Detroit Did the Right Thing in Paying Stafford

The Detroit Lions just made Matthew Stafford the highest paid QB in the NFL and in NFL history. And as is bound to happen just about every time another QB is given a massive contract, the “should they have done it, should they not have done it” debate starts once again, with your fair of share of pundits and fans blasting the deal. I wrote about the question of whether it’s worth it to give a Quarterback–often one that isn’t an “elite” (ie Brady, Rodgers, Brees) guy–a huge contract when Brock Osweiler went to Houston and when Adam Gase signed Jay Cutler. But every situation is different, and seeing as how this debate always seems to come up, it’s always worth revisiting, as I intend to do now with Stafford. People get very passionate and intense about this stuff, but as with most things, the answer is rarely as clear cut as people make it out to be, and as I often try to do, I’ll attempt to look at the situation from as many angles as I can.

People often get shocked by the raw numbers of these deals, and understandably so. Money is an emotional issue, and a lot of people who watch the NFL probably will never see that kind of money in their lives. That in and of itself is enough to cause a negative reaction. But I think there are always a few things we have to keep in mind when looking at these giant numbers in order to help keep things in perspective and evaluate these deals objectively:

    1. NFL Contracts are rarely fully guaranteed, and players hardly ever play out their entire deal. This fact makes NFL contracts look a lot bigger than they actually are. It’s important to not look at the total number, but instead look at the guaranteed money and how it’s spread out over the years.
    2. Even the respective salaries of the richest NFL Quarterbacks probably shouldn’t be viewed just back to back, as that paints somewhat of a skewed picture. They need to be viewed with respect to what the market and salary cap were like at the time they made the deal. For example, it may seem strange that Matt Stafford is being paid more than Aaron Rodgers, but Aaron Rodgers’s deal was likely the highest when he signed it. The market doesn’t exist in isolation, and all these deals are essentially being crafted in response to the others. (I don’t really speak economics, but this piece seemed to do a good job explaining how the raw numbers can be misleading.)
    3. Athletes get paid a lot of money. It might not seem fair, but it’s just the way things work in society.
    4. The money these players are making is chump change compared to what the NFL owners are making. If the owners are getting paid so much, why shouldn’t the players? They’re the ones that are doing the heavy lifting.
    5. The NFL’s attitude toward Quarterbacks is different than its attitude toward almost every other position. With most players, teams think strictly in terms of value and don’t hesitate to let good players go if they’re asking for what they view as too much money. With Quarterbacks, teams tend to be a lot more generous. That doesn’t mean it’s justified, but with the mostly hardball philosophy the NFL employs–I can’t speak for other sports, don’t know if they do it that way too–the Quarterback position tends to stand out because of how different it’s done compared to the other positions. If other positions were paid as much as QBs were, we wouldn’t notice it as much.

Anyway, none of this is to say these big contracts are (or aren’t) justified. I just think it’s important to keep this stuff in mind when thinking about these deals and all the money that’s being tossed around. Because a lot of the negative sentiment seems to stem from people just being upset at how much money these guys get paid. But there’s more to it than that.

Anyway, back to Stafford. He’s currently the highest paid QB and player in the NFL. Is he worth the money?

Again, it’s easy in theory to say that QBss should be paid relative to the value they provide a team–that is to say, the QB pay tree should look almost identical to a QB rankings list. But as I alluded to above (see bullet (2)), the market is reactive. These seemingly huge QB deals probably started when Joe Flacco–a slightly above average QB who was coming off a spectacular postseason hot streak (which he was unable to maintain into subsequent seasons)–signed his megadeal after winning Superbowl 47. That created somewhat of a domino effect, as it set a benchmark for what other players could point to when negotiating their deals.

I’ve talked about that before, so I won’t go into it too much again here. But the bottom line is that because of how the market is set up, QBs have a lot of leverage. So Stafford, just like Flacco and all those before him, was never going to sign a middle of the pack deal. So when we evaluate this deal, we have to understand that in reality, Detroit had two options: Either pay him, or let him go.

