The free-agency games that quarterbacks don’t play
There’s a certain air about the QB1 that sets him apart from everyone else. He’s the guy at the party you can’t miss. He’s the player at practice you can’t hit. He’s the biggest star of them all, but he doesn’t just walk with a higher status. He lives in another world.
America is a country of opportunity, where the best performers of the most sought-after talents chase the demand to whatever arena it takes them. In sports, it often takes them where they want to go. For a basketball star like Kevin Durant, it was with a super team in Golden State. For LeBron James two years ago, it was back home to Cleveland. For baseball players like C.C. Sabathia, Albert Pujols or David Price, it’s to the markets that can pay what the others can’t even dream. They’re all moves to a higher priority of something.
The best quarterbacks don’t go anywhere except right up the financial ladder of where they started from. During the past 14 months, Andrew Luck and Cam Newton have signed on for deals north of $100 million, both with the franchises that drafted them. They worked the deals out with more than a year left until free agency. It was what star players often don’t do in today’s sports world.
That goes for the NFL, too. This offseason alone brought monster guaranteed sums from new teams for stars at defensive end (New York Giants’ Olivier Vernon, $52.5 million), cornerback (Washington’s Josh Norman, $50 million), guard (Oakland’s Kelechi Osemele, $25.4 million) and center (Atlanta’s Alex Mack, $28.5 million). In a win-now league that requires franchises to fill their ever-increasing cap space, free agency has become the ultimate floor for athletes seeking what they think they deserve.
That’s not the case at quarterback. The reasons vary but ultimately circle around a theme: The position is simply different, from every other on the football field and from any level of stardom in any other sport.
The market for quarterbacks has become a unique one where the workers often set the prices and the employers ask where to sign. There’s some negotiation along the way, of course, mostly in the form of establishing backdoors at the end of a long contract. But there’s a reason why the 14 biggest average salaries in the NFL all belong to quarterbacks, and it isn’t that they can all throw a football the way Newton or Luck can.
It’s when the two sides sit down to discuss a contract, they’re both mostly in agreement. They share an understanding of how much a good quarterback means to a stable organization and vice-versa. In both of them, thoughts of the possibilities outside the current marriage quickly turn into fears neither would like to explore.
A team in need
The decision to dedicate an enormous portion of the salary cap to a single player isn’t hard when that player displays MVP traits and takes the team to a conference championship game in his first five years, like Newton and Luck have.
The decisions teams have to make get more difficult with quarterbacks who appear to be in the second tier, names like Jay Cutler, Andy Dalton, Ryan Tannehill, Alex Smith and Tyrod Taylor. Ultimately, those players still receive contracts averaging at least $17 million per year. They usually don’t get away to the open market.
“Once you acquire one of these players and he shows almost any semblance, any glimpse of being a capable starter, a capable starter-plus, then you’re almost married to that quarterback for many years to come,” said former Browns general manager Phil Savage, who is now a commentator at ESPN, “because 1) you understand what it took to even get in position to draft a quarterback high in the draft. 2) You know what it’s taken over a two- or three-year period to try to develop that quarterback once he was in your program and then 3) the idea of the known versus the unknown.”
Teams are well-versed in the importance of a quarterback in today’s pass-heavy league, where the rules keep them on the field and extend their careers, and where they have more control over the success of the positions around them than any other can even begin to rival.
Actually finding the franchise quarterback to build around is much more difficult. History shows they rarely come outside of the first round of the draft, as only three the 11 quarterbacks to start a divisional playoff game the past two seasons were not first-round picks. The exceptions include Tom Brady, who as a former sixth-round pick will always be the anomaly. He was also the only quarterback of the four to start in this year’s conference championship games who wasn’t a No. 1 overall pick. The other three were Newton, Luck and Peyton Manning.
It’s difficult to reach the top of the draft, either in affording the bomb of a season to do it or in trading up. The Rams and Eagles did so this spring by shipping out a combined 11 draft picks to be able to take Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, respectively. They were able to take the quarterbacks they sought, but the ability to build talent around them will now be severely handicapped without top draft picks.
And picking quarterbacks near the top of the draft remains far from a guarantee of success. Of the 14 who were drafted in the top half of the first round from 2006-2012, only six were still their team’s starting quarterback by their fifth year.
The looming pressure to reach the playoffs that hangs over coaches and general managers makes it hard to pass up a guy who has shown he can get them there or has the potential. The alternatives just aren’t readily available. Most other positions offer multiple starters to evaluate as potential replacements, or at least backups who often see the field. But because the market forces teams to pump so much money into the starting quarterback, the money for a high-caliber backup is often hard to find. It’s also hard to justify, with how little many backups need to see the field in a league protecting against quarterback hits.
The free-agent market doesn’t often offer starting quarterbacks as alternatives, either, although exceptions do happen once in a while. Drew Brees hit the market in 2006 after the Chargers chose Philip Rivers over a smaller quarterback who would later need shoulder surgery. Carson Palmer left the Raiders after two middling seasons to sign with the Cardinals. Both franchises rebounded well to find other franchise quarterbacks, but the success Palmer and Brees have had since has only added to the league-wide fear of letting one slip away.
