The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A cheap QB is a quick route to NFL playoffs, but sustained success costs big money

Russell Wilson’s steady play has allowed the Seahawks to rebuild themselves into a playoff team.
Russell Wilson’s steady play has allowed the Seahawks to rebuild themselves into a playoff team. (Ted S. Warren/AP)
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You can look at these NFL playoffs as a sort of team-building, quarterback culture war. On one side, six franchises are winning the trendy way, maximizing their opportunities to create deep rosters around talented quarterbacks still on cheap rookie contracts and defying the outdated belief that it takes forever to groom a player at the most complicated position in team sports. On the other side, five teams have established franchise quarterbacks, and they are living off their stardom, working around the imbalance of having to commit big, salary cap-crunching bucks to a single player competing in a game of attrition.

Then there is Philadelphia, the anomaly. The Eagles have a gifted young signal-caller on a rookie deal in Carson Wentz, but because of another injury to Wentz, they will be led by their expensive backup, Nick Foles, for a second straight playoff run. The Eagles are able to get away with Foles carrying a salary cap number of $13.6 million this season because Wentz, the No. 2 overall pick of the 2016 NFL draft, counted only $7.3 million against the cap during his third season. So despite their unique circumstances, the defending Super Bowl champions may be the most dramatic recent example of the depth and talent that can be accumulated when a quality starting quarterback makes a relatively small amount.

Yes, these playoffs prove that the cheap rookie QB star can provide an express route to building a championship-caliber roster. But that’s just one phase of the process. If a team wants sustained success, it will have to pay its quarterback. It’s not a death sentence. It’s vital to retain relevance.

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The day an NFL team actually walks away from a productive and successful young quarterback whom it drafted and developed — one with whom it went to the postseason multiple times — will be considered a moment of team-building anarchy and idiocy. For all the recent examples of winning without the big quarterback contract, it remains a luxury and not a strategy.

The five well-paid franchise quarterbacks in this postseason field — Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck — illustrate a counterargument to the current accepted truth that it’s easier to build dominant teams with an emerging quarterback. Actually, it’s not so much a counterargument as it is an evolution of that thought. The fact is, you want those fledgling quarterbacks to grow up to be Brees in every way, including the $25 million a season that he makes. It may sound like a no-brainer, but in a copycat league that often struggles with innovation, it’s easy for fans and even front offices to grow envious. But the long-term, face-of-the-franchise quarterback is still the gold standard of the NFL. That reality is merely skewed because the price of such a player has risen to ridiculous proportions.

The notion of winning big with a young and affordable quarterback became a fresh approach for franchises in 2011, after the owners and players consummated a new collective bargaining agreement. As part of the deal, a rookie wage scale was implemented, eliminating robust salaries for high draft picks before they played an NFL down. The days of $50 million rookie guarantees and prolonged holdouts ended. Standard, cost-efficient four-year deals with fifth-year options became the norm for first-rounders.

In 2010, No. 1 pick Sam Bradford signed six-year, $78 million contract that included $50 million of guaranteed money. The next two No. 1 picks, Cam Newton and Luck, received standard four-year, $22 million deals. As the salary cap rises, the rookie wage scale adjusts, but no longer does a rookie vault to the status of the team’s highest-paid player.

Beyond the rookie wage scale, NFL teams also now are more willing to employ spread offenses and tailor their styles to give young quarterbacks a better chance to succeed immediately. The training of quarterbacks at lower levels has advanced, too. When teams combine the enhanced maturity with more money to build rosters, you see good teams of varying degrees emerge earlier than they once did. It happened with Newton in Carolina and Luck in Indianapolis. The Seattle Seahawks won a Super Bowl and made it to the big game twice with Wilson on a third-round contract. While Seattle won 36 games during Wilson’s first three seasons, his cap number was never higher than $817,302.

Then Wilson got his payday in 2015, an $87.6 million extension that included $61.5 million in guarantees. For a player so successful at such a young age, there was great debate before he signed the contract, and afterward, there was mixed public emotion because Seattle thrived off being a deep team that played with extraordinary energy. The Seahawks haven’t been as dominant since, and many blamed Wilson’s contract. But in reality, Seattle had opportunities to sustain that level. It wasn’t just about the contract. The team started to age, the front office held on to players for too long, and it had a few suspect drafts.

The story line is different this season. After missing the playoffs in 2017, the Seahawks weren’t expected to do much. They were considered in a rebuilding mode that could last multiple years. But they’re back in the postseason, with a different kind of team with a few different strengths but the same, efficient quarterback who puts pressure on defenses with his right arm and his feet. The Seahawks have reset their team without even suffering through a losing season.

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That’s the value of a franchise quarterback. We’re not talking about the highest-paid quarterbacks right now. It’s strange that the players with the top six quarterback salaries — Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Kirk Cousins, Jimmy Garoppolo, Matthew Stafford and Derek Carr — failed to make the playoffs. But of that bunch, Rodgers is the only bona fide franchise-carrying superstar. Ryan is close. Maybe Stafford would be considered as one if he didn’t have to overcome the many sins of the Detroit Lions. The other three are clearly not. We’re amid a period in which some good to very good quarterbacks have benefited from the great timing of a quarterback market gone berserk.

That has inspired numerous hot takes about re-evaluating the value of the position. But when a team has the right franchise quarterback, it can do what Wilson and the Seahawks are doing, what Brady and the New England Patriots have done at the highest possible level. It can be like Rivers and the Los Angeles Chargers. It can keep re-creating itself. It can strip down the roster and start over without being in full rebuilding mode. That is worth the starters or high-caliber reserves who are lost when a quarterback’s cap number rises.

We tend to look at teams according to depths and whether the roster has holes. In the NFL, it is best to evaluate them based on whether they have great talent at premiere positions. Survival in the league is about finding value, not accumulating depth. The smart teams can leverage great players and good coaching in order to plug holes and mask weaknesses.

This team-building, quarterback culture war isn’t about right or wrong. It’s about longevity. It’s fine to try to chase a championship for three or four years while enjoying the salary cap benefits of a young quarterback. But that’s not a satisfying window of opportunity. The goal should always be to win for a long time, and in order to do so, it’s essential to have both the right quarterback and creativity to keep retooling around him.

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