One of my favorite NFL analysts, Scott Kascmar of Football Outsiders, has never been one afraid to go against conventional wisdom, and he is often an outspoken critic of deals like the one Stafford signed. He’s an avid tweeter whom I follow a great deal, and his arguments are certainly compelling. He spoke out against the Stafford deal, and his argument is similar to the one I presented above, namely, that top money should be reserved for top QBs, and that if a QB is unwilling to accept a deal that is more in line with his relative value, then the team should move on from said QB. Paying a non-elite QB elite money means being stuck in 8-8 purgatory, as it does not allow a team enough money to build up the rest of the team sufficiently. And there only a few QBs who can consistently overcome roster deficiencies to reach the playoffs, and these are the elite guys for whom top dollar should be reserved for.

It’s an argument that I struggle with, both because I think that these guys deserve to get paid and make as much money as they can (no one should be knocked for trying to make money, especially in a profession that leaves you more often than not injured for life), and because it’s really hard for coaches and general managers whose jobs rely on winning games to move forward without anyone at QB. But pragmatically it makes a lot of sense.

I’ve explored this philosophical debate in depth in my previous articles, and I’m sympathetic to both sides. And we’re starting to see more scenarios in which teams are willing to pass up paying Quarterbacks who they view as replaceable. Denver passed up paying Osweiler to start Siemian. The Jets, last year, played hardball with Fitzpatrick after his anomalous 2015 season. And the Redskins continue to use the franchise tag on Kirk Cousins rather than give him a long term deal (although ironically, they seem to be costing themselves more money in doing so). We’ll see what happens there, but the previous two scenarios, in retrospect, were both the right moves. Siemian was not great, but his 2016 was much better than Osweiler’s, and his flaws are easier to work around than Osweiler’s. More importantly, the Broncos want to keep their top defense together, something they would struggle doing if they had paid Osweiler. The Jets were right in thinking that Fitzpatrick’s 2015 was an anomaly, and he’s off the team now. Then there were the Eagles with Nick Foles back when Chip Kelly was the head coach. Although their plan was to roll with Bradford (who only started one so-so season with them before Kelly was fired and Wentz was drafted), they didn’t hesitate to give up Foles. He’s no longer a starter, and the Eagles seem to have their QB of the future in Carson Wentz.

The counterargument is always, if you don’t pay this guy, then who’s the QB? Kacsmar on Twitter, when asked about the last example of a team moving on from a high level QB and being successful, gave the example of the Bengals moving on from Carson Palmer to Andy Dalton in 2011, and then proceeding to make the postseason for the next 5 years. It’s not strictly analogous because the Palmers dispute with the Bengals was not about money. Rather, Palmer just didn’t want to play for the Bengals anymore. Nonetheless, it’s still a good example of a team that was able to move on from a highly respected, high level Quarterback, and maintain success. QBs certainly are not a dime a dozen, but the thinking behind the “let him go” mindset seems to be that the difference between a slightly below average to average QB and an average to slightly above average QB is not worth the difference in money and wins that it will cost you, and if you don’t have an elite QB, focusing on team building is more important. The other part of that argument is that average QBs aren’t as hard to find as people may think:

rudock
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What Kacsmar wisely articulates here is that lots of people pay QBs (or defend QBs being paid) because they are afraid of the alternative (with regard to that first tweet, Jake Rudock is Stafford’s current backup). But letting your current guy go doesn’t mean going into QB purgatory. Kacsmar gave the example of the Bengals landing on Dalton in 2011. I already mentioned Siemian and Bradford filling in well for, if not playing being better than, Osweiler and Foles did in Denver and Philly, respectably. Then you have Houston who made the playoffs back to back years with Ryan Fitzpatrick one year and then Brian Hoyer the next. They didn’t have the best QB in the division, but they had the best defense, and that turned out to be more important.

These are all excellent arguments about team building and value, and I’ll come back to them later, but for now I’d like to focus specifically on Stafford and his specific value to Detroit as a player.

