The Bottom Line: NFL QB Salary Cap Edition
“You wouldn’t want to see the size of the check that I would write if it would for sure get the Dallas Cowboys a Super Bowl.” — Dallas Cowboys Owner, Jerry Jones
A lot was made over the last year about how much Jerry Jones was going to pay his star quarterback, Dak Prescott. Reports of his contract negotiation had pegged Prescott’s target salary at about $40m, which would’ve made him among the highest paid quarterbacks in the NFL. Why was this news such a big deal? For starters, we’re talking about the Dallas Cowboys here (the most valuable sports franchise in the world!), so despite their lack of recent success the Cowboys always dominate sports news. Additionally, the NFL is a salary cap sports league that has more of a hard cap relative to baseball or basketball, which in turn creates opportunity costs whenever one player’s slice of the salary cap pie is “too big” because it may introduce challenges to acquiring talent at other positions. So, would paying Prescott $40m necessarily be a detriment to the Cowboys’ chance of success of winning another Super Bowl? I decided to do a salary cap analysis to determine how much of an impact a quarterback’s salary cap hit had on a team’s success on the field.
To begin my analysis, I built a data table that included salary cap information for quarterbacks from 2011 to 2021 (data source: https://overthecap.com/). Once the table was built I filtered the Season Finish column to see what was the maximum salary cap percentage for a Super Bowl winning QB. It turns out that since 2011, no team has won a Super Bowl when their quarterback accounts for more than 12.61% of the salary cap:
A few takeaways from this chart:
- Tom Brady sure does win a lot. Maybe this has to do with the fact that he typically takes less a salary that is less than the top of the market for quarterbacks and that he also structures his contracts in a team-friendly manner that provides his team with flexibility to add more talent to the roster? I’m sure being married to the highest paid supermodel in the world helps too, right?
- Having a quarterback on a rookie contract seems to help. Since a quarterback on a rookie contract tends to consume less cap space it is easier to surround that rookie with more talent.
With the 12.61% cap metric in hand, I decided that I wanted to see what how quarterbacks who had a cap hit greater than 12.61% finished their season. This was my finding:
I found it interesting that over half (57.14%) the instances of having a quarterback consume more than 12.61% of the cap resulted in not making the playoffs. This finding definitely supports the idea that paying a premium for a quarterback creates issues with being able to surround a quarterback with talent. Now, the caveat (albeit a rather small one) is that there have been a couple occurrences of a highly paid quarterbacks making it to the conference championship game or the Super Bowl, but these season finishes only account for 12.24% of the data.
So who are these salary cap hogging quarterbacks? I’m glad you asked:
I decided to use the last two data visuals to create a dashboard with a drill through effect. In Tableau this can be created through the Actions Filter function. Creating this effect allows a user to click on a player and see how they finished their season. Since Ben Roethlisberger was among the biggest salary cap percentage offenders, let’s use him as a case study:
Here we can see that half the time “Big Ben” consumed more than 12.61% of the salary cap that his team failed to make the playoffs, which is consistent with the earlier finding of the entire data set.
Selecting the quarterbacks with three or more occurrences of having a cap percentage over 12.61% yielded this result:
The two lone quarterbacks that made it to the Super Bowl despite their cap hit are Peyton Manning and Matt Ryan. Manning suffered a bludgeoning defeat by the hands of the Seattle Seahawks’ legendary “Legion of Boom” defense. Ryan almost won the Super Bowl, but despite a 28–3 lead in the third quarter Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons were on the losing end of a historic comeback by Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
So, what does this all mean for Jerry Jones’ quest to see the Cowboys win another Super Bowl? Nothing. Thanks to salary cap magic Prescott’s salary cap percentage this year is only 9.42%. They do have a different issue, however, which will be the subject of The Bottom Line: NFL RB Salary Cap Edition. Till then I leave you with a list of quarterbacks in the current season with a salary cap percentage higher than 12.61%: