By: Daniel Wang
To state the obvious, the NFL is a quarterback-centric league. Quarterbacks are the heart of a football team and lead the offense, more often than not dictating their team’s performance. With that being said, how important is the QB position really for winning a Super Bowl? Quarterback is far and away the highest-paid position in football: superstar quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes (10 years, $450 million) and Deshaun Watson (5 years, $230 million) have received massive long-term extensions, while mid-level quarterbacks like Daniel Jones (4 years, $160 million), Geno Smith (3 years, $75 million), and Jimmy Garoppolo (3 years, $72.75 million) have recently cashed in big. Quarterbacks from Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes to Trent Dilfer and Nick Foles have all won Super Bowls, so is paying this absurd amount of money for a quarterback necessary for winning a Super Bowl?
First, let’s look into the offensive pass and rush DVOA rankings for Super Bowl champions since 1989.
Based on this graph, Super Bowl champions tend to have a top-10 passing offense and rely on the pass more than their running game. Interestingly, it seems like having one of the top passing offenses wasn’t at all a necessity for winning the Super Bowl between 2000 and 2010. However, in recent years, there has been a trend of top 5-10 passing offenses winning Super Bowls, largely because all-time great quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes have dominated the past decade.
Next, let’s focus specifically on quarterbacks by seeing where each Super Bowl champion’s quarterback has ranked in their respective seasons. To measure their ranking, we will use DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement), which gives the value of a quarterback’s performance compared to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent then translated into yardage.
This graph confirms the belief that Super Bowl champions generally have a top-10 quarterback, with a few outliers between 2000 and 2010. Thus, it is safe to conclude that having a top quarterback is an important factor in winning a Super Bowl. However, having a quarterback that ranks between 5th and 12th in the league is often enough; having the very best quarterback in the league doesn’t seem to be a necessity. It’s surprising that there have been multiple Super Bowl champions with a quarterback that ranked worse than 30th in the league in DYAR. To explore how these teams were able to compensate for poor quarterback play, let’s compare the offensive and defensive DVOA rankings for past Super Bowl champions.
We previously observed that Super Bowl champions between 2000 and 2010 relied less on their offense, and this graph shows that these teams were able to compensate for a worse offense with elite defense. When a team’s offensive ranking is relatively lower, its defensive ranking tends to be relatively higher. Still, most Super Bowl champions have an offense and defense both ranking in the top 10, highlighting the importance of balance to win a Super Bowl. While it can be tempting to spend absurd amounts of money to secure a top quarterback, Super Bowl champions have shown to build strong units in all aspects of the team, not neglect one unit for another. In recent years, it seems like offense has begun to outweigh defense, a trend that will be interesting to monitor moving forward with the wealth of offensive talent entering the league.
Looking more specifically at defense, what areas do Super Bowl teams tend to excel in?
This graph conveys that Super Bowl champions generally succeed against the pass, which makes sense since Super Bowl teams tend to have top-10 passing offenses led by top-10 quarterbacks. Aside from getting strong quarterback play, it’s important for Super Bowl teams to build a strong pass defense, which involves all aspects of the defense like the pass rush, secondary, and even the scheme. While rush defense tends to be less important among Super Bowl champions, these teams still generally have above-average rush defenses and are able to show some restraint against the run.
Now that we’ve established the importance of both high-level quarterback play and balance to win a Super Bowl, let's analyze how much past champions generally spend on their quarterbacks.
Looking at this graph, Super Bowl champions generally spend around 10-12% of their cap space on their quarterbacks. Some low outliers include players like Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes while on their rookie contracts, highlighting the importance of drafting and developing quarterback talent in the NFL. The league is currently undergoing quarterback inflation and quarterbacks are getting paid more than ever: teams today routinely spend over 20% of their salary cap on their quarterbacks. However, recent Super Bowl champions suggest that this is not the winning formula. While having a formidable quarterback is important, balancing spending by not overspending on one position is key. Factoring in quarterback inflation, teams should still aim to spend around 15 and no more than 20% of their cap space on the quarterback position. Securing a top 10-15 quarterback for a reasonable amount is worth significantly more value than paying considerably more for the top superstars, even if their differences in play may seem to justify the overspending. A big reason for this is that bolstering other units of the offense, like the offensive line, can significantly boost a quarterback’s play and sometimes draw elite-level play out of a mediocre quarterback.
We already prioritized the importance of assembling a balanced team, including building a strong defense, but other positions on offense can be improved to directly help the quarterback. Based on this graph, better offensive line play is connected with better quarterback play as the ranking for the offensive line and quarterback of past Super Bowl champions tend to be very similar and both begin to rise sharply around 2012. The most recent Super Bowl champions have all had top offensive lines and quarterbacks.
As we viewed earlier, Super Bowl champions tend to rely on their passing offense more than their rushing offense. However, there has been a recent rise in dual-threat quarterbacks like Jalen Hurts, Lamar Jackson, and Josh Allen, raising the question: have dual-threat, rush-heavy quarterbacks achieved Super Bowl success in the past?
This graph shows that almost all Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks have relied heavily on their arm rather than their legs. The only quarterback with more than 400 rushing yards to win a Super Bowl was Russell Wilson in the 2013-2014 season. While this trend may discourage teams from targeting dual-threat quarterbacks, it’s worth tracking how this trend holds up in future years given the evolution of the sport, which seems to be shifting away from pure pocket passers like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.
There’s no way around the fact that the NFL is a quarterback-centric league, and this analysis confirms that Super Bowl teams tend to have top-10 quarterbacks. However, teams that win the Super Bowl demonstrate balance on both sides of the ball rather than solely having the top quarterback. They typically spend around 10-12% of their salary cap on the position in order to balance out their spending to other positions, especially since bolstering other units like the offensive line can significantly improve a quarterback’s play and help them reach an elite level. While targeting top-10 quarterbacks and building a top-10 passing offense is ideal for winning a Super Bowl, it shouldn’t come at the expense of other areas of the team.