The Case Against Stafford

The best argument against paying Stafford this kind of money is that the Lions simply haven’t been that good since he joined. To be fair, they’ve been better than they were before he got there, but it hasn’t resulted in playoff appearances or wins. Here’s a listing of how well the Lions have done each year with Stafford <wikipedia>:

2009 (Started 10 games): 2-14 (4th in NFC North, Missed Playoffs)
2010 (Started 3 games): 6-10 (3rd in NFC North, Missed Playoffs)
2011: 10-6 (2nd in NFC North, Lost in the WC Round at New Orleans, 28-45)
2012: 4-12 (4th in NFC North, Missed Playoffs)
2013: 7-9 (3rd in NFC North, Missed Playoffs)
2014: 11-5 (2nd in NFC North, Lost in the WC Round at Dallas, 20-24)
2015: 7-9 (3rd in NFC North, Missed Playoffs)
2016: 9-7 (2nd in NFC North, Lost in the WC Round at Seattle, 6-26)

Overall that’s 8 seasons, 0 first place finishes,  3 second place finishes, 3 third place finishes, 2 fourth place finishes, 3 playoff appearances, and 0 playoff wins.

Even more concerning, however, is Stafford’s 5-46 record against teams with a winning record. Wins and losses aren’t all on the Quarterback, but that’s an abysmal number, and I think is the best argument against Matthew Stafford being paid this much. (A few examples I dug up for comparison’s sake: Andrew Luck had 4 wins of the sort in 2013 alone, Carson Palmer had 4 in 2015 alone, and Matt Ryan had 4 in 2010 alone. (Those numbers could be wrong but I double checked and am pretty sure they’re correct.))

Despite Detroit’s relative lack of success with Stafford at the helm, I still think he’s worth the money for the following reasons:

Stafford is a Unique Talent

It’s important not to get swept away by and judge a Quarterback solely on his physical attributes. You can have a good arm and still not be a good Quarterback. Jay Cutler was a guy who was always given extra chances because of his immense arm talent yet was never really able to be anything more than average. Cam Newton is another guy who, outside of his 2015 season, has not been anything special compared to his peers, yet because of his immense physical gifts, people continue to mistakenly view him as a top 10 player at the position.

Having said that, arm strength does matter, as it allows you to make throws that others simply aren’t capable of making. It’s been evident that Stafford has had a big time arm ever since his college days. It’s the reason he was the No 1 overall pick in the draft, and it’s always evident on film. The ball just comes out of his hand differently than it does with other Quarterbacks. He also has relatively quick feet and a quick release and can throw from nearly any platform. This allows him to be a unique asset at the position with the throws he is able to make.

Stafford is Very Important to the Detroit Offense

The Lions under Stafford always have thrown the ball a lot more than most teams. Sometimes the result is good, sometimes not so much, but there are few Quarterbacks that would be able to handle the type of workload he’s often given. With Stafford at QB, you’re never out of a game.

Furthermore, with the offense they currently run under Jim Bob Cooter, Stafford is asked to do a lot before the snap. Jim Bob was an Offensive Assistant to the Indianapolis Colts from 2009-2011, and the offense he runs with Stafford is somewhat similar to the one Peyton Manning used to run. It uses a lot of static formations (no pre-snap motion) from the shotgun, and Stafford is asked to identify the defense, adjust the play accordingly, and isolate the correct matchup. The Lions don’t have a ton of athletes on offense, and as a result, they rely on lots of quick, short passes to move the ball. Stafford making the right read and throw is imperative to that working successfully. It’s an offensive identity that relies on him as the centerpiece (they had to change to this after Calvin Johnson retired), and it’s not clear who would pick up the slack without him. His value to this offense was apparent last year, as evidenced by his 8 fourth quarter comebacks <pfref>.

Stafford Has been an Ascendant Player the Last 2 Years

There’s always been somewhat of a gap between Stafford’s talent level and his production. He’s always flashed, but he’s never really been able to produce on a consistent week-to-week basis. I maintain that 2011 was his best season by far (5038 yards, 41 touchdowns, and 7.6 Y/A), and I was expecting big things after that year. It didn’t really happen. 2012 was a big step back with a lot of stats padded by garbage time and volume of pass attempts, and he’s been for the most part up and down ever since.

Early on in his career, Stafford started to show some problematic tendencies, mainly related to a lack of discipline. He would often get sloppy with his fundamentals. His footwork could be erratic, but most worrisome were his throwing mechanics and his tendency to sidearm throws that didn’t need to be sidearmed. I always got the sense that then head coach of the lions Jim Schwartz, as well as possibly offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, ended up exacerbating these issues by failing to address them early on when they should have, and even excusing them (if I’m correctly recalling comments made by Schwartz at the time).

The Lions hired Jim Schwartz in 2014, in part to help instill more discipline in Stafford. The Offensive Coordinator was Joe Lombardi, who had previously been on the offensive staff with the Saints. The Lions essentially ran the Saints offense, which I never saw as a great fit for Stafford considering the amount of nuance and precision it requires (think about how Drew Brees plays the position). But the hope was that it would help Stafford. The Lions made the playoffs that year and Stafford had some nice 4th quarter moments, but overall it was a step back for the offense, and it was the defense that help propelled the Lions to the playoffs (a defense that for every other year Stafford has been in Detroit, really hasn’t been anything more than average).

The next year, the 2015 season, the Lions started the season 1-7 with Stafford playing poorly. Joe Lombardi was fired and the Lions promoted Jim Bob Cooter, the Quarterbacks coach, to Offensive Coordinator. The results were excellent. Stafford finished the season on a hot streak, as did the Lions, who went 6-2 in their last 8 games mainly thanks to the improved play of Stafford. The following season (last), Stafford showed that his improved play was no anomaly. Stafford had his lowing interception percentage since 2010 (a year in which he played only three games).

Stafford was always similar to Jay Cutler in that he was a tremendous talent but had too little discipline in his game. People, like they did with Cutler, would always make a big deal about the interceptions. But with those two I would argue that the little things were even more problematic. Footwork. Mechanics. Playing within the timing of the offense. Dropping back and getting rid of the ball on time. They both would make the headscratching throws more than they should. But they also failed to keep the offense running the way it needed to in order to have consistent execution.

Stafford and Jim Bob Cooter were on the same page from the start, something Stafford has made abundantly clear. And that’s so important for a Quarterback. But even moreso, Jim Bob Cooter deserves credit for fundamentally transforming the way Stafford plays the game. He’s still a gunslinger at heart. But Jim Bob honed in those gunslinger tendencies. He did it mostly with a lot of quick throws. His offense demands that you get the ball out quickly within the timing of the play. He reined in Stafford just enough. Now Stafford does the little things right when he needs to, but is still capable of making tremendous throws when he has to. That skill doesn’t go away and never would. He’s just added to Stafford’s game so that he can be a more consistent player.

This, more than anything else, is why Stafford is deserving of his contract. Under Jim Bob Cooter, he’s been an incredibly efficient ball distributor, rather than an inconsistent, undisciplined gunslinger.

As I mentioned earlier, Stafford and the offense arguably had to change when Calvin Johnson retired. Stafford could always rely on Megatron to bail him out. He could force it to Megatron and toss it up into coverage, even if it was outside the timing of the play, and more often than not Megatron would come down with it. With Calvin Johnson, Stafford didn’t really have to play with timing.

Now, without one guy that causes matchup issues for the defense, the offense has to win through scheme, and the Quarterback has to be the centerpoint. He has to consistently execute with precision in order to create offense. This always would have helped Stafford and the offense, but without Calvin Johnson, it’s more urgent than ever that he plays this way.

Stafford’s improvement carried on through almost of his last season until a late season injury to his throwing hand seemed to diminish his play a little bit. But make no mistake, it’s evident watching the Lions that Stafford is a different player than he used to be, and in the context of that scheme, he’s incredibly valuable to that offense.

All Quarterbacks, Even Elite Ones, Play Better with a Good Team

Kacsmar makes the point that big time money should be reserved for the few elite Quarterbacks that can overcome a flawed roster and consistently carry poor defenses to the playoffs, often playing in shootouts to do so.

There is no doubt that there is a small class of elite Quarterbacks that can do this. But I’d like to counter Kacsmar’s point with the following: If the goal is to win a Superbowl, and devoting too much money to the Quarterback makes it harder to do that, then why even pay the elite guys big money?

