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The quarterback salary cap conundrum

Even the Steelers show how once a quarterback gets paid it is tough to keep a championship roster.

Cincinnati Bengals v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Todd Olszewski/Getty Images

It was January 2013. I was speaking to a friend of mine who is a Baltimore Ravens fan ahead of the AFC Championship Game for the 2012 NFL season. I told him that even though I was rooting against the Ravens, for his sake they better win it all that year because they were going to be in trouble going forward. With Joe Flacco leading the sixth-seed Ravens to wins over the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos, he was already showing he was going to get a decent payday following the season.

As much as we Steelers fans may want to forget about this, the Ravens ultimately went on and won the Super Bowl for the 2012 season. But what Steelers fans don’t forget is that Joe Flacco was paid an enormous quarterback salary and the Ravens only qualified for the playoffs in one of the next five seasons.

It’s an ongoing cautionary tale in the NFL. Quarterback success is something that most teams need in order to compete for a championship, but with success comes a big payday. And quarterbacks who are sucking up a large portion of their team’s salary cap are making it difficult for teams to put together a championship-caliber roster.

Before going on, I must say that it’s “difficult” and not “impossible” for a team to pay their quarterback and still be able to compete at the highest level. While having a quarterback on their rookie deal is generally the most beneficial for teams to have success in building their roster, it could come where the paydays are low at other key positions from players being on a rookie contracts. But out of them all, quarterback is the one where it is inflated the most.

Looking at the AFC and NFC Championship Games for the 2022 NFL season, there is a discrepancy between the two teams in each game when it comes to paying the quarterback. One team in each game is towards the top of the list when it comes to the amount of salary cap used at the quarter position while the other two teams are toward the bottom of the list. For the AFC, the Kansas City Chiefs dedicated the second-most amount of money of any team towards the quarterback in 2022 while the Cincinnati Bengals are towards the bottom of the league as they rank 22nd. For the NFC, the San Francisco 49ers rank 8th in the NFL in money spent on the quarterback this season, although it is not a high-priced quarterback who is playing for them at this time. Their opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles, are 31st in the NFL when it comes to the amount of salary cap space allocated to the quarterback for 2022.

Looking at the Kansas City Chiefs, having to pay Patrick Mahomes has already affected them when it comes to dealing with the salary cap as they chose to trade wide receiver Tyreek Hill last offseason rather than pay him a large contract. Hill is now the highest-paid wide receiver in the NFL in 2022 when looking at average per year (APY) of his entire contract. The Chiefs have been creative and signed players like JuJu Smith-Schuster to very cap friendly deals. But it’s something they have to constantly manage.

Looking back at Super Bowl matchup’s over the last several years, each one has had a team with a quarterback on their rookie deal (or a back up filling in for them) going all the way back through the 2017 season. The last Super Bowl that featured two veteran quarterbacks was in 2016 between the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons. Every Super Bowl since that 2016 season has featured at least one team who is ranked 20th or lower in salary cap spending at the quarterback position for that season.

In other words, it’s difficult to win a Super Bowl with a quarterback with a high salary cap number.

In fact, check out the Pittsburgh Steelers last two Super Bowl championships. The Steelers fifth Lombardi came in the 2005 season when Ben Roethlisberger was still on his rookie contract. The 2008 Super Bowl win came in the first season after Roethlisberger’s new deal where his salary cap it was still lower from spreading out his signing bonus over the contract. And in 2010 when the Steelers made the Super Bowl, Roethlisberger was taking up more of the salary cap but it was also an uncapped year for the NFL.

When the Los Angeles Rams won the Super Bowl last season, it was the first time a quarterback not named Tom Brady won the Super Bowl who wasn’t on a rookie contract going all the way back to 2015. And when it comes to Tom Brady, he’s a whole different monster. Although it was different in Tampa, Brady was notorious for constantly having a more team-friendly salary cap hit for a player of his caliber. While many have brought up the suspicious contributions by the Patriots to the TB12 Foundation over the years, I have no specific knowledge about the subject and therefore will just leave it open to speculation. But it’s difficult for teams to assemble championship rosters when the quarterback takes up so much of the salary cap space.

Another example is Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers. Rodgers has one Super Bowl championship to his name in 2010. In that season, the aforementioned uncapped year, Rodgers only counted $6.5 million toward the salary cap as he was finishing out his second contract which was an extension during his rookie deal singed before he even started and NFL game. It was a very unusual situation for the Packers, but Rodgers still had a very low salary cap hit and, despite all his accolades since which include the NFL MVP on four occasions, has not been able to repeat the success.

Bringing everything back to the Pittsburgh Steelers, they currently have a window of several seasons before it looks as if they will be paying an overly-significant salary to a quarterback which will take a large portion of their salary cap space. During that time, the Steelers would be wise to build their roster and make a push for a championship now and simply not wait for a lot of other players to develop.

It’s today’s NFL. With the salary cap and free agency, teams have to find a way to manage everything and be successful. And while Steelers fans constantly regret on how the Steelers did not win more championships with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback, perhaps they are forgetting his inflated salary as being a reason why the Steelers couldn’t quite get the entire roster together to bring home their seventh Lombardi.