Earlier in the week I posted an article debunking the notion that the 2021 playoffs were portending a sea change upending the notion that top paid QBs make it more difficult for the rest of their teams to succeed in a salary cap environment. On deeper inspection, while young players like Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen recently signed massive deals, they remain low cost in the near term as a result of still playing out their rookie contracts. In fact, Jimmy Garoppolo is, by a significant margin the highest paid QB left in the playoffs at this point.
But while that’s true in 2021, has it always been the case? Thanks to the considerable reference material available through overthecap.com, I was able to go back all the way to 2013 to check. True, it’s not the full record of the free agency era, but it’s a pretty nice dataset, and some interesting patterns seem to emerge nonetheless.
For each season below, I’ve listed the 4 teams who made the championship rounds of the playoffs, their quarterback, and that quarterback’s salary percentage as a function of the overall salary cap for the team. I’ve listed the Super Bowl winner in bold, and the Super Bowl loser in italics. I’ve also noted the top paid quarterback, as a function of salary cap impact, in the league each year at the bottom of each entry.
Quarterbacks on rookie contracts ran the NFC this year, with Tom Brady in the prime of his career and late stage Peyton Manning both well compensated on the AFC side. Eli Manning, basking in the glow of his 2011 Super Bowl win, and with a war chest to match, had the top QB salary in the league, weighing down the Giants, who finished 7-9.
San Francisco - Colin Kaepernick - 1.1%
Seattle - Russell Wilson - .5%
New England - Tom Brady - 10.8%
Denver - Peyton Manning - 12.5%
Top QB in the league as a function of cap % - Eli Manning (16.9%)
Aaron Rodgers was riding high on the contract signed in the wake of his 2010 Super Bowl win. Russell Wilson was back again, on his meager rookie contract. In the AFC, Andrew Luck was still on his rookie deal and Brady was rolling comfortably. Ben Roethlisberger, who had last won a Super Bowl in 2008, now was at the top in terms of QB salary. The Steelers finished 11-5 and lost in the Wild Card round of the playoffs.
Green Bay - Aaron Rodgers - 12.4%
Seattle - Russell Wilson - .6%
Indianapolis - Andrew Luck - 4.6%
New England - Tom Brady - 10.6%
Top QB in the league as a function of cap % - Ben Roethlisberger (14.2%)
In the NFC, Cam Newton was finishing out the 5th year option of his rookie deal, while Carson Palmer was in the second year of an affordable extension by the Cardinals (he would be extended at a significant bump the following year). Brady kept trucking, and Peyton Manning would win another Super Bowl in his final season. Drew Brees, who had won a Super Bowl in 2009, was at the top of the quarterback salary mountain by a wide margin. The Saints would finish 7-9 and miss the playoffs.
Arizona - Carson Palmer - 5%
Carolina - Cam Newton - 8.7%
New England - Tom Brady - 9.8%
Denver - Peyton Manning - 11.7%
Top QB in the league as a function of cap % - Drew Brees (16.4%)
In the priciest semi-finals on this list, four well-compensated veterans led their teams to the championship games. It would be the last time that Roethlisberger and, likely, Ryan, would ever do so. If there were ever a season for trying to make the case that teams can be competitive with massive QB salaries, this would probably be it. Roethlisberger had the biggest salary cap hit in the league that year, but it turns out that Brady, the “cheapest” of the four semi-finalists took home the Lombardi.
Green Bay - Aaron Rodgers - 11.8%
Atlanta - Matt Ryan - 15%
Pittsburgh - Ben Roethlisberger - 15.3%
New England - Tom Brady - 8.6%
Top QB in the league as a function of cap % - Ben Roethlisberger (15.3%)
On the heels of the priciest championship series came the least expensive on this list, and perhaps one of the lowest of all time. If there’s ever been a more modest threesome in the championship games than Keenum, Foles, and Bortles, I would be very hard pressed to name it. Foles, of course, took it all that year. Joe Flacco, years away from his Super Bowl winning season in 2012, was the highest compensated QB this year. His Ravens would go 9-7 and miss the playoffs.