Because as good as those elite Quarterbacks are, even they have trouble winning Superbowls on their own. No one can, really. Aaron Rodgers won his only ring when his defense didn’t suck. The same can be said for Drew Brees. Both of those guys have struggled to elevate their team’s play after signing huge contracts. Though they are still able to do so, it’s clear that they are both essentially running one man shows. Peyton Manning is arguably the greatest Quarterback of all time, and even he was only able to win his 2 Superbowl rings when his teams stepped up in the Postseason. And then you have Tom Brady. He won 3 rings with an all time great defense in his first 5 years. He then didn’t win another one for 10 years. He’s been able to play at a transcendent level for his last 2 Superbowl wins and deserves all the credit in the world for doing so. But we still can’t neglect to mention that the Patriots are the best organizations in the NFL with arguably the best coach of all time. They are able to outscheme teams to oblivion, and are tremendous at getting cheap but talented players that fit their system. In short, they’ve essentially been able to beat the salary cap era and keep really good teams around Brady even while they are paying him. Has his play been spectacular during those two postseason runs? Of course. Was he still afforded help other elite QBs simply don’t get? Yes, he was. Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers’ defenses wouldn’t hold during a 28-3 deficit. They wouldn’t pick off a pass at the 1 yard line with the game on the line. Even someone as transcendentally great as Brady, who will be the Greatest of All Time if he maintains this level of play deep into his 40s, would not be where he is without the help he gets from his team and organization.

Russell Wilson’s going to get paid, and it’s going to be much harder for his team to have the consistent postseason success it’s had with him living off of his cheap 3rd round pick deal. And what about Andrew Luck?? For everything that’s great about the Patriots, that’s how bad the Colts organization is. He’s the best QB in that division and arguably a top 6 QB in the NFL, and even that wasn’t enough to make the playoffs last year. They’re a 2 win team without him, but with all the money they’re paying him and the fact that the roster is barely any better than it was when he was a rookie, it’s hard to see them getting back into the playoffs, let alone winning a Superbowl.

I get that it’s hard to win a Superbowl. I get that for most teams, it starts with having a winning season and making the playoffs. And I get that the great QBs can do that consistently. All I’m saying is that if we’re talking about the ultimate goal–winning the Superbowl–Kacsmar’s argument that having too much money tied up into the QB makes it harder, if not impossible, to have success, even applies to the elite guys who Kacsmar believes are deserving of big money.

The Lions Were Always Going to Pay Stafford

These are fascinating conversations to have from our armchair, but at the end of the day, I guarantee you that no one in the Detroit Lions organization for a second even considered letting Stafford go. When you find a good QB, you take care of him. That isn’t to say that everything an organization does is always right, but it is to say that moving forward without a QB is a lot bigger bullet to bite when your job depends on it.

In Conclusion

There’s no right answer and every situation is different. When it comes to paying or not paying the Quarterback, both sides make excellent points and its a discussion I’m sure will come up again and again. I’ve done my best to present both sides of the argument here, and while I am sympathetic to the strictly business side of things, I can’t get myself to endorse the notion that letting a QB as good as Stafford go is a good move.

We can’t generalize here because as I said, every QB is different. I’m not a business guy, so I don’t always see it from that cold, calculating side. However, I’m beginning to understand that there are situations where not always paying the QB is a good move. And I think teams are too. When you look at guys Tannehill, Kaepernick, Dalton, Cutler, and Newton, that all got big deals, I totally understand all of them, but I also get why those might be questionable and why you might be paying for a little more than they’re worth.

But I also think the idea that “we have to just give up if we don’t have an elite guy” is a tough pill to swallow for NFL organizations. Because there simply aren’t that many of those guys that can win in any situation no matter what. And I think when you have a guy that’s above average, you think that guy gives you the best chance to win. For most of Stafford’s career, he’s been around the line of average. He still has a lot to prove with this deal, but I do believe that his ascendance under Jim Bob Cooter has pushed him up from the Tannehill/Cutler tier and closer to where a guy like Matt Ryan is (probably just below the elite tier). He’s not there yet, but with guys that good, you trust in your chance to win with them.

