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Can NFL quarterbacks win championships on their rookie contract?

Balancing experience and salary can make for a tricky championship equation at the quarterback position.

Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

On the most recent episode of the Steelers Stat Geek podcast, I was asked the question if quarterbacks win Super Bowls on their rookie deals. Ultimately, I broke down how much of the salary cap percentage a quarterback used in a given season when the team won the Super Bowl, or even made it to the Super Bowl.

Before diving into the numbers, it’s important to realize a few boundaries within this data. First, I only went back to 2011 because the 2010 season was an uncapped year and therefore quarterbacks had no percentage of the salary cap. Also, a player like Joe Flacco who made the Super Bowl in the 2012 season was on his rookie contract but not under the current rookie wage scale. It was with the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) from 2011 that implemented a rookie wage scale and the idea of the fifth-year option for first-round draft picks. Joe Flacco is the only quarterback on the list that was on a rookie contract from the previous CBA while all other rookie contracts on the list, including Colin Kaepernick who Flacco faced that year, were under the current structure.

Here is the list of quarterbacks participating in the Super Bowl for each season going back to 2011 and the percent of the team’s salary cap they accounted for during that season:


Winner: Patrick Mahomes (17.0%)
Loser: Jalen Hurts (0.7%)*


Winner: Matt Stafford (10.7%)
Loser: Joe Burrow (4.2%)*


Winner: Tom Brady (12.2%)
Loser: Patrick Mahomes (2.4%)*


Winner: Patrick Mahomes (2.4%)*
Loser: Jimmy Garoppolo (8.6%)


Winner: Tom Brady (12.2%)
Loser: Jared Goff (4.2%)*


Winner: Nick Foles (0.9%)+
Loser: Tom Brady (8.3%)


Winner: Tom Brady (8.6%)
Loser: Matt Ryan (15.0%)


Winner: Peyton Manning (11.7%)
Loser: Cam Newton (8.7%)**


Winner: Tom Brady (10.6%)
Loser: Russell Wilson (0.6%)*


Winner: Russell Wilson (0.5%)*
Loser: Peyton Manning (12.5%)


Winner: Joe Flacco (6.6%)*
Loser: Colin Kaepernick (1.0%)*


Winner: Eli Manning (11.7%)
Loser: Tom Brady (11.0%)

*Player was on their rookie deal

+Was the backup for starter Carson Wentz (3.4%)*

**Was set to play on his 5th-year option but signed an extension which lowered his cap hit

One of the first things that stands out is Patrick Mahomes winning the Super Bowl this past season took up the highest percentage of his team’s salary cap of any other winning quarterback going back to 2011. But something else that stands out which is almost as important is that a quarterback on their rookie deal, or a player who was a backup to a quarterback on their rookie deal and took over due to injury, started in the Super Bowl every year going back to 2016. The matchup between Tom Brady and Matt Ryan in 2016 is the last time two veteran contract quarterbacks faced off in the Super Bowl.

The 2015 season is tough to classify as Cam Newton had originally had his fifth-year option picked up which would have kept him on his rookie deal, but signed an extension which actually lowered his cap hit for that season. Whether or not you want to classify that as being on his rookie deal or not is up to you. But for me, the fact that it saved money by using the extension, I’m counting him as a player on his rookie deal.

If not counting Cam Newton as a veteran contract player or counting Nick Foles as a backup, there have only been two Super Bowls out of the last 12 where both quarterbacks were on their second contract or beyond. As for the other end of the spectrum, there has only been one Super Bowl, the 2012 season, when both players were still on their rookie contracts.

When it comes to the years where a veteran contract quarterback is playing a quarterback on the rookie deal in the Super Bowl, this is happened nine of the last twelve seasons. Of those nine matchups, the veteran quarterbacks hold the advantage at 6–3. While it was even up through the 2019 season, the last three Super Bowls saw a quarterback on a veteran contract defeating a quarterback on a rookie contract in the Super Bowl.

To put some of this information into a little more perspective, Ben Roethlisberger took up 4.9% of the Steelers’ salary cap in 2005 and was still on his rookie contract. As for 2008, he took up 6.9% of the team salary cap which was the first year of his extension beyond his rookie deal. Once Ben Roethlisberger started taking up a higher percentage of the Steelers’ salary cap, the Steelers only returned to the Super Bowl one time which was during the uncapped season of 2010.

Another example of a quarterback having more success when they were not taking up as much of the salary cap is Russell Wilson in 2013 and 2014. Appearing in back-to-back Super Bowls, Wilson has not been back since his contract numbers have exploded with his fifth-year option in 2015 and his contracts beyond having him take up a much more significant portion of the cap, inhibiting his teams from spending more to build the roster.

So to answer the ultimate question, it’s very likely a quarterback on their rookie contract can reach the Super Bowl. Having the luxury of a decreased percentage of the salary cap going towards one player, teams have been able to build the roster to be much more balanced which aides in winning their respective conference. Unfortunately, when those teams reach the Super Bowl they are not as successful as teams with veteran quarterbacks.

For a more in-depth breakdown, check out the Steelers Stat Geek podcast below: