So much of success in professional team sports comes from decisions made off the field. It’s not enough to have the best talent or the best coaching. You also have to be wise about how you pay your players given the constraints of salary caps and taxes.
Nowhere is this more clear than in the NFL, especially at the quarterback position. Back in the 90s and 00s, first round draft salaries were so high that one of the worst things you could do was draft a QB with the first overall pick.
Sure, you might luck out and get a future Hall of Famer, but just as often, you would end up with a bust who ended up being the highest paid player on your team. It doomed you to the bottom of the league for years – which gave you more high draft picks to choose another likely overpaid rookie QB.
This changed in 2011 when rookie contracts were limited by a new collective bargaining agreement. All of a sudden, rookie QBs were a steal, if you could find a good player.
The trick was you could have a cheap, good QB and more funds to build the rest of your roster around that player. QBs like Mahomes and Russell Wilson among others won Super Bowls on their first contact.
Now, the worst place to be was the “mid tier” QB. Players who were above average and could get your team to the playoffs but not so good as to carry you to a Super Bowl. Think of Jay Cutler or Tony Romo or Matt Ryan.
These players required large contracts that hampered your ability to build a complete roster, so you would have a bad defense or a weak offensive line. The excess resources committed to the QB put you in a bind where you couldn’t financially compete.
However, we have recently entered a new era in the NFL. Now, the worst player to have is a star quarterback.
The Fault In Our Stars
Wait, you don’t want to have a great QB anymore? Sometimes, you do, but not always. Sure, if you have a true no doubt Hall of Famer like Mahomes, you are probably pretty happy.
But we are now seeing star QBs act more like NBA stars and that brings big problems. What do I mean by that?
Historically, star QBs stayed with one team nearly their entire career. So if you paid them a massive deal, while it did limit your ability to build a strong team (see the defenses Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees endured), you knew the premium you paid for the superstar gave you a far better chance to win a Super Bowl than paying up for the mid tier alternative.
That’s all changed. Now QBs who are unhappy have gone the NBA path of forcing themselves out of their situations and getting traded to new teams.
This causes a number of problems. First, success at QB, more than any other position in sports, is as much a function of the system they play in as their talent. As great as Mahomes is, he is fortunate to play for Andy Reid, who is one of the best coaches in history at designing QB friendly passing schemes.
Thus, trading a QB to a new team can really change the player’s production and, more likely, for the worse. This can potentially ruin a franchise for years due to the cost in draft picks (to acquire the player) and the new contract the traded player will demand.
Pay for Poor Play
While mid tier QBs are paid a lot, their contracts are often structured where the team can get out of it after two or three years with a reasonable penalty. However, the star QBs are now demanding fully guaranteed contracts. This means even if the player turns south on the new team, the team is obligated to pay them like a superstar.
Because the NFL has a salary cap, if you are paying 20+% of your cap to a QB who is no good anymore, your team will suffer and likely be at the bottom of the league. Due to the guaranteed contract, you are now dooming yourself to the bottom for 3, 4, or even 5 years until you can escape.
Thus, it is actually more risky to trade for the star QB than to gamble on a mid tier option. If you are wrong on the mid tier guy, you have a bad year or two, but you can at least rebuild quickly thereafter.
If you go for the star QB, it is truly a bet the franchise moment. Denver and likely Cleveland and Arizona (Arizona didn’t trade for Murray, but overpaid him to get him to stop asking for a trade) already have buyer’s remorse just one year into their new deals.
While the Rams did win a Super Bowl in their first year with Matt Stafford, they gave him a new contract after that which likely will turn out poorly due to his injury risk.
That is arguably worth the future pain, but between all the draft picks the Rams gave up plus Stafford’s new deal, they are highly unlikely to win a second Super Bowl with him and look to be headed to the bottom of the league for the next several years.
Which brings me to the final pain point. Normally, if you make a mistake on talent evaluation and your team is bad, you get high draft picks to help you rebuild, so at least there is something to help out.
However, when you acquire a star QB, you usually have to trade several years worth of picks, so the former team gets the benefit, not the team who traded for the disappointing player.
Thus, you have most of your salary cap tied up in a underperforming star and you have no good draft picks to build for the future. You are truly stuck.
What this shows is that the downside of getting a star QB trade wrong is so high, that, if you are going to attempt it, you have to really believe you’re going to win a Super Bowl to take the risk. As mentioned, the Rams did get their championship, but only a year later, they are already paying a steep cost.