Just to go back to team building quickly here. Kacsmar’s argument is also that the Lions are already at a disadvantage playing in the same division as Aaron Rodgers, and that they aren’t equipped to win shootouts with him, so it would be better to rely on defense. He points to Mark Sanchez and the Jets, who did a great job against Bill Belichik’s Patriots from 09-10.

This is an example I often think of when it comes to team building. Mark Sanchez was a bottom 15 Quarterback, but his team was so good that they were still able to win. In those two years, Rex Ryan beat Philip Rivers at home, Peyton Manning at home, Tom Brady at home, and was a 4th and Goal stop away from beating Ben Roethlisberger at home. That’s pretty incredible, and it shows that defense truly does win championships… or at least get you hella close.

However, we can’t neglect to mention that after 2010, Ryan’s Jets fell apart. The defense and run game sunk a little bit from their perch of best in the league, and Sanchez simply wasn’t good enough to carry the team by himself. So I think this comes back to the point that I was making just now. As Kacsmar articulates so well, it’s hard to win a shootout without a truly elite quarterback. But the counter to that is, it’s hard to win defensive battles without a truly elite defense. If you have just an average or below average Quarterback, your defense has to be phenomenal. Which is to say, while Kacsmar accurately articulates the dilemma of paying a non-elite QB and trying to win shootouts with him, I think he somewhat underestimates how hard it is to win without a QB, and overestimates how replaceable these guys really are.

Stafford’s not elite, but he’s been a really good Quarterback, and I think he’s worth the money. Even though it’s a tough pill to swallow, I think the Lions did the right thing in signing him.

So Matt Stafford, if you’re reading this, you better go out there and have a great season and make the playoffs. Don’t prove me wrong!!!!

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What is the Value of a Quarterback?

It seems like everytime a Quarterback not named Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers is handed a new contract, criticism is rampant. For years on end now, it seems like Quarterbacks have been given massive contracts that tend to eat up most of the salary cap. Many people often think that these players are not worth this type of money, as it used to be reserved for top-notch starters like Peyton Manning, Quarterbacks who were good enough that they could compensate for other areas of the team that were weak. This supposed jump in Quarterback salary likely started with Joe Flacco’s Superbowl XLVII run in 2012. At the start of that season, the Ravens chose not to offer Joe Flacco a new deal but instead let him play out the season. This was an understandable move in some respects as Joe Flacco had been a decent, but inconsistent starter up to that point, and the Ravens were a team built on running the football and playing strong defense.

That season, Joe Flacco essentially  bet on himself and won. He got hot at the right time and led the Ravens to a Superbowl victory, earning Superbowl MVP in the process. He had a tremendous postseason, throwing for 1140 yards, 9 yards per attempt, 11 touchdowns and no interceptions, and a passer rating of 117.2. At the end of the season, he knew he had the Ravens in a bind. He asked for big time money, and of course, they paid up. It was likely either that or let Joe Flacco hit the market. Letting Joe Flacco go after a Superbowl win would be a PR nightmare. Plus, they wouldn’t have a Quarterback.

It could be argued that that point changed the market for Quarterbacks as Flacco’s salary essentially became the asking price/market price for your average starter. It gave Quarterbacks and agents leverage. So since that point, we’ve seen a lot of non-elite Quarterbacks been given big time contracts. (Assuming “elite guys” are the top 3-5 guys, ie Brady, Rodgers, and Brees, that can win no matter who you put around them.) Some of these “non-elite” starters that have been given big money–and often criticized in the process–include Jay Cutler, Andy Dalton, Ryan Tannehill, Colin Kaepernick, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Matthew Stafford, and I believe since then the Ravens even gave Joe Flacco a second big contract.

Now, it is worth saying that a lot of these contract numbers are misleading. NFL contracts are almost never guaranteed and players almost never play out the entire deal. A lot of people just look at the raw number and assume that’s what the player is getting paid, and this is rarely the case. And there are a lot of people that have a problem with athletes getting paid so much money, or asking for so much money. (There are even some people who think that even when only looking at the guaranteed money, that Quarterbacks are still getting paid too much.) I would disagree with this stance, A) because NFL players are at risk of suffering severe, debilitating lifelong injuries, and B) because what players get paid is negligible compared to the money the owners make.

