In the National Football League, where compensation effectively amounts to a zero-sum game, quarterbacks who seek to maximize their personal profit may also affect their teams’ competitiveness on the field.
If pro football running backs face a dearth of options to achieve a long, lucrative career, then the players sharing the backfield face the opposite problem. Time after time in recent months, quarterbacks have received record-breaking contracts well into the nine figures.
While quarterbacks cashing in for big bucks has raised fewer eyebrows than the plight of top-tier running backs, both have major effects on the balance of power in the NFL.
A Literal and Figurative Arms Race
In the past several months, the NFL has seen numerous record-breaking contracts for quarterbacks, each larger than the last. In April, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts signed a contract extension that will pay him $255 million over five years. Ten days later, Baltimore Ravens star and former league MVP Lamar Jackson bested Hurts’ numbers by inking a five-year, $260 million deal.
The numbers kept rising over the summer. Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert signed a five-year, $262.5 million contract extension. And just as the current season started last month, Cincinnati Bengals star QB Joe Burrow signed for five years and $275 million.
The upward trend is inescapable, with each quarterback seeking to set financial records when negotiating a new deal. One can readily imagine why such competitive individuals would want to be the highest-paid players in their sport. But does this desire for individual financial success off the field hurt teams’ chances of success on it?
Paying the Other Talent
The National Football League, unlike Major League Baseball, features a salary cap that limits teams’ total compensation. Teams do have various gimmicks and strategies to structure contracts (e.g., signing bonuses) to mitigate the cap’s effects. But ultimately, one can look at the salary cap as a zero-sum game. A dollar paid to one player becomes a dollar a team cannot pay to his teammates. And the big bucks that teams pay quarterbacks come with some significant opportunity costs.
Take the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes as an example. In July 2020, Mahomes signed a 10-year, $450 million contract. That means he will make close to half a billion dollars over the course of his career. For someone who had already won one Super Bowl at the time of his signing, and who since won the Super Bowl again in February, the deal looks like money well spent.
But consider that when the Chiefs lost their first game of the season this year, defensive end Chris Jones did not play because he remained mired in a contract dispute. Consider also that in the same team opener, Mahomes lacked reliable downfield receivers. Tight end Travis Kelce sat out with an injury. The Chiefs had traded speedster Tyreek Hill to the Miami Dolphins in 2022 largely because Hill wanted a big contract. (The Dolphins gave it to him.)
I’m sure Mahomes, like all the quarterbacks mentioned above, values the money and the status that being the highest-paid player gave him. But when the whistle sounds and it comes time to play, would a player like Mahomes rather have a big bankroll or teammates like Jones and Hill out on the field with him?
In some respects, the question answered itself. Not long after the Chiefs’ opener, Mahomes agreed to a restructured contract to give the team more salary cap space, and Jones signed a new one-year contract that ended his holdout.
Quarterbacks and Off-Field Income Sources
Mahomes provides perhaps the clearest example of the dilemma facing modern-day quarterbacks. One of the faces of the NFL, he has become almost ubiquitous in his public appearances, starring in ads for State Farm, Subway, Head and Shoulders shampoo, and T-Mobile. It’s tough to know for certain, but the quarterback could make as much, if not more, from his off-the-field endorsement deals than he does via his Chiefs contract.
As a matter of the value they add to their franchises, Mahomes and the other top quarterbacks are likely worth every penny and then some. But particularly given the nature of football’s salary cap, it also seems logical for quarterbacks to forego high on-field compensation. That way, their teams can afford to pay top dollar to other players, who won’t have nearly the visibility and capability to earn outside income as a star quarterback would.
An NFL Legacy or a Record Salary
As another example, Tom Brady, who retired after last season, earned an average of “only” $13.8 million per year over his 23-year career. When thinking about his stature as a quarterback, do most people remember his comparatively low salary numbers or his six Super Bowl championships? Do you think Brady regrets foregoing efforts to maximize his salary so that his teams could afford to get and keep other top-quality talent? Has his earning potential diminished at all since he retired?
The answers to those questions seem obvious, and they all run counter to the trend of bigger quarterback contracts. While the quarterback has become perhaps the most important position in all of team sports, paying a player his true worth is not without its consequences for teams. And that dynamic gives the quarterbacks themselves some interesting choices between trying to maximize the cash they get paid and the number of championships they win.