The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Super Bowl lesson: Don’t fear the pricey franchise quarterback

Patrick Mahomes and Jalen Hurts give this Super Bowl two different sorts of franchise quarterbacks. (David J. Phillip and Chris Szagola/AP)
7 min

PHOENIX — Besides his celestial abilities, Patrick Mahomes can stake his strongest claim as the NFL’s best player by acknowledging the crickets-chirping reaction to his record contract. In a league predisposed to thinking massive quarterback paydays sound the death knell for championship contention, Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs are back in the Super Bowl, lugging with them the largest financial obligation to a single player in the sport’s history.

It’s actually lighter than it seems.

In 2020, the Chiefs rewarded Mahomes with a $450 million extension that, if he hits all of the incentives, could balloon to more than a half-billion dollars. This was the first season of that 10-year pact, and his salary cap number rose to $35.8 million. Just a year ago, his number was $7.4 million. There’s no doubt the commitment to Mahomes hinders Kansas City’s efforts to build out the rest of its roster. That’s partly why the Chiefs traded star wideout Tyreek Hill. But performing gymnastics around Mahomes is a far superior option than functioning without a player who, at 27, is already one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. And this Super Bowl run reaffirms that trusting in a no-brainer was the right choice, no matter the difficulties other franchises have experienced trying to maintain elite status with shrinking resources.

Although Mahomes is an outlier, he still provides a valuable example to diminish some of the ridiculous anxiety about paying quarterbacks. The conversation has tilted too far toward trepidation. The NFL is a quarterback-impoverished league in which, strangely, people love being excessively picky nonetheless. Teams pay good ones unwillingly. Heck, teams hand over big money to the great ones with reluctance. And the fan bases seem more frightened than anyone because, well, the NFL couldn’t run such a lucrative business without conditioning minds so effectively to fear a worker’s hefty paycheck.

But the conclusion shouldn’t be that a high-priced quarterback sentences a franchise to little more than good-not-great status. The conclusion also shouldn’t be that bad deals leave teams hamstrung for so long that it’s better to venture back into the unknown. And while the most coveted path to the Super Bowl goes through a stellar young signal caller who reaches stardom during his rookie contract, it shouldn’t be assumed that it’s easy to find Jalen Hurts, Russell Wilson or Mahomes in the draft.

Mahomes vs. Hurts is a historic Super Bowl matchup between Black quarterbacks who represent both ends of the team-building spectrum. With Mahomes eating up more than 17 percent of Kansas City’s salary cap, the Chiefs are a more streamlined contender. Still, they’re here. And they will enter this game with the same 16-3 record that the Philadelphia Eagles possess.

The Eagles may have the most complete roster in the NFL; only the San Francisco 49ers, whom they discarded in the NFC title game, can compete with their quality and depth. They’ve made the most of Hurts’s emergence from second-round draft pick to franchise quarterback in his first three seasons. As their books stand, they will start planning for next season with 17 players holding salary cap numbers of at least $4 million. The Chiefs project to have eight. In standard NFL business, where contracts aren’t fully guaranteed, Philadelphia isn’t likely to keep all 17 of those players. Still, with Hurts operating on his inexpensive rookie deal for one more season, the Eagles won’t be forced into any cap casualties next season.

However, they must begin negotiations with Hurts this offseason, and by 2024 their situation will be similar to those of Kansas City and any of the other eight teams with quarterbacks on deals that average $40 million annually. Some will act as though the fate of the Eagles’ current window is at stake in those bargaining sessions. It doesn’t have to be so concerning.

An extension for Hurts won’t be as simple as the Chiefs’ desire to lock in Mahomes at virtually any cost. The conversation won’t go as smoothly as the Buffalo Bills’ discussions with Josh Allen, which resulted in a $258 million extension. After the Eagles traded for wide receiver A.J. Brown, Hurts emerged as a franchise quarterback this season. For all his dual-threat gifts, he has a small sample size playing at this level, and a right shoulder injury kept him out for two games and stoked worries about his durability. Over the past two seasons, Hurts has rushed for 1,544 yards and 23 touchdowns. It doesn’t seem sustainable to expect a 6-foot-1, 223-pound quarterback to keep running for nearly 800 yards per season and score touchdowns at an elite tailback level.

Hurts has more work to do as a passer. He also must prove that, without the perfect roster, he’ll be able to handle more of the burden of sustaining success. Yet even as he polishes his game, his talent and leadership provide confidence. His reputation as a winner has carried over from college to the NFL. He’s destined to make more than $40 million per season and receive more than $150 million in guaranteed money. The biggest question is how creative Eagles General Manager Howie Roseman and his staff will be in structuring the contract.

Quarterback deals aren’t curses. If done correctly, they are opportunities for the franchise to have cost certainty and for both sides to enjoy security. Those contracts are often placeholders that GMs regularly restructure to manage the cap, and that’s fine if the QB is a true franchise player. Yes, it’s inevitable that the talent level of the entire roster will regress, but as Kansas City is showing, that doesn’t have to mean a step back.

You don’t want to owe the wrong quarterback, but even failed situations aren’t as onerous as they used to be. The Los Angeles Rams paid Jared Goff big bucks after he helped them go to the Super Bowl while on his rookie contract. When it became clear Goff wasn’t working out, they traded him for Matthew Stafford, who ended up being the last piece in their championship puzzle. It was costly for the Rams; they had to surrender a 2023 first-round pick to the Detroit Lions that wound up being the No. 6 selection.

Nevertheless, their championship rings are still visible through the tears.

In 2020, Carson Wentz was still in Philadelphia, making money that his play couldn’t justify. But the Eagles kept building. They drafted Hurts in 2020, and his development enabled them to trade Wentz. In the past, a quarterback with a huge contract might have been an anchor, but general managers are more aggressive now. They don’t tiptoe through darkness in pursuit of quarterbacks anymore, and when they mess up, they don’t delay the inevitable cleanup.

The Chiefs and Eagles are teams that found their guy while they were starting a different quarterback. Kansas City drafted Mahomes 10th overall in 2017 despite having a solid starter in Alex Smith. Some teams wait and hope, careful not to do anything wrong. The best ones never cheat diligence.

Whether to pay the quarterback isn’t these contenders’ primary concern. In their efforts to bend parity toward greatness, they aim to master flexibility.