But that’s a conversation for another day. Putting aside the question of whether Quarterbacks, or even players in general, deserve to be paid this kind of money from an ethical standpoint, the issue I’m focusing on for this article is whether it makes sense from an NFL/business standpoint for Quarterbacks to be making the kind of big money that they often do.

As I’ve said, it seems that everytime a big new QB deal comes out, there is criticism all over the place. “They overpaid!”, “he’s not worth it!”, etc etc etc. Now, it’s easy to offer this kind of critique from at home sitting on your couch. But at the end of the day, teams need a Quarterback. It’s the most important position on the team, outside of kicker. (Kidding, kidding. But seriously, I do love Kickers.) The search for a QB drives coaches and franchises crazy. Too often, letting a serviceable guy go is just too big a risk to take, because QBs aren’t a dime a dozen. No one wants to be the Browns, Redskins, Bills, Dolphins, etc.

At the end of the day, if the market demands a certain price for a QB, the team has two choices: either pay that guy, or let him walk and not have a Quarterback. It’s easy for us to sit on our couches and say it’s not worth it, but we’re not the ones who have to put a product on the field to start the season. Someone’s gotta play. If it’s not the guy you currently have, who is it gonna be?

In the same sense, a lot of people will make the argument that paying for an average QB is paying to go 7-9, 8-8, or 9-7 and miss the playoffs, and that if you’re going to pay that much money to do that, then you might as well go 5-11 and get a high draft pick and draft a Quarterback. Again, this makes sense in theory, but no coach thinks like that. Coaches are being paid to win games. As are players. Most coaches’ jobs are on the line every single year. We know how quickly coaches get fired in this league. Their job is to create a winning product. No coach is going to tank/purposely lose games for any reason.

Most Quarterbacks that are getting paid big-time money aren’t guys that are going to single-handedly be carrying their teams to the playoffs. There aren’t that many Tom Bradys in the world. In fact, there’s only one. Yet a lot of these Quarterbacks are held to Brady-esque standards when pundits are criticizing these contracts. Ideally, should a Quarterback be paid his value proportionally to where he stands among the QB hierarchy of the rest of the league? Sure, but the league, and the market, don’t work like that.

Coaches would love to have Tom Brady, but they have to work with what they have. And outside of that group of about 3-5 elite QBs who can be successful in almost every situation, most QBs are situation dependent. I was once listening to a podcast where someone said–I don’t remember who, might have been Chris Burke or Doug Farrar, but not sure–that when it comes to QBs, there are a group of guys at the top who are going to have success no matter what situation they’re in, there are a group of guys at the bottom who are going to be bad and bring the team down no matter what situation they’re in, and the rest of the guys are dependent on situation. That rings true to me. I think when teams pay a non-elite QB big time money, they think (or are hoping) that if they can get enough team around him, he can win them a Superbowl or at least get to the playoffs, a la Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Andy Dalton.

This brings us back to the initial problem though: If a QB is dependent on team to be successful, why would you pay him so much money that you don’t have enough to build up the rest of the team? This is a tough question and you could argue it even applies to the elite guys–Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers have been good enough to keep their teams in the playoff mix, but they all had more success winning rings on their earlier contracts. It’s just the case that early QB contracts are more conducive to team success, which is why it’s crucial to win a ring (or multiple ones, if you can) when you have a big time QB on his first contract. It’s going to be hard for the Seahawks to keep this defensive core together now that Russell Wilson has been extended. If I remember correctly, his first contract was incredibly team friendly, seeing how he wasn’t even expected to be the starter when he was drafted.

None of this is meant to defend any particular QB contract, nor is it meant to defend the signing of supposed “non-elite” QBs to big time contracts either. It is simply meant to point out that the criticism we hear regarding such contracts is often naive and fails to recognize the reality of the situations many of these teams are in and the options that they actually face. It’s always easy to criticize “after-the-fact”. But how many of these teams would have been criticized just as much had they cutoff ties with their QB and went into the season without a QB?

