By: Amaeya Deshpande
Over the last few years, football fans have commonly formed the notion that teams with a quarterback on a rookie deal are at an advantage due to their low cap hit. While some quarterbacks consume nearly a quarter of the salary cap, quarterbacks on rookie deals take a much smaller fraction of a team’s cap space. Thus, some teams can utilize this additional money to improve other positions and create a more well-rounded roster. While this is certainly appealing, it neglects the fact that quarterbacks on rookie deals are no sure thing and that quarterbacks on large contracts tend to be those with successful track records. Despite the widespread belief that NFL teams are in their optimal Super Bowl window while their quarterback is on a rookie deal, there is little evidence used to support this claim. In reality, data suggests that there is no association between a quarterback’s salary and their team’s regular season success, postseason success, and Super Bowl chances.
Before continuing, it is important to note a few factors regarding NFL salary data. First, a quarterback’s rookie deal value is dependent on where they are drafted. Thus, quarterbacks taken early in the draft, the most coveted players, still earn a large sum of money. Players on the cheapest deals are often players taken later in the draft who are not considered immediate starters. Another critical note is that the salary cap changes each year at a different percentage, which can inflate or deflate a player’s salary cap consumption based on the year. Lastly, the values of each position is constantly changing along with the salary cap, so this data does not necessarily predict the impact of quarterback salaries on team success moving forward.
Regular Season Success
Perhaps the most telling metric of whether or not having a quarterback on a rookie contract is beneficial is team win percentage. There are pros and cons to both quarterbacks on rookie deals and quarterbacks on large contracts, but a team’s ultimate goal is to win as many games as possible regardless of the status of their quarterback’s salary. To determine if there is any correlation between salary cap consumption and team win percentage, the following graphs plot each metric for quarterbacks who are and who are not on rookie contracts for each of the past three seasons.
Based on these plots, it is evident that there has been no association between how much of the salary cap a quarterback takes up and their team’s win percentage in the last few years. The r-squared values of 0.062, 0.041, and 0.043 confirm this conclusion. This data consists of the primary starting quarterback of each team in each year, totalling 96 data points which suggest no association. Although the data is not meant to be fit by a linear model, the least squares regression line for each plot actually indicates that there is a slightly positive correlation, suggesting that teams win more under more expensive quarterbacks. This conclusion cannot be made because each line has a slope close to 0, thus it can be inferred that there has been no association in recent years.
The histogram and boxplot allow for a comparison of team win percentage between these two groups of quarterbacks collectively over the last three seasons. While there are differences in both of these graphs, neither can conclude that one group generally has a higher win percentage than the other. For example, the mean win percentage for quarterbacks on non-rookie deals is higher while the median win percentage for quarterbacks on rookie deals is higher. The minimum and maximum win percentage for quarterbacks on rookie contracts are higher while the lower and upper quartiles for quarterbacks on non-rookie contracts are higher.
There are a few notable characteristics of these plots which can provide interesting insight. First, despite a lower sample size, there have been twice as many quarterbacks on rookie deals to lead their teams to a win percentage above .800. This suggests that a majority of the most successful regular season teams were led by quarterbacks who were on rookie contracts. Teams in this category are highlighted by superstar quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen, Allen accomplishing this feat twice on a rookie deal and Mahomes doing so once on a rookie deal and once on his massive extension. The other two quarterbacks to eclipse an .800 win percentage in the last three years were Aaron Rodgers in 2020 and Jalen Hurts in 2022. Second, also despite a smaller sample size, there have been more teams over the last three years under quarterbacks on rookie deals to finish with a win percentage below .300. This difference makes sense as quarterbacks on large contracts are typically talented enough to prevent their team from an abysmal season whereas some teams with young quarterbacks are rebuilding for the future.
Overall, there is no indication that there is any association between salary cap consumption and regular season win percentage. While teams with quarterbacks on rookie deals are more likely to have more extreme win percentages, there is generally little difference between the two groups of quarterbacks.
While teams certainly care about regular season results, the postseason is what really matters. When the lights are the brightest, can young quarterbacks produce at a higher rate than established veterans? The following bar graph compares the number of playoff wins between the two groups of quarterbacks the last three postseasons.
