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You can’t win a Super Bowl without a quarterback ...

... who has a low cap hit

NFL: AFC Divisional Round-Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs
Josh Allen in the 2021-22 playoff game against Kansas City
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe you expected “... who is elite.” An elite quarterback certainly helps a team win a Super Bowl. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning are Exhibit A from recent history. But Exhibit B is Joe Flacco and Nick Foles, good but not great QBs who won a Super Bowl, as well as Jared Goff and Jimmy Garoppolo, who came very close. What can we expect in the future? Here are some predictions.

The Kansas City Chiefs will not win the Super Bowl in the 2022 season. Nor will the Tennessee Titans, Minnesota Vikings, or Detroit Lions. Probably not the Green Bay Packers, Washington Commanders, or San Francisco 49ers. (Granted, a few of these are not hard to predict.)

The Buffalo Bills, Dallas Cowboys, Indianapolis Colts, Las Vegas Raiders, and Cleveland Browns have a one-year window - this coming season - in which to win it all.

And here’s another prediction: The New York Giants will not bring Daniel Jones back in 2023 on the franchise tag. They will either sign him to a second contract or let him walk.

Finally, a Faustian bargain of sorts to offer to Giants’ fans: Would you take the chance for the Giants to win one Super Bowl sometime in the next couple of years if it meant they wouldn’t win another for a while after that?

Perhaps you think I’m making those predictions because Kansas City traded Tyreek Hill, Green Bay lost Davante Adams, and Tennessee traded A.J. Brown this off-season. But they’re just the proximate cause of why these teams won’t win. They’re the collateral damage from the ultimate reason: The quarterbacks on these teams, however great they are, cost too much, which is why the teams couldn’t afford to keep these players.

Great players deserve to get as much money as they can. It’s the American way. But in a salary-capped NFL, there is a cost to the team of any one player having a salary that is too large a percentage of the cap. That cost is the inability to keep, or sign, other great players who can help the team win a Super Bowl.

The era of the quarterback

Here’s how the salary cap has changed over the past 12 years, and the most highly-paid player in the NFL in each of those years (data from Spotrac):

Eli Manning was the highest paid player in the NFL in 2013 and 2016. Neither was a year in which the Giants won the Super Bowl. What were the Giants paying for in those years? Answer: Past performance, not current or future success.

After the stretch from 2009-2012 in which Eli was one of the better or best quarterbacks in the NFL and did win a Super Bowl, he began his downward slide to being just average for the rest of his career (grades courtesy of Pro Football Focus):

But he didn’t get paid like an average QB. Manning used up 17 percent of the Giants’ total cap space in 2013 and 16 percent in 2016.

The salary cap chart above shows that since 2015, the highest paid NFL player has always been a QB. Joe Flacco (15 percent of the cap in 2017), Jimmy Garoppolo (21 percent in 2018), Matthew Stafford (16 percent in 2019), Dak Prescott (16 percent in 2020), Russell Wilson (18 percent in 2021), and 18 percent for Ryan Tannehill in the coming 2022 season. If you know your Super Bowl history, you’ll see that in that entire time, the highest paid QB in the NFL has not been a Super Bowl champion in the year he got paid that much.

By comparison, here are the dollar and percentage cap hits of the last 12 Super Bowl winners, from data provided by Over The Cap (there was no salary cap in 2010, after the previous collective bargaining agreement expired, so for that year I use the estimate of actual spending by Green Bay from Pro Football Talk):

Cap hits for Super Bowl winning QBs

Season SB winning QB Cap hit ($M) % of cap
Season SB winning QB Cap hit ($M) % of cap
2010 Aaron Rodgers 6.5 4.8
2011 Eli Manning 14.1 11.7
2012 Joe Flacco 8.0 6.7
2013 Russell Wilson 0.7 0.5
2014 Tom Brady 14.8 11.1
2015 Peyton Manning 17.5 12.2
2016 Tom Brady 13.8 8.9
2017 Nick Foles 1.6 1.0
2018 Tom Brady 22.0 12.4
2019 Patrick Mahomes 4.5 2.4
2020 Tom Brady 25.0 12.6
2021 Matthew Stafford 20.0 11.0

No quarterback has taken up more than 12.6 percent of his team’s cap space in the year he won the Super Bowl during this time, and half of them have been paid less than 10 percent.

Paying QBs at the expense of other positions and the future

Here are the top 10 QB cap hits and percentages for the 2022 season from Over The Cap:

Highest QB cap hits for 2022

QB Cap hit ($M) % of cap
QB Cap hit ($M) % of cap
Ryan Tannehill 38.6 18.5
Patrick Mahomes 35.8 17.2
Kirk Cousins 31.4 15.1
Jared Goff 31.2 15.0
Aaron Rodgers 28.5 13.7
Carson Wentz 28.3 13.6
Jimmy Garoppolo 27.0 13.0
Russell Wilson 24.0 11.5
Lamar Jackson 23.0 11.0
Dak Prescott 19.7 9.5

Seven of the 10 account for a larger chunk of their team’s cap space than any previous Super Bowl winner ever has. Maybe one of them can set a precedent this year and win despite the smaller amount of money available for the rest of the team. Time will tell. Every percent that goes to the QB is $2M+ not available for another position.

The Chiefs drafted Skyy Moore and signed JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling. The Packers drafted Christian Watson and traded for Randall Cobb. The Titans drafted Treylon Burks and traded for Robert Woods. Will these moves make up for the loss of Tyreek Hill, Davante Adams, and A.J. Brown? Perhaps this is the new strategy for building a Super Bowl team: Jettison elite wide receivers due for a big second contract and replace them with lower-cost options to compensate for the money paid to the QB. But if it works, it will be the first time.

