So Carson Wentz doesn’t want to play for the Eagles anymore. And Deshaun Watson doesn’t want to play for the Texans anymore. And apparently Russell Wilson is cool with playing for a team other than the Seahawks. And the Jets apparently would be content if Sam Darnold plied his trade somewhere other than the swamps of Jersey. And the Rams and Lions already have swapped Jared Goff and Matthew Stafford. And the Cowboys left Dak Prescott out of a hype video, which doesn’t sound like that big of a deal to me. But then, it’s entirely possible that I’m ignorant of the power of hype videos to predict where a person will or will not be working in a few months’ time.
(Note to my coworkers and colleagues: If you find out that The Inquirer is making a hype video, please give me a heads-up. I have mouths to feed.)
There promises to be an unusually high number of quarterback changes around the NFL this offseason, and what’s particularly unusual is that a few high-profile, highly compensated quarterbacks are making noise about relocating. Wentz, Watson, and Wilson had signed contract extensions within a year-and-a-half of each other, and now, if they don’t definitely want to leave their respective teams, they’re at least open enough to the idea that they’ve allowed the notion to float on the NFL’s trade winds.
Those three have figured out where the real leverage in the league resides: with a quarterback who has already signed a juicy, long-term contract. If he is happy, he can expect his franchise to do whatever it has to do to keep him happy. And if it doesn’t, or if he just decides to be unhappy, he can still dictate terms and force a trade. The Rams’ decision to trade Goff and the Eagles’ willingness to trade Wentz demonstrate that, no matter how difficult it might be, a team can do it, and will.
One can evaluate this development from a couple of different perspectives. On the one hand, you can argue that it is another example of increasing athlete empowerment throughout professional sports. The players are the draw, so they should have more power to determine their own futures, especially in the NFL, where their contracts are not guaranteed. On the other hand, you can argue that great money comes with, or should come with, at least a little more loyalty to the franchise who is paying you that money.
Either way, there’s no getting around the reality that, whether you think they’re right or wrong, three quarterbacks who got paid look like they want to get out, and it’s likely that more quarterbacks in similar situations will follow their example. So every NFL team should be asking itself: If the Wentz/Watson/Wilson problem hasn’t already happened to us, it might someday. So how will we handle it if it does? Or what should we do to avoid it?
Many teams, I would guess, will continue doing what teams have been doing for years: They will acquire a quarterback, see him perform well, determine that he should be their starter for a lengthy period of time, sign him to a multiyear contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and hope that everything works out. How would a team define “works out?” Well, that depends on the team and the quarterback to which it has committed. The Atlanta Falcons have made the playoffs just six times in Matt Ryan’s 13 seasons with them and have never won a Super Bowl, but you’d be hard-pressed to have Arthur Blank, the team’s owner, suggest that the $246.5 million he has paid Ryan hasn’t been money well spent. Quarterback is the glamour position in football, and quarterbacks are the glamour players. They sell jerseys. They move merchandise. Having a popular and successful quarterback is the most obvious indicator and evidence that an NFL franchise knows what it’s doing, or appears to.
But now, from Wentz and Watson and Wilson, each of whom has or will have an annual salary-cap figure north of $30 million, we’re learning that the risk associated with signing a quarterback to such a contract is probably increasing. Take the Eagles. During Jeffrey Lurie’s tenure as their owner, they’ve bet big on three quarterbacks: Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick, after his remarkable comeback season in 2010, and Wentz. They’re batting .333 on those franchise-QB contracts. Only McNabb’s, all in all, turned out to be justified. In fact, consider this: The Eagles have made the playoffs six times in the last 12 years, and when you examine those six seasons and the amount of salary-cap space they used on the quarterbacks who led them to the postseason, per OvertheCap.com, one season stands out.
— McNabb in 2009: $20.2 million
— Kevin Kolb and Vick in 2010: $13 million ($6.6 million for Kolb, $6.4 million for Vick)
— Nick Foles and Vick in 2013: $12.9 million ($12.2 million for Vick, $655,880 for Foles)
— Wentz and Foles in 2017: $7.66 million ($6.06 million for Wentz, $1.6 million for Foles)
— Wentz and Foles in 2018: $19.9 million ($13.6 million for Foles, $7.3 million for Wentz)
— Wentz in 2019: $8.4 million
Of those six seasons, the one in which the Eagles matched their all-time-best 16-game regular-season record and won their first Super Bowl was the one in which they allocated the least salary-cap space to their quarterbacks. Lurie and the Eagles can keep trying to find the next Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes. The Jets can trade Darnold, draft another quarterback this spring, and, after three years, hand that quarterback a huge contract. The Cowboys can sign Prescott to a market-value extension through 2026. Or, perhaps, they and other franchises can start treating good quarterbacks like a fungible resource — which, in the modern NFL, they are — and build their teams accordingly. If nothing else, it’ll keep their hype videos fresh.