Recent data indicates that there is practically no difference in postseason results based on quarterback contract type. In each of the last three years under the new NFL playoff format, the difference in wins has only been one game. This data is dominated by a group of the same players, with younger quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow and veterans Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo. It is important to remember that this is only a small sample of playoff games and quarterbacks are not necessarily the reason a team wins a playoff game. However, postseason history provides no reason to believe that quarterbacks on rookie deals allow for teams to win more big games.
Super Bowl Chances
The greatest prize in the sport of football is winning the Super Bowl, and football fans have particularly assumed that high cap hit quarterbacks prevent a Super Bowl caliber roster. The assumption that a team is in their “Super Bowl window” while their quarterback is on a rookie deal can simply be dismissed by this century’s Super Bowl winning quarterbacks. Since 2000, there have been only 9 of a total 23 Super Bowl winning quarterbacks to win the big game on a rookie deal. One notable exception is the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles who were led by second-year quarterback Carson Wentz much of the season until a torn ACL resulted in veteran Nick Foles stepping in and leading the team to a championship. The following graph displays the salary cap consumption of each of the last 23 Super Bowl winning quarterbacks.
The graph lacks an identifiable trend, and year to year, there is a drastic difference in the salary cap consumption of a Super Bowl winning quarterback. Patrick Mahomes leading the Kansas City Chiefs to last year’s Super Bowl with a cap percentage of 17.19% is the lone outlier in this data, but it proves that even the highest paid quarterbacks can win a championship. The lowest cap hits in this era are Tom Brady in 2001, who won three total on his rookie deal and four more beyond, and Russell Wilson in 2012, who was debatably carried by his generationally talented defense. Considering that Brady and Ben Roethlisberger are responsible for five of the nine Super Bowls of quarterbacks on rookie deals this century, it is not exactly a normal occurrence of quarterbacks to win rings early in their career as some infer. Only the best of the best, such as these two future Hall of Famers, surrounded by talent and elite coaching have ever prospered so early on. Under the perfect circumstances, a quarterback on a rookie contract can be beneficial, but generally, there is no reason to believe so.
Through analyzing team success in the regular season, postseason, and the Super Bowl, it can be determined that the notion that teams have a greater likelihood to succeed with a quarterback on a rookie contract is false. The data suggests that there is close to an equal chance of success at each of these levels between rookie deal and non-rookie deal quarterbacks. Some data even indicates that having a veteran quarterback puts a team at a slight advantage. There are numerous factors which play into a team’s success, but a quarterback’s salary is not one of them. The graph below shows a team’s win percentage before and after giving their quarterback a large extension. The data in this graph comes from quarterbacks drafted after 2000 who stayed with the same team into their second contract, and proves that a jump in a quarterback’s salary has no impact on team success.
Once again, there is no trend in the data, implying no meaningful association. The blue line represents no change in a team’s record. While there are few points which fall on the line, there are about as many values on each side of the line. Some teams improve despite a jump in a quarterback’s salary and some teams regress. Ultimately, there are a multitude of other reasons that cause these results.
So what does this all mean for an NFL organization? For one, a team should not be hesitant about giving their quarterback a large extension with the sole concern that a jump in their salary will prohibit them from forming a successful team around him. The decision to give a quarterback a big second contract should be dependent on the player’s performance and whether or not they are worthy of that money. Plenty of quarterbacks have succeeded on massive contracts, they just have to be the right player. Second, a young quarterback is only likely to succeed if there is already infrastructure in place for them. Quarterbacks on rookie deals tend to have more variety in team success because some are given the assets to win games while others are not. Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes are prime examples of early career accomplishments due to ideal circumstances. A team with a young quarterback is only in their ideal window if the surrounding players and coaching can elevate them. Lastly, the league is constantly changing and the value of each position varies, meaning that history does not always have to determine what decisions an organization makes. Every team and every player is different, and statistics and metrics alone cannot decide what is considered a good or bad move. A team can reach the ultimate goal of a Super Bowl with or without a quarterback on a rookie deal. It is more important to assess all other aspects of team building which have a greater influence on winning.