Tearing Up the Playbook: Super Bowl Preview Edition

by Sam Stockton | 1/30/17 2:05am

When you take a look at upper-tier National Football League quarterbacks, one thing is immediately apparent: they all get paid a lot. Aaron Rodgers’ average annual salary is north of $22 million a year. Russell Wilson takes home just under that mark. Matt Ryan of the National Football Conference champion Atlanta Falcons makes over $20 million a year. I don’t bring this up to say someone like Rodgers is overpaid. Rodgers is probably the best thrower the NFL has ever seen. He deserves every cent that someone will pay him. The problem is that when you give one player that much money, it becomes extremely hard to build an elite team in other areas.

Take Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks as an example. From late in his rookie year through Super Bowl XLIX, Seattle was head and shoulders the best team in the NFL. Their defense was unparalleled, and their offense always found a way to make the plays needed to win close games. The reason this team was able to become such a force was that its roster was full of criminally underpaid, elite players. Stars like Wilson, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Michael Bennett were all compensated like depth players yet performed at an elite level. Now, Seattle has had to turn these veteran minimum and rookie deals into contracts that at least come close to paying their stars the salary they deserve, and the team has suffered. Today’s Seattle Seahawks are still an excellent team with All-Pro caliber players all over the field, but they have lost the level of dominance they enjoyed during that two-and-a-half-year window.

Wilson’s contract plays no small part in that drop-off as he is the most extreme example of this trend. In his second season, the Seahawks finished the regular season at an NFC-best 13-3, then won the Super Bowl in dominating fashion. Wilson made roughly half a million dollars. This year, the Seahawks went 10-5-1 and lost in the second round of the playoffs. When you commit so much money to one player, it becomes dramatically more difficult to put a well-rounded team on the field.

Rodgers is another perfect example. The Green Bay Packers are built on the premise that Rodgers is good enough to compensate for inadequacies elsewhere in the roster. Green Bay knows that, without Rodgers, it is a mediocre football team at best, but Rodgers is so good that he can make it an elite team.

Again, all of this is not to say that an elite quarterback does not deserve a high salary or that having an elite quarterback is not a near sure-fire way to have a great team. The point is that very often in the NFL, choosing to sign an elite quarterback to the kind of contract the market necessitates is extremely limiting for the rest of a team’s roster.

Now, consider the New England Patriots. They have the best quarterback ever to play the game AND he is making under $14 million dollars this season. Obviously, $14 million dollars a year is nothing to scoff at, but on the scale of star quarterback contracts this is effectively peanuts. Tom Brady could easily sign for $30 million dollars elsewhere, but instead, he takes a hit so that Bill Belichick has the resources to put a deeper and more talented team around him. If Rodgers was suspended four games, I would be stunned to see them go 3-1 the way the Patriots did this season without Brady.

It is no coincidence that the Patriots, the team that has become synonymous with sustained excellence in professional football, have locked down tremendous, yet affordable, quarterback play. Until Rodgers is willing to do something like that, the Packers will never come close to that level of sustained success. Going into Sunday night’s match, New England will have the same crippling advantage that it has every week: more money to spend on every position other than quarterback — and a better quarterback. Patriots 31, Falcons 17.

Musings of the Week:

1. This year’s Super Bowl game has the same feel that the Pittsburgh Steelers versus the Arizona Cardinals game did a few years ago. Like the Cardinals, the Falcons are a great team in a lot of ways, but it just feels like there is no way the Falcons, a team that has never won a Super Bowl, can beat NFL royalty like New England.

2. I hate that I’m even mentioning the Pro Bowl right now, but I’m going to anyway. The skills competition, or whatever it was called, was awesome. I love that the pros played dodgeball. I loved watching the best hands contest and the drone catches. The reason it was so cool is that all of the big stars participated. Odell Beckham, Jr. in best hands. Ezekiel Elliott in dodgeball. I would watch the two NFL Pro Bowl rosters go to a Denny’s as long as the big names were there. It’s unfortunate that these kinds of competitions never last because big time players stop participating. Lebron James is not in the National Basketball Association’s Slam Dunk Contest. Alex Ovechkin stopped competing in the National Hockey League’s Breakaway Challenge, then the NHL stopped doing it altogether. I’ll be interested to see how well the Pro Bowl holds up. My only criticism is that I’d like to see a fastest man competition.