Cowboys edge defender Micah Parsons sent an interesting tweet in the aftermath of his team’s playoff loss to the 49ers.
“Besides mahomes, every team in the final 4 Qb is on a rookie deal and surrounded by talent! Mhmm interesting take!” he tweeted.
It generated news because it appeared to be a shot at Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (which Parsons later denied). But really it provides a good opportunity to delve into the matter of whether paying big money to a quarterback does more harm than good.
Consider the four quarterbacks playing in Sunday’s conference championship games. Three are on their rookie contracts: Joe Burrow has a salary of $3.9 million this season; Jalen Hurts is making $1.158 million, less than half the salary of backup Gardner Minshew ($2.54 million); Brock Purdy, a rookie seventh-round pick, is making slightly above league minimum at $782,000. They are all dwarfed by Patrick Mahomes, who is making $29.45 million this season.
The Chiefs ($32.5 million) rank No. 8 in total cash spending at the quarterback position. The other three remaining teams are in the bottom half of the league — the 49ers ($13.4 million) rank No. 20 thanks mostly to Jimmy Garoppolo’s $10 million salary. The Bengals ($5.4 million) rank No. 27 and the Eagles ($4.5 million) No. 30.
Now consider who isn’t playing Sunday — every highly paid quarterback except Mahomes. The Rams spent a league-high $64.65 million on quarterbacks and missed the playoffs. So did the No. 2 Broncos ($58.1 million), No. 3 Browns ($51.1 million), and No. 5 Packers ($43.9 million).
Besides the Chiefs, only two other top-13 QB-spending teams made the playoffs — the No. 4 Bills ($50.9 million), who lost in the divisional round, and No. 6 Vikings ($41.4 million), who lost in the wild-card round. The investments this season in most of the top-13 quarterbacks were flops — Matthew Stafford, Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson, Kyler Murray, Carson Wentz, Ryan Tannehill, Matt Ryan, and Derek Carr.
Meanwhile, nine of the bottom 15 QB-spending teams made the postseason, and three of the bottom six reached the Divisional Round (Eagles, Bengals, and the Jaguars were No. 29 at $4.5 million). In addition to Hurts, Burrow, and Purdy, several other quarterbacks got their teams to the playoffs at a discounted rate — Trevor Lawrence, Daniel Jones, Justin Herbert, Geno Smith, Tua Tagovailoa, and even Tom Brady.
That’s not to say all teams struggle once they pay their quarterbacks. The Chiefs have reached the AFC Championship game for the second straight year after Mahomes got his mega deal. Josh Allen made it to the Divisional Round. Kirk Cousins, Lamar Jackson, and Prescott at least made the playoffs.
But this year’s playoffs certainly raise the question of whether it’s better to keep drafting a quarterback every few years and spend the money elsewhere. That tactic is especially persuasive for teams that have good but not elite quarterbacks.
“I think we are starting to see the impact of the big-money QB on the long-term planning for teams,” said Jason Fitzgerald of OverTheCap.com. “With the contracts getting larger and shorter in term for many of the players, teams are having to cut corners elsewhere.”
One question with all of this is, why look at cash spending instead of salary cap? Cap spending is certainly useful, but can be borrowed against future years and is easily manipulated by teams. Allen, for example, made $47 million cash this season, but had a cap number of just $16.4 million. That cash figure is far more important — owners give general managers a yearly budget, and the GM must decide how to allocate a finite amount of cash to build the best team.
Still, even looking just at the salary cap, spending big on a quarterback doesn’t seem to preclude teams from succeeding. The Chiefs are No. 2 in QB salary-cap spending this season ($38.6 million), and the 49ers are No. 8 ($22.46 million), thanks mostly to Garoppolo and Trey Lance. But it certainly is a huge advantage to have a successful quarterback on a rookie contract. The Bengals are No. 22 in QB cap spending ($11.1 million) and the Eagles are No. 31 ($5 million).
Having a cheap quarterback has allowed the Eagles to spend big at receiver, offensive line, defensive line, and cornerback. The 49ers spend their extra money at linebacker, edge rusher, and offensive line. The Bengals beefed up their offensive line and secondary. Conversely, the Chiefs are still able to spend big on offense, but commit relatively few resources to linebacker, cornerback, and safety.
It’s clear that finding a quality quarterback on a rookie contract is a great formula for success in the NFL. But it’s not so easy, either, as the draft is littered with quarterback busts. Fitzgerald, who does consulting work for teams, recently found that over the past five years, the quarterbacks with the best rate of making the playoffs are expensive ones, who make the postseason at about a 50 percent clip. When it comes to cheaper players, the postseason rate was only about 40 percent.