For years, teams have paid the QB, because they see it as the only viable option. For years, teams have been criticized for paying the QB because people see it as the wrong option. Could we now be starting to see a change in things? There are some situations that seem to suggest that, yes, teams may not be as willing to pay the QB going forward.

The Washington Redskins with Kirk Cousins and the New York Jets with Ryan Fitzpatrick both opted to give their QBs one year, “prove-it” deals rather than long term contracts. Both QBs had good years, statistically at least, and their teams were successful–the Redskins made it to the playoffs and the Jets were one game away–but these are guys you might hold your breath signing to long term deals. At least, that’s what the Jets and Redskins thought. Neither has a long track record of success, and neither is exceptionally physically gifted. Both played in well designed offensive schemes with talent at the skill positions. The Jets, especially, took a surprisingly long amount of time to sign Ryan Fitzpatrick, much longer than people expected. They did eventually get him signed, but they played hardball, and for a while it looked like they were ready to go into the season with Geno Smith as their starter.

Then you have Sam Bradford, who, not wanting to be a placeholder for a younger QB, decided to test the market after the Eagles drafted Carson Wentz. It turns out no one wanted him, and he eventually reported to training camp with the Eagles. Teams may have been turned off by the fact that he likely wanted to be guaranteed a starting position, and wanted big time money to do so. And I know he doesn’t have a track record of success in this league, and is injury prone, but it’s still a little surprising that a former No 1 overall pick who is likely more talented throwing the football than maybe half the QBs in this league wouldn’t garner any attention, especially this day in age when so many teams are looking for Quarterbacks.

Lastly, you have the most glaring example: The Denver Broncos. Last year, Brock Osweiler stepped in midseason for an injured Peyton Manning and played pretty well, going 4-2 in his absence. I was actually surprised that they gave the job back to Peyton, to be honest. But they did, and Brock had to sit back on the bench and watch while Peyton went on to be part of the Superbowl winning team.

Osweiler was drafted by the Broncos in 2012, and everyone assumed he’d be Peyton Manning’s replacement once Manning retired. Outside of that brief period last year, Osweiler didn’t get to see the field as a starter in those four years. Yes, Osweiler was drafted under a different coaching staff than the one currently in place (although Elway had still been there, and he seems to be making the decisions with this club), but it was still surprising, to say the least, when the Broncos decided so casually to not pay Osweiler and let him seek out a trade. (Not sure if he was traded or just released and then signed, but basically Denver made a conscious decision to move on.)

What happened was Osweiler wanted a certain amount of money and Denver didn’t want to give it to him. Osweiler likely felt disrespect from a team that had him sit on the bench for four years, and then bench him again and make him watch the Superbowl from the sidelines after he thought the job was his. Elway likely watched his team win a Superbowl off the heels of a dominant defense–after a regular season during which his Quarterback, Peyton Manning, was borderline atrocious–and thought that he had a formula for success (play good defense) that he didn’t want to mess with by paying a Quarterback money that, in his eyes, he didn’t deserve based on the caliber of player he was. In theory, it makes sense for both sides, but at the end of the day, Elway is going into the season with either Mark Sanchez, Trevor Siemian, or Paxton Lynch as the starter (still to be determined). He essentially doesn’t have a Quarterback right now. That’s a bold move to make, but Elway’s never been afraid of doing things his way.

Then on the other end of the spectrum, you have the Houston Texans. They represent the opposite philosophy, the “pay the QB” philosophy. They gave Osweiler the money he wanted, despite going 9-7 the previous two years with Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brian Hoyer at QB, respectively. Those QBs played okay, and Houston even got into the playoffs last year, although Hoyer imploded in the playoff game. But they saw Osweiler as an upgrade at the most important position on the field, so they gave him the money he wanted.

Both moves make sense in some respects and are questionable in others. Ultimately, only time will tell who made the best move.

The point is, it’s always easy to say from an outside perspective, not to pay the QB. But the alternative means going into the season with an unknown at QB, which could be just as dangerous, if not more. It seems that now some teams are finally beginning to take this option. It will be interesting to see what this means moving forward, as pundits who have always criticized teams for paying the QB will now get to see what the alternative looks like, and will have the opportunity to put their money where their mouth is.

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