Last week the 2018 NFL regular season concluded and the field for this years playoffs was crystallized. Twelve teams are now ready to square off for the Lombardi Trophy. The Saints and the Chiefs are the favorites to advance out of their respective conferences, with the Rams and the Patriots nipping closely at their heels. The rest of the field is filled with newcomers; in fact, every other team in the field (aside from the four previously mentioned ones), besides last years champion Philadelphia Eagles, were not in last years bracket. Though we have a lot of differences between the teams looking to dethrone Philly, they all have one thing in common: none of them have one of the five highest paid quarterbacks in the league on their team.
I realize that I’m not exactly the first one with this observation (go ahead and google “6 highest paid QBs” if you don’t believe me), but I’m more interested in the why than the what. How did we get here when, just a few years ago, the conventional wisdom in the NFL was to grab an elite trigger-man, give him a giant contract, and ride him to a Super Bowl?
First things first, allow me to introduce the idea of a meta-game, or, more simply, the game within the game. It’s no secret that my favorite game to play, other than jiu-jitsu if you want to count that, is Hearthstone. For those of you not familiar, Hearthstone is an electronic card game featuring different heroes (who operate with different mechanics) and different cards (some of which are only available to certain heroes) and different expansions (which add and remove cards). The big takeaway is that, though the heroes are always the same, the cards are constantly changing. The rules of the game, though they never outright change, often have new mechanics and emphases that shift the way the game is played.
This is, for all intents and purposes, the way the NFL works. New players (cards) are constantly being added and removed from the pool and the cards are only available to the teams that can afford them (draft picks, salary cap space). Teams very rarely get added or removed (like heroes) and the rules of the game typically shift a bit every year (like card changes and expansions).
We’ve seen some massive shifts in the NFL meta since it’s inception. The merger of the AFL and the NFL iu the mid sixties added a larger pool of teams which increased competition and lowered any one given teams chances to win a championship. The pro-passing rule changes of the 1970’s allowed teams with new age passing attacks, like the Oakland Raiders, to flourish while other teams were stuck in the past. The growth of television and media coverage in the 1980s created new waves of players who aspired to be more than just players, and this creation of the superstar allowed for the advent of free agency in the 1990s, which in turn changed the way teams had to build their rosters and develop their players. No longer could you simply collect a team of stars and hold onto them for the rest of their careers. The Patriots’ understanding of the nuanced rules related to pass interference allowed them to gain a massive competitive advantage that helped propel them to a dynasty in the early 2000s. This in turn created new rules, namely illegal contact, which allowed the passing game to flourish. This lead to the explosion of the passing game, and, subsequently, the explosion of quarterback contracts.
Of course that’s a very basic and cursory description of the history of the league, but he point is that the NFL changes, and it usually doesn’t go very long without doing so. It’s important to note that the change can come from almost anywhere; the league might change the rules to building a team, officiating the game, or what sort of players are allowed to play. Outside forces like changing technology, media, or even political pressure can have an impact on teams. There’s a lot going on, and all of it shifts the meta of the NFL. For example, if Tyreek Hill were coming out in the 2019 NFL Draft there is absolutely no way the Chiefs would draft him, much less probably another team.
So what does this mean about the teams we discussed earlier? You probably guessed it – nearly all of them are playing into the current meta game that we’re seeing in the NFL. And the teams with the six highest paid quarterbacks? Well, they’re playing into the old meta. And if you play Hearthstone, or actually pretty much do anything remotely competitive, you know it’s pretty damn hard to win if you’re following what used to work. That’s not to say that what once worked can’t circle back around, but you typically don’t want to be a step behind.
The newest shift in the NFL started in 2011; though, like a lot of changes, the effects wouldn’t be felt for a few years. In the years leading up to 2011, rookie contracts had spiraled out of control to the point where it almost became prohibitive to selecting at the top of the draft. Teams like the Lions and Rams were forced into paying their first overall pick tens of millions of dollars before they took a snap – they were basically paying a totally unproven player to perform like that of one of the league’s top men. If you didn’t do a good job of analyzing the player that you were taking AND then get lucky that they don’t suffer some sort of horrible setback even if you were right, you were going to be set back for years.