The problem is that teams that invest big in quarterbacks don’t want to make the playoffs just 50 percent of the time.
“I do think this year is more of an outlier than usual,” Fitzgerald said. “But I think the bigger issue is that there are really just a handful of really great QBs, and a larger number of highly paid ones who are not close to that status.”
For great quarterbacks such as Mahomes, Allen, Burrow, and Herbert, the choice is clear — pay the quarterback top dollar, as long as the salary-cap dollars can be structured so as not to cripple the team. But for teams with questions about their quarterbacks, they may be better off going into the draft every two to three years and hoping they find a lottery ticket like the Eagles did with Hurts.
RUNNING ON EMPTY?
How will injury affect Mahomes?
The biggest question mark entering Sunday’s AFC Championship game is how Patrick Mahomes will play on a sprained right ankle suffered in last week’s win over the Jaguars. Mahomes was a full participant at practice this past week, but if the Jaguars game was any guide, Mahomes will be a significantly different player against the Bengals.
The NFL’s Next Gen Stats tell the story. Before his injury, Mahomes averaged 8 scramble yards per dropback against the Jaguars, and threw on the run on 5 of 12 pass attempts. After his injury, he averaged 4.1 scramble yards per dropback, and threw on the run on just 1 of 18 pass attempts.
The injury sapped Mahomes of a lot of the razzle-dazzle that makes him special, and forced him to operate from the pocket. Before his injury, he averaged 3.17 seconds to throw, and spent 50 percent of his time in the pocket. After his injury, he averaged 2.64 seconds to throw, and spent 89 percent in the pocket.
Mahomes led the NFL with 881 passing yards on the run this season, so it’s a big part of his game. But he was 12 of 18 for 118 yards and a touchdown last week after his injury, and is still an elite quarterback from the pocket. It will be fascinating to see how Chiefs coach Andy Reid schemes up the offense Sunday to account for a different Mahomes.
Bills weren’t ready for the Bengals
It’s worth looking back at the Bills’ loss last week to the Bengals, and how badly the Bills were outcoached:
▪ The Bills clearly were not ready for the snow on either side of the ball. While Joe Burrow averaged a lightning-quick 2.5 seconds to throw, Josh Allen held the ball for 3.2 seconds on average and had the most deep throws of the eight quarterbacks last weekend (average 10.3 air yards). With Allen dancing in the backfield for so long, he faced pressure on a season-high 48 percent of his plays, and completed just 59 percent of his throws. Stefon Diggs caught only 4 of 10 targets, mostly deep passes that averaged 18 air yards.
▪ The Bills’ run defense was consistently blown off the line of scrimmage. In the regular season, the Bills allowed the fewest yards before contact (0.8 yards per carry). On Sunday, Joe Mixon averaged 2.6 rush yards before contact, his most in three years. The Bills also allowed a season-high 85 rushing yards before contact. Perhaps they needed to wear different cleats.
The 27-10 loss was a disheartening performance by the Bills, and offered more evidence against Sean McDermott being a big-game coach.
The Bills were also in excuse-making mode this past week.
“They right now are on the advantage of a rookie quarterback contract,” GM Brandon Beane said of the Bengals. “Without getting too much into their build, I don’t want to suck bad enough to have to get Ja’Marr Chase. I would love to have him, but you’ve got to go through some lean years to do that.”
Beane will probably regret making those remarks. It’s bad form to call out another team, and you don’t need a top-five pick to find an elite receiver, as proven by Justin Jefferson, Tyreek Hill, Davante Adams, A.J. Brown, Diggs, Deebo Samuel, D.K. Metcalf, and many others not drafted in the top of the first round.
Beane made a big trade for Diggs three years ago but hasn’t taken a receiver higher than the fourth round in any of the last five drafts, so his complaint rings hollow.
It all comes down to this
Some nuggets on the conference championship games, Eagles-49ers and Bengals-Chiefs:
▪ The Chiefs are just the third team to play in five straight championship games, joining the Patriots (2011-18) and Raiders (1973-77).
▪ Bengals-Chiefs is just the sixth championship game rematch since the 1970 merger, and first since Ravens-Patriots in 2011-12. Before Burrow and Mahomes, the last time two quarterbacks under 28 squared off in consecutive championship games was John Elway and Bernie Kosar in 1986-87.