It’s something the Saints could see next spring with Brees, who is set to play his final season of a five-year contract, and the Redskins could see with Kirk Cousins, whom they applied the $19.95 million tag to in order to see him replicate last year’s late-season run.
This spring, Brock Osweiler was able to leave the Broncos after starting seven games for the first time last season, and he received $37 million guaranteed from the Texans as his reward. In the process, he tugged at the question with quarterbacks once more: If Osweiler can receive more than $5 million guaranteed per career start, why don’t more quarterbacks test the open market and see what they can get?
A player in want
Osweiler is an anomaly.
He wasn’t a starting quarterback until Manning got hurt, and he lost that job upon Manning’s return. Behind the league’s No. 1 defense, the Broncos won the Super Bowl despite leading the regular season with 23 interceptions. They didn’t have to manage the position with the level of pressure other teams might.
Backup quarterbacks who flash potential in small bursts are typically the ones interested in moving to a new team and who will see some value to reward them. Teams often recognize this and trade their rising backups before they hit free agency, such as the Packers did by sending Matt Hassselbeck to the Seahawks and Mark Brunell to the Jaguars. It’s also how Green Bay got Brett Favre from the Falcons.
The proven starting quarterbacks are the ones who have less interest because they, too, know how it took to get to where they are. Teams spend years designing a scheme and surrounding personnel around the strengths of the signal caller. Whereas teams understand a quarterback can raise the play of everyone else, passers often realize they need a support system to be able to perform.
It’s what sets them apart from baseball stars, who feel like they can pitch a shutout in Yankee Stadium just as well as they can at Wrigley Field. It makes them different from basketball stars, who play an increasingly positionless game and have shown the ability to translate their skills from one team to the next. It’s even different in a lesser way than most other positions in football, which have an easier time performing well in a vacuum.
“Why change something that’s working?” said Leigh Steinberg, who serves as an agent for Broncos rookie quarterback Paxton Lynch and has represented Steve Young, Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Aikman throughout his career. “It’s a risky element to move, and there’s no economic incentive to do it because their incumbent team will pay them premium as if they were in free agency. They don’t need the effect of competitive bidding because the market already reflects that.”
The market for the quarterback is what helps make the incentive so much different than in other sports. In the NBA, no individual player can earn more than 25 to 35 percent of his team’s salary cap, depending on the season. It leaves playing as a choice of which city, organization and teammates feel best, which is why a player like Durant might leave Oklahoma City for a star-studded Golden State team that has reached two straight NBA Finals.
Major League Baseball is the only major sporting league without a salary cap, and the vast differences in market size allow some teams to spend far more than others. When Sabathia signed with the New York Yankees at eight years and $186 million in 2009, he received a 266-percent increase in average salary from his most recent contract in Cleveland.
NFL quarterbacks are in somewhat of a middle ground, where teams can continue to raise the bar for how much they make.
“You could take the risk in going out on the open market and maybe maximizing your market value and getting more, but the problem is, you’re probably going to get either franchise tagged if they actually like you and want you or it’s going to be something that’s too hard to turn down,” said former Browns first-round quarterback Brady Quinn, who is now an analyst with FOX Sports.
“Every NFL player is selfish in the sense that they’re trying to make as much money as possible. I just think other positions are maybe more aware of the fact that they tend to have a shorter lifespan as far as their ability to stay within the league or play within the league.”
Steinberg, who estimates he once represented half the starting quarterbacks in the NFL during the 1990s, said security matters more to quarterbacks than any other factor. That comes financially, as teams like the Colts will pay up to $24.6 million annually for a five-year contract to keep a young quarterback like Luck. It also comes in having a surrounding cast that feels like a decent bet to keep growing within.
“What you look for is a home where they can plant down roots, get familiar with everyone and go on a long-term run,” Steinberg said.
It’s what the Ravens did with Joe Flacco, playing a waiting game as a quarterback who consistently ranked outside the top 10 in passing yards helped guide them to playoff wins but not the Super Bowl. After he led them to a championship with an 11-touchdown, zero-interception postseason in 2012, they rewarded him richly with a six-year, $120.6 million deal.
It’s similar to what the Chiefs are trying now with Smith. They gave the 2005 No. 1 overall pick a four-year, $68 million extension before he’d won them a playoff game, banking on his ability to run Andy Reid’s conservative, quick-strike system and their investments in building up the team around him. Last winter, they won 11 games and the franchise’s first playoff game in 22 years.
It’s not that these organizations necessarily have the perfect plans in place at the quarterback position. It’s they look around at the available paths to an alternative and have to scratch their heads.
Nate Atkins is an NFL features writer for All22.com. He previously covered the Chicago Bears and the NFL for Pro Football Weekly. You can reach him via email at email@example.com and can follow him on Twitter @NateAtkins_.