The great quarterback salary debate will always be timely. As young, electric passers slowly reach the end of their rookie contracts, the best of the best will beg the question: How much is too much to pay a quarterback?
Can owners and general managers put a price on wins? Or a Super Bowl victory?
The answer is limited to the team’s salary cap space, but more so on executives’ ability to move within that space while still paying a top quarterback their worth. The NFL’s best quarterbacks will garner the most money or at least finesse their way into a top contract and either way, they’ll deserve it.
Analytics will tell you no team has won a Super Bowl with a passer who has taken up more than 13.1% of a team’s salary, and Sports Illustrated’s Grant Cohn went even further to note that percentage could be as low as 12.2. The last player to accomplish the feat was Steve Young, whose salary took up 13.08% with the 49ers in 1994.
While the analytics are against, say Dak Prescott, who is the next quarterback up for a market-setting contract and Super Bowl 54 MVP Patrick Mahomes after him, it doesn’t mean it can’t happen; it just means the sample size is currently too small for it to exist. Shifting the blame from team owners and general managers responsible for making a roster work with what they have to an elite quarterback is where we can begin to poke holes in the analytics-based argument. Why is the onus, now, on Prescott to build a winning team while making a top figure instead of the actual team-builders, in this case, the Jones family?
The quarterback market was set with Andrew Luck, who penned a $24.6 million per year deal in 2016, the fifth year of his rookie contract. A litany of passers jumped Luck, including Matthew Stafford ($27 million per year), Jimmy Garoppolo ($27.5 million per year), Kirk Cousins (at $28 million per year prior to his 2020 extension) and Matt Ryan, who become the NFL’s first $30 million quarterback. The ceiling for a franchise passer continues to balloon. Aaron Rodgers pushed the per year average to $33.5 million in 2018 and Russell Wilson followed at $35 million per year in 2019.
When you look at the success of these quarterbacks since 2016, the lack of Super Bowl wins isn’t correlated with their market value. The blown lead in Super Bowl 51 by Ryan’s Falcons wasn’t a direct result of his compensation and just because Garoppolo couldn’t beat the Mahomes-led Chiefs in Super Bowl 54 doesn’t mean he isn’t worth what the 49ers are paying him; he nearly fits the definition of a system quarterback and San Francisco was right to up the anty to keep him performing at a high-level in that system.
Prescott’s ongoing negotiations with the Cowboys give him more leverage. Dallas failed to present an adequate offer Prescott couldn’t refuse last year, and he can point to his career-high passing yards (4,902) and touchdowns (30) in 2019 to show he, at soon-to-be 27 years old, is just hitting his prime.
So, why are Prescott and the Cowboys at an impasse? Is Dallas unable to build around Prescott if they pay him what he wants? He already turned down a reported five-year, $175 million offer and wants “north of $45 million” in the final season of his new contract. It’s difficult to envision Prescott anywhere else and the very nature of negotiating tactics will push any agreement right up to the July 15 deadline, but he still might not see that figure from the Cowboys.
“There’s all sorts of analytics out there that show if your quarterback takes up too big a percentage of your salary cap, that it decreases your chances to win,” Executive vice president Stephen Jones said in May, via The Dallas Morning News. “We’re just trying to figure out the right fit.
“No one wants to sign Dak to a longer-term deal more than [owner] Jerry [Jones] and myself. We’re on the record time and time again of what we think of him as a leader. He has the ‘it’ factor. He’s a fierce competitor. He wants to win as well. It’s just got to be right for him and right for us. We’ll continue to work to a conclusion on that.”
Stephen Jones can chalk up the months-long talks up to analytics, but sooner or later that argument is going to be disproven. While it might not be with Prescott or, if we look at the five highest-paid passers right now, Wilson with their respective teams’ rosters, Mahomes certainly can.
Kansas City exercised the fifth-year option on Mahomes’ rookie deal and will do everything in its power to keep the star quarterback following the 2020 season. If the question now becomes how much is too much to pay Mahomes then an obvious answer is whatever the heck he wants. The Chiefs aren’t close to the top of their division without Mahomes under center, and if Prescott is going to get anywhere close to the $45 million he wants in one season, Mahomes could push for $48 million; $50 million isn’t out of the question.
If a quarterback’s play calls for an absurdly high contract then paying them to keep up that elite level of play isn’t as debatable as people make it seem. Pay quarterbacks what they’re worth. Prescott, the passer, has proved his despite the Cowboys coming off an 8-8 season. If team executives make poor decisions and take unnecessary risks on surrounding players, why fault the one player who is actually making things work?