Furthermore, the cap hit for these QBs for 2022 only tells part of the story. The average annual salaries for the highest paid QBs from Over The Cap are shown below:

Highest QB annual average salaries

QB Avg. ann. sal. ($M)
QB Avg. ann. sal. ($M)
Aaron Rodgers 50.3
Deshaun Watson 46.0
Patrick Mahomes 45.0
Josh Allen 43.0
Derek Carr 40.5
Matthew Stafford 40.0
Dak Prescott 40.0
Russell Wilson 35.0
Kirk Cousins 35.0
Jared Goff 33.5
Carson Wentz 32.0
Matt Ryan 30.0

These numbers are much larger than most of the 2022 cap hits shown in the previous table. NFL teams accomplish this through several budgeting tricks. The most important is the “signing bonuses” that are paid to the player in the first year of the contract but are accounted for by prorating the cost of the bonus over the remaining years. “Void years,” i.e., years after the contract is up in which part of the bonus is charged against the cap, can further push costs into the future. But these gimmicks compromise a team’s ability to field a good roster in the future.

For example, the Buffalo Bills have Josh Allen this year for a measly $16.4M cap hit after signing him to a contract extension, according to Over The Cap. They are perfectly positioned for a Super Bowl run. But in the following three years his cap hit will be $39.8, $41.8, and $51.3M, a lot of that due to his signing bonus being prorated over five years. Allen was not being a good “team player” by taking so little money this year - the actual cash he is being paid in 2022 is $47M. As long as the money is already in a player’s bank account, he doesn’t care how the team accounts for it.

But there is a second, trickier, accounting gimmick. Most contracts are not fully guaranteed. In Allen’s case, “only” $121.2M of the total $258M is guaranteed. NFL teams routinely sign players to big contracts, only to get rid of them once all the guaranteed money is paid if they don’t perform well or if the team is in financial straits. Regardless, Buffalo is on the hook for a huge amount beginning in 2023, so their window to win it all is 2022 - unless they either perform further cap gymnastics to delay costs even longer (the New Orleans Saints’ yearly strategy while they tried to get Drew Brees another Super Bowl), or find a trade partner to take on much of those costs while finding a new low-cost QB in the draft (the Philadelphia Eagles’ strategy with Carson Wentz being replaced by Jalen Hurts).

Dallas, Indianapolis, Las Vegas, and Cleveland are in similar situations. Dak Prescott’s cap number for 2023 is $49.1M, Matt Ryan’s is $35.2M, Derek Carr’s is $34.9M, and Deshaun Watson’s is a whopping $55.0M. But Carr’s and Watson’s situations are polar opposites. Carr only has $24.9M in guaranteed money - he can be released in 2023 at a cost to the Raiders of only $5.6M in “dead money.” Watson’s $230M contract however is fully guaranteed, an amazing, puzzling choice by the Browns for a player who may not see the field at all this year. Releasing Watson in 2023 would cost Cleveland $220M in dead money.

What should the Giants do with Daniel Jones?

If Daniel Jones does not produce at a high level this season, the Giants will almost surely release him at the end of the year and go quarterback shopping for 2023. Why else would they have declined his $22M fifth-year option? But what if Jones DOES play at or close to an elite level, or at least shows signs that he can?

The Giants can keep Jones for one year, even two, by putting the franchise tag on him. The franchise tag for QBs in 2023 is estimated to be $31.5M, which would be 14 percent of the projected 2023 salary cap - larger than that paid to any previous Super Bowl winning QB. If none of those seven quarterbacks who will take up 13 percent or more of his team’s cap is the Super Bowl champion for the coming season, General Manager Joe Schoen may decide that it does not make sense to commit 14 percent of his cap space to Jones.

Assuming that a trade does not occur in mid-season (e.g., to a contender whose starting QB is injured), there are two possibilities: Let Jones walk, or try to sign him to a second contract.

This is where things would get interesting. After becoming Giants GM, Schoen said that he didn’t want to defer costs to solve the Giants’ 2021 budget situation. For the most part he has been true to his word, making several painful cuts instead and renegotiating the salaries of Sterling Shepard and Blake Martinez to much lower amounts without extending them. The question is whether that is Schoen’s general philosophy regardless of the team’s situation, or whether his statement was specific to the 2022 Giants, a team lacking talent but in a bad cap situation.

Schoen was part of the Buffalo front office that signed Josh Allen to a contract extension with large deferred costs. Was Schoen in agreement with that? Take a shot at a Super Bowl now and pay for it later with a cap situation that makes a second deep title run less likely? Would he be willing to do that with Jones? Schoen could follow the example of his previous team and other contending teams and try to sign Jones to a big contract with a small 2023 cap hit but large cap hits in 2024 and beyond. He could try the Raiders’ strategy of doing so with very little guaranteed money, giving him an out after 2023 or 2024.

Or did Schoen disagree with Brandon Beane’s approach to extending Josh Allen? Will he try to chart a new path for GMs of recycling starting quarterbacks every 4-5 years? That is not easy to do, because good QBs are a scarce resource. The Indianapolis Colts were forced into that situation when their elite QB, Andrew Luck, retired early due to injuries. The Colts have been in “quarterback hell” ever since. They have bounced from Jacoby Brissett to Philip Rivers to Carson Wentz and now to Matt Ryan, all the time being a marginal playoff-caliber team that never advances far. During that time they have never seriously tried to find their QB of the future in the draft, only selecting quarterbacks on Day 3 (Jacob Eason in 2020 Round 4 and Sam Ehlinger in 2021 Round 6).

It’s all moot if Daniel Jones plays poorly this year. But if he plays well, then the fun begins - off the field.