The Hawksploitation Of A Great Young Quarterback
We are in the passing era, they said.
Your Super Bowl aspirations ride on the hopes of a star quarterback, they said.
Paying for a franchise quarterback is an integral part of winning, they said.
Well, they were wrong.
What do the 2012 Baltimore Ravens, 2012 San Francisco 49ers, and 2013 Seattle Seahawks all have in common? They all made the Super Bowl with a quarterback who was still playing under their rookie contract. Joe Flacco had a 2012 cap number of $8 million (the final year of his rookie deal), Colin Kaepernick's combined cap number the past two seasons was a hair over $2.5 million, while Russell Wilson's entire rookie deal will cost the Seahawks roughly $3 million. So how did these teams take advantage of a good, young quarterback to build a Super Bowl caliber team? Let's take a closer look.
If you take a closer look at these teams over the past two seasons, you can see they have many other similarities, specifically the way they've been built. These teams all invested heavily in locking up core players key to the ground game, pass protection, and on defense. Since these teams had the luxury of identifying their quarterbacks as winners so young, they were able to surround them with the other elements of a winning team. It may have taken the Ravens longer than the Seahawks and 49ers, but they made it to the Super Bowl eventually. By taking advantage of a realtively low cap number for their quarterbacks, these teams have a 4-5 year window of building a winner around their quarterback, not trying to pay for a quarterback to build a consistent winning team.
Maybe we're in a freak era in football with the success of rookie quarterbacks as of late, or maybe we are seeing a transition to more, instant impact type rookies. Either way, the NFL has seen its share of young quarterbacks step in immediately ready to play. The new rules in the CBA have made it so that these top rookies are costing pennies on the dollar compared to what their value was back in 2010 (Sam Bradford got $50 million guaranteed). The smarter teams are using this to their advantage. While superior scouting, player development, and coaching always helps, it's no secret that teams that have the luxury of a quarterback who costs peanuts have a huge advantage over the ones like the 2013 Ravens that have to devote a significant portion of their cap to pay for a quarterback.
Paying these quarterbacks massive contracts has severe ramifications. Cash strapped teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers just keep pushing money due to these quarterbacks in the later years of a deal down the road until they are going to have to either pay up or part ways with their QB. While I do admit, a smart move for the Seahawks and 49ers or any team with a young quarterback would be to lock them up a year earlier to surpress the overall value of a contact, teams will still eventually have to pay for good quarterbacks at the expense of other positions. Before it gets to that, however, teams should be taking full advantage of that low price tag.
The 2013 Seattle Seahawks pinched every penny they could out of the $123 million salary cap this past season, spending approximately $122 million. So what got them over the hump in 2012 as opposed to 2013? The Seahawks were able to use available cap space that wasn't going to Russell Wilson to help the team improve in key areas. Percy Harvin was acquired and signed to a big deal (he later missed just about the entire regular season, but played a huge role in the Super Bowl win), and free agent pass rushers Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril were signed to short-term deals because they wanted to win. Playing for a winner for a year or two allows them to still hit free agency and build value, while they have a legit shot at a championship.
The focus here is that even an adequate passing game can be overcame if it is surrounded by talent and aided by an elite defense, as opposed to spending big on your quarterback and taking away value elsewhere. The New York Giants spent roughly $22 million on quarterbacks in 2013, and roughly $17 million on skill players on offense. Imagine if they could have used that money to shore up the line, improve the defense, or retain Martellus Bennett? Obviously this window is closing for Seattle, as they are already faced with several tough decisions, including the need to re-sign several key players the next few years (including Wilson), but at least they got a championship out of it, and have a legit shot at one more before they have to potentially face an overhaul like the 2012 Ravens faced after winning their Super Bowl with a quarterback on his rookie deal.
As for the 49ers, they have an eerily similar setup as the Seahawks. They also invested heavily in the running game and offensive line, locked up core players on defense, and gave Kaepernick some help by acquiring Anquan Boldin. The 49ers also will have to blow things up once they have to pay Kaepernick, decide to re-sign Michael Crabtree, and pay Aldon Smith. Part of the equation here would be to lock up core players before they hit their true market value like I mentioned earler. The 49ers have done a terrific job with that, making it a priority to sign Anthony Davis, NaVarro Bowman, Patrick Willis, and Ahmad Brooks before they went anywhere near the market. The 2012 Ravens had their fair shair of core players locked up as well, and slowly helped Flacco by giving him weapons through each draft.
Again, scouting, development, and coaching plays a huge role in building a winner, but from a GM's perspective, having a top quarterback on his rookie deal is not something to be taken for granted. It's also a big bonus if the team (like the Seahawks) has other top young players playing under rookie deals. The Miami Dolphins have tried a similar model by surrounding Ryan Tannehill with talent and helping out on defense but have failed miserably, but they can't be faulted for trying the same model. The Washington Redskins, Indianapolis Colts, and Philadelphia Eagles all should be taking a similar approach this offseason, as they have the cap to build around their franchise quarterbacks. The Seahawks have found a loophole in the new CBA, and with bucking the trend successfully comes creating a trend.
Expect many teams in a similar position to try and follow suit.