So when the league constructed a new collective bargaining agreement, they made a change that limited the amount of money that rookies could receive. Now, instead of paying them exorbitant salaries akin to pro bowl players, the highest drafted rookies would get deals more in line with a high end backup. Instead of the 40+ and 60+ million dollar contracts paid to Matt Stafford and Sam Bradford by the teams mentioned previously, the Panthers and Colts got Cam Newton and Andrew Luck for deals just north of 20 million dollars. In other words, they had reasonable contracts with increased flexibility at a spot that typically commanded some of the biggest deals in the game. Now, teams weren’t punished as badly for making mistakes at the top of the draft. And it wasn’t long until teams realized they could use this to their advantage.
Like most innovations, the first notable shift using this strategy came almost completely by accident. The Seattle Seahawks, fresh off of inking former Green Bay Packer great Matt Flynn to a deal with ten million guaranteed dollars in free agency, selected Russell Wilson in the third round of the 2012 NFL draft. Shortly after that, they stunned the league by inserting him as their starter in the middle of training camp. Two years later they won the Super Bowl and the next year nearly won another.
In addition to nailing the Wilson picked, Seattle had helped themselves by drafting out of their mind in the previous years, selecting no less than ten pro bowl level players and developing one of the league’s all time units in their secondary, the cleverly named the Legion of Boom. This was a big reason for their success, but their championship showed the league one thing: you could win the Super Bowl with a young and inexperienced quarterback. This was a major departure from the prevailing wisdom of the current NFL mindset, which revolved around finding a star QB and backing up the brinks truck to his front door.
All of that said, it’s really fucking hard to draft that well. If you can do that, you’re basically guaranteed long term success, but but if it were that easy we’d have a lot more good teams in the league. The fact of the matter is that teams make mistakes, lots of mistakes actually, but it turns out that you can cover up some of those mistakes when you’ve got an extra 20+ million dollars a year laying around. If you’re paying Aaron Rodgers 30 million dollars, suddenly you can’t really afford to blow tens of millions of dollars on Clay Matthews or Randall Cobb. And, if you are, it really limits your ability to create a team with a lot of depth or to get heavily involved in free agency. If you’re paying Jared Goff or Carson Wentz basically nothing, you can sign a premium backup QB or throw a lot of darts at multiple free agents. Essentially, you have a lot of additional choice. And those choices just aren’t about depth. You can make more gambles that may not be available to other teams. Drafting Mitch Trubisky was widely panned when the Bears made the trade to get him, but it didn’t seem so silly when they were able to match Kyle Fuller’s restricted free agency offer with a big contract and trade for and give a mega-deal to Khalil Mack with the money they saved on a rookie contract.
It’s not impossible to win with a quarterback on a long term, big money deal – the Seahawks and the Colts are both playing in the Wild Card round after all, and this piece won’t age well if either of them can go on a tear and make it to the Super Bowl. Right now, however, the odds are stacked pretty firmly against them. It would be fitting, though, to see Wilson, the man I see responsible for this shift, coming full circle and showing that paying a guy big money might be viable.
The real winners now will be the ones that can see the next trend forming already. These playoffs might be indicative of what twist we might see on this new meta going forward. The biggest watch is the Ravens, who rushed more than any team since the 1970s. Lead by their rookie Lamar Jackson, who set an NFL record for rushing attempts in a season by a quarterback despite not starting until week eleven, they’ve developed the perfect offense to beat many of the defenses currently constructed to handle modern passing attacks. If they can make a run, you might see another team or two trying to grab a quarterback who is more of a runner than a pocket passer to try to zig when other teams are clearly zagging. That could lead to an NFL where teams, working like college offenses, run an even more wide open spread that cycle in a new quarterback every three to four years. There’s a lot to unpack in that idea, but it’s worth thinking about.
Either way, we likely won’t know what the change is until it’s starting us in the face. Half of the teams in the NFL won’t either. Just hope yours isn’t one of them.