Rams bust the myth of the overly expensive quarterback

Quarterbacks accounted for nearly one-quarter of the Rams' salary-cap costs so I don't want to hear anyone advocate for Russell Wilson to take less ever again.

Quarterbacks consumed nearly one-quarter of the Rams’s salary-cap space in 2021.

This is not the only reason I hope I will never have to hear someone argue Russell Wilson should accept anything short of market rate for his services if he really wants Seattle to win the Super Bowl, but it should be an effective counterpunch to this line of thinking. Every once in a while someone feels compelled to argue that while it’s important to have a great quarterback, he can’t make TOO much money or it becomes a burden. An albatross. A weight no team has been able to overcome.

I hate this argument for any number of reasons, the primary one being that it is wildly inaccurate with regard to how teams can maneuver around the salary cap. A secondary reason is that it not-so-subtly advocates for the employee not to take everything he can get from of his billionaire boss, and I object to that on general principle. “(Forget) the bosses!” as Jimmy McNulty gently proclaimed in “The Wire.”

Well, I was going to say that this Monday Tuesday free-for-all edition of “The Dang Apostrophe” isn’t going to be about my feelings, but apparently that’s not quite true. I do have some feelings on the subject, but hopefully that will make an argument about the salary cap go down easier.

Before we get to quarterbacks, I would like to point out a specifically depressing series of events that began last week when a photographer fell from an 8-foot stage during the Los Angeles Rams celebration at their stadium. Here’s the video:

This led to widespread criticism of Stafford on Twitter — I have been informed the technical term is a “dragging” — for lacking basic human compassion as he witnessed the fall, turned his back and walked away. The photographer suffered a broken spine and two cameras she was carrying were also damaged. She quote-Tweeted the video of Stafford’s reaction from her hospital bed.

Then it turned out the photographer — back in 2013 and 2014 — made a number of truly unfortunate and utterly offensive Tweets in which she used racial epithets, a homophobic slur and complained about “Asian people” speaking a foreign language in a library. After these Tweets began circulating, the photographer deleted her Twitter account.

For the record, I think Stafford should be embarrassed at his reaction, and I think the photographer should be utterly ashamed of the Tweets. I would merely point out that neither of these facts really had anything to do with the precipitating event, which was the photographer falling and suffering a serious injury. Stafford didn’t become more sensitive, the photographer simply became less sympathetic. As for any deeper lesson to the whole fiasco, well, the only thing I can come up with is that most of us are utterly terrible in some way or another. Most of us, however, have not had our worst moments crystallized and distributed on social media. At least not yet, and when it’s your turn in the shame box, remember, there’s nothing with a good old-fashioned apology and a vow to learn from whatever terrible behavior has been spotlighted.

Now where was I? Oh yeah, back to quarterbacks and why they shouldn’t leave a penny on the table. The Rams won the Super Bowl in spite of their quarterbacks sucking up more than $42 million of their $182.5 million in cap space. First they had to take a salary-cap hit of more than $22 million just to get Jared Goff off the roster. Then they had to pay Matthew Stafford $20 million for his services to be the third-best player on the team.

This sinks the argument that tends to crop up every year about how no team has won a Super Bowl in the past 20 years with their quarterback taking up such-and-such percentage of the cap or having a quarterback with a top-five salary or whatever convoluted explanation could come from.

This is generally followed by the invocation of Tom Brady as the patron saint for “Those Who Take Less.” While this is technically true — Brady did not max out his earning potential the way other quarterbacks have — it neglects to mention the fact that Brady was a salary that was very competitive with the top earners at his position even if he wasn’t atop the pay pyramid. He might not have had the most expensive property in quarterback cul de sac, but he wasn’t definitely living in that gated community. As proof: His career earnings rank first among all players in NFL history.

The biggest reason why I hate the argument that a quarterback should take less if winning is most important to him is that it ignores how little “taking less” would actually buy on the free-agent market.

Tight end Gerald Everett cost $7 million for one year. So did tackle Luke Joeckel, and while picking out the worst examples of recent Seahawks’ signings is a one-sided way to make a point, I like to think it also points out that the best players in the NFL don’t usually make it to free agency. In fact, free agency is the single least efficient avenue for improving your team.

The most efficient: draft well.

Second-most efficient: extend the good players you drafted.

Second-worst way: trade multiple first-round picks for a safety.

The absolute worst way: buy unrestricted free agents. It’s like ordering at a cloth-napkin restaurant where the prices aren’t on the menu. It might be good, it might not, but you’re paying through the nose regardless.

The other fact that goes unmentioned is that while the NFL has a hard salary cap, there are so many ways to navigate around and under it that the impact of one player’s salary gets exaggerated. If a team wants a player, it can always find a way. Always.

Wouldn’t it help if the quarterback took less? Sure it would. In the same way it would help pay for your kid’s college if you stopped eating out at restaurants in the two months after the child graduates high school. That might make you feel like you’re really tightening the belt, but let’s be honest, that isn’t going to be what covers little Johnny’s tuition.

So why does the argument persist? Well, because these are pro athletes we’re talking about. Guys making millions of dollars to play a game, and there’s always going to be a market for people who paint them as so fortunate just to be paid that they should be grateful for their extraordinary good fortune rather than seeing them as businessmen in an enterprise with a very short shelf life. It’s not clear whether the people who sell this line of thinking know that it will ingratiate them to the billionaire owners and bean-counting cap managers or if this is just an ancillary perk to the player hating, but either way there’s a large market of people who eat this slop up.

Paying your quarterback too much money is not the thing that holds an NFL team back. Having a quarterback who’s good, but not great? That can hold your team back. Being unable to put quality pieces around your quarterback? That’s a problem, too, but that is about draft and development, and not your team’s free-agent budget.

The problem for the Vikings is not that they’re paying Kirk Cousins $35 million per year. The problem is that Cousins is the NFL equivalent of the NBA player who averages 20 points a game but can’t be counted on to get you the bucket when you absolutely have to it in crunch time.

If you’ve got the right quarterback, though. He’s a bargain even at a steep price. Peyton Manning accounted for 17.2 percent of the Colts’ salary cap in 2009, the year they lost to the Saints in the Super Bowl, and I’m supposed to believe the guy who got them there is the reason Indianapolis didn’t win it?  Matt Ryan accounted for 15 percent of his team’s salary cap in 2016. He piloted his team to a 25-point lead in the second quarter. Do you really think that if he’d made 13 percent of the cap instead of 15 that the Falcons would have hung on?

Thankfully, we’ve now got the Rams as an example to show that the money you spend on the quarterback doesn’t really matter once you get the right guy playing the position. If you’ve got a quarterback capable of winning a Super Bowl, his salary is not going to be the thing that holds the team back.

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