▪ This year marks the youngest quartet of starting quarterbacks in conference championship history, with Mahomes, Burrow, Jalen Hurts, and Brock Purdy averaging 25 years, 98 days. The previous record was 25 years, 232 days in 1996-97 (Drew Bledsoe, Mark Brunell, Brett Favre, Kerry Collins).
▪ 49ers-Eagles is just the third time that the NFL’s top two defenses meet in a conference championship game. And it will be a classic game of strength on strength: The 49ers have the NFL’s No. 2 rush defense and didn’t allow a 100-yard rusher all season, while the Eagles’ 32 rushing touchdowns tied for the second most in NFL history.
▪ Purdy joined Mark Sanchez and Joe Flacco as the only rookies with two postseason wins, and can become the first of five rookies to start a conference championship game to reach a Super Bowl.
▪ The Chiefs are aiming for their third Super Bowl appearance in four years, while the Bengals can become the fifth team this century to reach consecutive Super Bowls, joining the 2019-20 Chiefs, 2016-18 Patriots, 2013-14 Seahawks, and 2003-04 Patriots.
▪ Bad news for Mahomes: Only four quarterbacks have made the Super Bowl the same season in which they led the league in passing yards and touchdown passes. And all four lost in the Super Bowl (2013 Peyton Manning, 2007 Tom Brady, 2001 Kurt Warner, 1984 Dan Marino).
▪ Travis Kelce likely will pass Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman in the record books this weekend. Kelce is tied with Gronkowski with 1,389 postseason receiving yards, and 53 yards behind Edelman (1,442) for second place behind Jerry Rice (2,245). Kelce’s 14 receiving touchdowns are one behind Gronkowski (15) for second place behind Rice (22).
▪ Should the Eagles and Chiefs win, it would set up the first Super Bowl matchup between brothers — the Chiefs’ Travis Kelce and Eagles’ Jason Kelce.
The stars are aligning for the Jets to acquire a veteran quarterback this offseason. The biggest buzz will be with Aaron Rodgers after the Jets just hired his former offensive coordinator, Nathaniel Hackett, to the same role. It would require Rodgers wanting to finish his career elsewhere, the Jets being willing to pay him $59 million fully guaranteed next season, or Rodgers being willing to take a pay cut. None of those are crazy, and the Jets could be a quarterback away from being really good. If the cap-strapped Jets want more of a value option, the obvious solution is Jimmy Garoppolo, who was with coach Robert Saleh in San Francisco and would be a nice upgrade over Zach Wilson (if Garoppolo can stay healthy). Brady taking his talents to Gotham also can’t be discounted . . . I feel for Steve Wilks, who lost out on the Panthers’ head coaching job to Frank Reich despite going a respectable 6-6 as interim coach without Christian McCaffrey. Wilks, Brian Flores, and other coaches aren’t wrong for pursuing legal remedies to compel the NFL improve its track record in hiring minorities. But the reality is that defensive coaches such as Wilks are inherently at a disadvantage in the NFL coaching market. Offense is what sells and wins games in today’s NFL, and when you hire a defensive head coach, you run the risk of losing your offensive coordinator every few years. By hiring an offensive head coach, as the Panthers did with Reich, you are ensuring stability for your quarterback and offense . . . Sean Payton was interested in the Panthers job, but it seems the Panthers went for a more economical option, since Payton would cost a big contract plus a first-round pick (and more) in a trade with the Saints. Reich, a player on the 1995 expansion Panthers, was a solid choice — he won a Super Bowl with a backup quarterback as the Eagles’ offensive coordinator, and did well in Indianapolis despite cycling through four QBs in four years . . . Former Buccaneers quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen, who retired after the season as part of a wave of moves in Tampa, said that Brady lost 15 pounds this season as he dealt with his divorce and family life. “I worried about him,” Christensen told the Tampa Bay Times. “He lost that weight. It was very stressful. And he battled and he hurt, but he put on the brave face and did it again. You’ve got a bunch of folks depending on you. I have an unbelievable respect for what Tom did this year. Off-the-charts amount of respect for him just managing things” . . . Twenty-one offensive players participated in 100 percent of their team’s snaps this season. Twenty were offensive linemen, and the other was Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith, whose 1,093 snaps were more than double what he played between 2015-21 (417). Buccaneers guard Shaq Mason (1,200) and Brady (1,193) played the most snaps of all offensive players . . . The NFL is intrigued by the idea of moving conference championship games to neutral sites, but it would only take nine owner votes to sink the proposal, and we already know of one. “I hate the idea,” Steelers owner Art Rooney said on 93.7 The Fan. “My sense is that if you put that up for a vote it wouldn’t pass today, but who knows?”
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.