The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nothing’s more valuable than a franchise quarterback, but at what cost?

Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr signed a three-year, $121.5 million extension in April. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)
7 min

This has been a cursed season for top-earning NFL quarterbacks. In particular, it has been disastrous for the ones rewarded with mega contract extensions within the past year.

The litany of despair amounts to a preposterous coincidence. Never again will so many teams experience such severe consequences immediately after rewarding indispensable standout talent at the most important position in football. The collision sport makes every contract risky, but quarterbacks get paid so well because the good ones are essential, reliable and well protected by the rules of the game. Stability at the position is usually priceless.

But right now, it just looks costly.

After back-to-back MVP seasons, Aaron Rodgers in March became the first NFL player to make $50 million per season. But the Green Bay Packers are 5-8 and devoid of reliable veteran wide receivers to support their 39-year-old quarterback, who is posting the worst passer rating and fewest passing yards per game of his illustrious career as a starter.

Russell Wilson has been the flop of the year in Denver, and he suffered a scary head injury Sunday. Kyler Murray, who had a homework clause inserted and later removed from his lucrative deal, exited the field Monday night on a cart and with a towel draped over his head after a noncontact knee injury that ended his season and probably will cost him most, if not all, of 2023. Deshaun Watson, the recipient of a novel $230 million fully guaranteed contract, debuted with the Cleveland Browns two weeks ago after an 11-game suspension, and he’s rusty in addition to being forever tainted after more than two dozen women filed lawsuits against him alleging sexual misconduct or assault.

What to know from NFL Week 14: The 49ers are Purdy, Purdy, Purdy good

Derek Carr signed a three-year, $121.5 million extension in April and saw the Las Vegas Raiders make a major trade to get his college buddy, Davante Adams, from Green Bay. Nevertheless, the Raiders stink, and Carr has regressed under Coach Josh McDaniels. In the afterglow of a Super Bowl triumph, the Los Angeles Rams made Matthew Stafford a $40 million-per-year quarterback, too. This season, the Rams are 4-9, and Stafford is out for the remainder of the year because of a spinal cord contusion, a second serious injury to go with his ongoing elbow problems.

Add it all up, and there are woes involving six of the NFL’s nine quarterbacks who have contracts that average at least $40 million per season. With four weeks left in the 2022 season, the only $40 million men projected to make the playoffs are Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Dak Prescott.

With the ailing or struggling quarterbacks, each situation is vastly different. There is no consistent theme beyond bad luck. But in a league in which players and owners constantly haggle over the appropriate amount of guaranteed money to embed within these bloated deals, the next wave of contract negotiations may be more complicated than usual.

Ultimately, teams don’t let gifted signal callers walk during their prime years. But talks for a massive deal often turn into contentious staring contests. For owners, the Watson guaranteed contract is an irritant because every elite young quarterback who doesn’t come with legal trouble will want a better deal. That’s the general trend. As the salary cap rises, the market keeps resetting itself every time the next great player is due for a new contract. But fellow owners will keep sneering at Cleveland’s Dee Haslam, and teams will argue the Watson pact is a reckless outlier.

The members of Fox’s NFL pregame show have bonds deeper than football

In October, the NFL Players Association filed a system arbitration proceeding and accused the league and its teams of colluding to prevent franchises from offering fully guaranteed contracts. The upcoming offseason will play out as an arbitrator resolves that case.

This disastrous quarterback season should stand mostly in isolation, but it won’t. It’s inevitable some organizations will attempt to weaponize it and prevent these salaries from skyrocketing every offseason.

Lamar Jackson tops the list of players who must fight against that perception. The 25-year-old, now three years removed from his MVP season, is nearing the end of his fifth year with the Baltimore Ravens, and if he can’t agree to a contract shortly after this season, the Ravens could put a franchise tag on him. Acting as his own agent, he has been unable to consummate a deal. While an exclusive tag for a quarterback projects to be worth more than $45 million next season, Jackson wants a nine-figure guarantee. But during this prolonged negotiation, leg injuries have decreased his availability the past two seasons.

A year ago, Jackson missed five games, most of them because of a bone bruise in his ankle that sidelined him amid a six-game losing streak to end the season. Jackson is out because of a knee injury, but he should return in a few weeks. When you take a step back and evaluate Jackson over 61 career starts, he has been sufficiently durable and too productive to overreact to a couple of injuries. He’s going to get paid because he may prove to be the greatest dual-threat quarterback the NFL has ever seen.

But two recent leg injuries are something the Ravens must consider. A new five-year contract would keep Jackson in Baltimore through his age-30 season. How long can he continue to be the quarterback who has averaged 63.4 rushing yards per game? Would trying to maintain that standard diminish him physically? Is he a passer who would cut back heavily on running and consistently beat defenses with his arm?

Analysis: Which teams are a potential fit for Tom Brady? It’s a short list.

Murray has a different style, and listed at 5-foot-10, he is the league’s shortest starting quarterback. Still, watching his knee give out made you think about Jackson and other young, mobile athletes under center. They’re always more at risk. There is no easy way to protect them. You have to empower them to play their special way. But the most brutal part of this game isn’t simply the injury risk. It’s also the devaluing of players willing to give their bodies to the team.

In the football business, practicality can be diabolical. The 2022 onslaught of quarterback misfortune will make it more difficult for Jackson to get a fair deal. After that, Joe Burrow may have to put on boxing gloves, despite the remarkable start to his career, if he wants the frugal Cincinnati Bengals to reset the quarterback market. That negotiation could influence deals for 2020 draft classmates Justin Herbert and Tua Tagovailoa. If Tom Brady continues to play, it will be fascinating to see whether there will be a true bidding war for a seven-championship legend who turns 46 before next season. It’s especially intriguing after a year in which the struggles of Brady and Rodgers have reminded teams that old quarterbacks, even great ones, need proper cushioning around them to thrive. Tampa Bay and Green Bay expected their future Hall of Famers to conceal too many problems, and the results have been ugly.

There’s a lot of ugliness going around this season. It’s probably an aberration, but for some of those teams, the problem could get worse. In the NFL, these blips make future bargaining all the more contentious.