The Seller’s Perspective
What about from the other side of the lens? The Lions traded Stafford and have already become a playoff caliber team and now have the 6th overall pick this year from the Rams‘ setbacks and probably a top 15 pick next year as well.
The Texans are still terrible post Watson, but that earned them the #2 pick where they will probably get a new rookie QB with potential for stardom plus they have a bunch of the Browns’ picks to help them get better.
The Seahawks are perhaps the biggest winners. For trading Wilson, the Seahawks got a top 10 pick this past year, will have the #5 pick this year, and made the playoffs with a QB making <10% of what Russ gets.
Clearly, you’d rather be the seller of the star QB than the buyer. In hindsight, Arizona should have traded Murray rather than re-sign him to an expensive deal. My guess is the Ravens will eventually regret giving Lamar Jackson a long term, guaranteed deal (if that’s what they choose).
How to Decide
So should every team with a star QB, look to trade him? Of course, not. How do you decide when it’s worth handing out the big contract?
If you are a true multi year Super Bowl contender, like the Chiefs or Bills or perhaps Bengals, you roll the dice and hope your QB doesn’t ask out in a few years.
But if you’re a good, but not great team, locking into a contract with poor risk-reward is probably a mistake. Better to cash in your chips and look to start the process over with extra draft picks.
Alright, let’s go on to the playoff predictions. First, let’s review my preseason predictions. Recall, historically half of last year’s playoffs teams don’t return. Guess what? This year, there were seven returning teams and seven new teams.
I got 9 of the 14 teams right so beat the null hypothesis of picking last year’s teams. I got five of the seven repeat teams and, more impressively, four of the new teams (Dolphins, Ravens, Chargers, Vikings).
I even came very close on my surprise prediction that two of the top four Super Bowl favorites (Rams, Chiefs, Bucs, Bills) would be big disappointments. I was right on the Tampa call, but took the wrong flier on the Chiefs stumbling instead of the Rams, but had the right thought process to avoid the consensus.
Interestingly, four 2021 last place teams made the playoffs and three others came close. Usually one or two will make it, but the prognosticators always overlook these teams.
Also, my preseason best value to win the Super Bowl was Cincinnati at 20-1, which is looking very good right now (they are currently 7-1).
Reducing The Field
As for this year, the game is to eliminate teams with no chance and see what remains. The Giants, Vikings, Bucs, and Dolphins were all outscored on the year. They don’t even belong in the playoffs.
The Seahawks and Chargers only outscored opponents by 6 and 7 points, respectively. That’s mediocrity. Toss them.
The Jaguars probably win a game but they’re not winning at Kansas City, so eliminate them. The Ravens are playing a backup quarterback, so forget them.
Now we’re down to six. Dallas at their best can beat anyone. The problem is they don’t play their best consistently and they’re a totally different team on the road. Are they going to win three straight road games? Nope. They’re out.
The Final Five
So now we have the five actual contenders: Bills, Chiefs, Bengals, Eagles, Niners. One of those is your champion.
There are two QBs I don’t trust. Josh Allen throws too many interceptions. He might get it done, but he is too high risk to bet on at short odds. Then, there is the Niners’ rookie Brock Purdy. Sorry, but even if he were the first pick in the draft and not the last one, rookie QBs don’t win Super Bowls.
So we’re down to three. You can figure by process of elimination I have the Eagles in the game. You can think that’s a homer pick, but I was very bullish on them from preseason (expected 13 wins) and I make my picks with my head, not my heart. If Hurts and Lane Johnson are healthy, they are the clear NFC choice.
As for the AFC, I’ve seen Andy Reid lose too many playoff games he is supposed to win. He is one of the best coaches ever, but he is not great in one game situations.
The Bengals, on the other hand, have a giant chip on their shoulder. They are the defending AFC champion, but viewed as an afterthought. They are going to have to play at Buffalo in the second round, instead of at home or on a neutral field because of the cancelled game vs. the Bills. If they get by that, everyone will expect them to lose at KC, even though they won at KC last year to make the Super Bowl.
And their odds are more than double the Bills and Chiefs. I think they’re just as good a team and the only disadvantage is the road games.
I took them at 20-1 in September. I’m not getting off them now. Bengals over the Eagles.