It’s obvious that the idea of building a Super Bowl-winning roster with an expensive quarterback has proven to be a riddle no general manager can solve over the past few decades. So the question becomes - how do you do it?

Bucky Brooks of penned a good piece on how to build a championship team around a high-priced quarterback back when Wilson signed his extension in April. The whole thing is worth a read, but here are the highlights:

  • Hit on all first-round draft picks
  • Have structured development for younger players
  • Invest draft picks/free agent capital on one side of the ball and allow the other side to develop

Those points might sound like stating the obvious - doesn’t every team try to develop young players and hit on first round draft picks? - but it might be better viewed as having a sense of urgency to mitigate the risk of failure for all of those steps, all the time. Once you’ve secured your franchise quarterback, you can’t just do due diligence. You have to leave no stone left unturned. You have to dot your i’s and cross your t’s. You have to quadruple check your homework. You have to run your team so efficiently and meticulously that the virtual probability that you bust on a high round draft pick or that a young player is still trying to “get it” after 3 seasons is essentially zero.

Considering the inherent risks involved in drafting a player, signing a free agent, or hiring a coach, mitigating failure to this degree seems like a near-impossible task. And, if you read through the first half of this post, history has borne this out. While this may seem like bad news for the Eagles, take a look at Bucky’s list again and ask yourself if the Eagles have been following this model. Have they not invested Day 1 and Day 2 draft picks on high-floor, high-value players? Have they not made a concerted effort to get young players on the field to get real-game reps, especially at critical positions like cornerback, defensive line, and offensive line? Have they not focused free agency primarily on one side of the ball (offense) and relied on development in the other side (defense)? That last one might be better viewed from a position-by-position standpoint, but to some degree I feel you can answer “yes” to all of these questions. And I’m not trying to say Bucky Brooks is some kind of genius that every team needs to listen to for advice. Again, he’s stating the obvious, but the devil in the details is that his points need to be afforded an additional level of care and consideration when you’re doling out a lot of dough for your quarterback. From where I stand, the Eagles’ front office has certainly taken this extra step when building their roster in anticipation of Carson’s massive contract.

But like I said before, luck still plays a part in all of this. Draft picks will bust. Players will get hurt. Coaches will fail. The brutal chaos of the NFL yearly cycle has ruined the seasons of even the most meticulously curated rosters. Howie knows this all too well, having just given $108M to a player who has had the misfortune of missing the last two playoff runs due to injury. He is not going to rest on the laurels of how diligently he builds the roster. No, he has one more trick up his sleeve, a gambit that he believes will prove to be his ace-in-the-hole: the new collective bargaining agreement.

You may notice in the tables above that 2021 serves as a “high water mark” of sorts for cap share. In another recent post, BGN’s Benjamin Solak highlights how Roseman has pushed a lot of prorated signing bonuses into 2021 as well. That is because 2021 is an important year in the NFL - pending some kind of disaster, it will be the first year of a new collective bargaining agreement, which dictates how the salary cap is calculated. This new CBA might be the biggest gamble of Howie’s career as a de facto general manager.

To me, Howie is essentially hedging his bets that increases in cap space will go up dramatically with the new CBA. This seems like a good bet with the coming advent of legal gambling in football boosting revenue, but it is not without risks. There are a lot of (rightful) demands the players will make, and healthcare will be one of the hottest issues. After all, we have the league pushing for an 18-game season while former players start GoFundMes to cover medical expenses. This doesn’t even mention the various lawsuits against the NFL for their healthcare coverage that are still ongoing. It is not unreasonable that the owners might use a guarantee of lifetime health insurance for the players as a bargaining chit to negotiate for a less aggressive expansion in the salary cap. This is all conjecture, of course, but the point is that a large jump in the salary cap with the new CBA is not a given. And it’s what Roseman is banking on to bring more championships to Philadelphia.

At this point, all we can do is wait and see if Roseman’s bets pay off or if the chickens come home to roost. In the meantime, Wentz is still on a reasonable salary for this season and next, giving the team an added edge to their Super Bowl window. And even if the new CBA doesn’t break the Eagles’ way, the anticipation of finding that out will serve as entertainment itself - proving once again that while following the Eagles might be frustrating, exasperating, and even heartbreaking at times, it is never boring.


Assuming Howie is playing 5D chess with the new CBA, do you think his gamble pays off?

This poll is closed

  • 70%
    (504 votes)
  • 3%
    (28 votes)
  • 25%
    I dunno, man
    (181 votes)
713 votes total Vote Now

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