Vikings - Case Keenum - 1.1%
Eagles - Carson Wentz/Nick Foles (3.4% + .9%) - 4.3%
Jacksonville - Blake Bortles - 3.2%
New England - Tom Brady - 8.3%
Top QB in the league as a function of cap % - Joe Flacco (15%)
Brady and Brees were both well-compensated vets at this point, while Mahomes and Goff were still on their rookie deals. Brady and the Patriots would beat Goff and the Rams in the Super Bowl, and Brees would never get this deep into the playoffs again. Garoppolo tore his ACL in Week 3, the 49ers went 4-12, but he was still the highest paid QB in the league in 2018.
LA Rams - Jared Goff - 4.2%
New Orleans - Drew Brees - 13.4%
New England - Tom Brady - 12.2%
Kansas City - Patrick Mahomes - 2.1%
Top QB in the league as a function of cap % - Jimmy Garoppolo (15.6%)
Rodgers had one of the highest cap hits on this list during this season, while Garoppolo’s actually dipped dramatically from the year before. On the AFC side, Tannehill was looking to get his foot in the door with the Titans on a bargain deal that eventually earned him a massive contract, and Mahomes was still on his rookie deal. Like a Lamborghini being stored in a hovel, the Lions showered Matt Stafford in riches only to go 3-12-1.
Green Bay - Aaron Rodgers - 14.9%
San Francisco - Jimmy Garoppolo - 8.6%
Tennessee - Ryan Tannehill - 1%
Kansas City - Patrick Mahomes - 2.4%
Top QB in the league as a function of cap % - Matt Stafford (15.8%)
On the NFC side, veterans Brady and Rodgers again ruled the day. In the AFC, young players were ascendant, with Mahomes and Allen still on their rookie deals. Russell Wilson was the highest compensated QB as a function of cap space this season, and the Seahawks made the playoffs, but were knocked out in the Wild Card round.
Tampa Bay - Tom Brady - 12.2%
Green Bay - Aaron Rodgers - 10.6%
Buffalo - Josh Allen - 2.7%
Kansas City - Patrick Mahomes - 2.4%
Top QB in the league as a function of cap % - Russell Wilson (15.5%)
This year, vets again reign supreme in the NFC, with Garoppolo the highest paid of the group. Rookie contracts rule on the AFC side, in what looks like it could be moderately lengthy trend. Russell Wilson was again the top compensated QB in the league this year, but that wasn’t enough to get his Seahawks into the playoffs. They finished 7-10.
San Francisco - Jimmy Garoppolo - 13.7%
LA Rams - Matt Stafford - 10.7%
Kansas City - Patrick Mahomes - 4%
Cincinnati - Joe Burrow - 4.2%
Top QB in the league as a function of cap % - Russell Wilson (17.5%)
Looking at nine years of data like this, there are some interesting trends. I want to caution that none of these are necessarily causal, but I think it’s worth discussing the relationships nonetheless.
- The top paid quarterback in the league was never the quarterback whose team won the Super Bowl that year (but he was often the QB whose team had won the Super Bowl several years prior). In fact, the top paid quarterback in the league never made the Super Bowl. He only made the final four once in these nine cases (11% of the time).
- The Super Bowl winning QB never had a salary that was more than 12.2% of his team’s cap (Brady was at that percentage twice). For 2022, that would translate to roughly a $26M cap hit.
- Of QBs in the championship round, about 40% were on their rookie contracts. Nearly 20% were Tom Brady (not on his rookie contract).
- Russell Wilson hasn’t been back to the final four since he came off his rookie deal. Patrick Mahomes is really the only parallel on this list, and this season is the last one on his rookie deal.
What other interesting trends do you see in the data? Is there anything here that surprises you? If so, please mention it in the comments.
What do you think about this salary look back for the playoff semi-finals?
This poll is closed
I find it compelling, and it confirms my suspicions.
I find it compelling, and it changed my mind.
Can I have my 5 minutes back?
This article contains corrections to the top paid QBs in 2017, 2020, and 2021 from the original publication.