The NFL’s Modern Labor Insanity

(Enjoy this bonus article I wrote last week and shopped around unsuccessfully – Rob)

By now, you’ve probably heard all about how much the Super Bowl sucked. It was an atrocious game indeed, chock full of busted plays, wobbly throws, and terrible officiating. It would not be wrong, per se, to refer to the game as a defensive struggle, but speaking as a fan of defensive struggles, this game still left me cold. When a defensive game is good, it is good because the defenses are making plays despite not always being in a good position to do so, which builds tension and drama. This game felt more like two inept offenses farting around the field until it was over. The Patriots won at the end, too, and while the game still would have been terrible in any alternate universe in which the Rams squeaked out a victory, that certainly didn’t help. 

I’m not here to dissect the game and get into the details of why it sucked, or to explicate the specifics of how the Rams played poorly, or to break down how the Patriots succeeded on defense, or anything like that. Many sports writers who are much smarter and more talented than me already did plenty of that. But thinking about this particular game, and specifically about the decidedly not great performance of Rams quarterback Jared Goff, got me thinking about a particular modern school of thought regarding team construction in the NFL, and why it’s totally insane.

The current collective bargaining agreement between ownership and the player’s association has been in place since 2011. Without getting too much into it, one of the many limitations on player power baked into the current CBA is what is known as the rookie wage scale. The rookie wage scale stipulates that upon being drafted, rookies are no longer able to negotiate their own salary, but rather, their salaries and signing bonuses stipulated by their rookie contracts are more or less fixed according to a scale based on the round and position the player was drafted in. (If you’re the sort of person who finds financial minutiae interesting, this article gets into the specifics of the rookie wage scale as it pertains to last year’s draft.)

The rookie wage scale was implemented in no small part as a reaction to some of the incredibly large rookie contracts that were being signed around that time. Highly-drafted rookies like Sam Bradford, Ndamukong Suh, and Matt Stafford were given near-superstar levels of money before they played a single snap, which ruffled the ownership’s feathers. As such, the contract sizes stipulated under the rookie wage scale are much more modest. From a team construction standpoint, this has created a potentially huge advantage. Should a team draft a handful players (or even just one) who are able to play at a high level in their first few years in the league, that production is entirely cost-controlled at a relatively low rate. In other words, when teams these days hit on their draft picks, they get superstar play without paying superstar prices.

The NFL also has a salary cap for players, which constitutes is a hard cap on player salaries. No team is allowed to spend more on player salaries than the salary cap stipulates. (This is in contrast to a soft salary cap of the sort employed by the NBA and MLB, both of whom allow their teams to spend above the cap but penalize them for doing so.) The NFL has had this hard cap for decades now, and for as long as it has been around, it has forced every team’s front office to make tough decisions about how they allocate player salaries. The cap is set such so that a team cannot be paying big money to someone at every position. Teams must choose which players and positions they are willing to spend big money on, and which players and positions they are willing to go cheap on.

In this context, getting a high level of play out of players on their rookie contracts becomes all the more valuable. Again, the salaries and bonuses stipulated under the rookie wage scale are relatively low. This alleviates some of the pressure on front offices, as now the decision on what areas of the team to go cheap on is made for them. Players on their rookie contracts are cheap by design. When a team hits on some of its draft picks, they now have a whole bunch of money freed up to spend on extending their existing stars and pursuing superstars and quality role players in free agency. Granted, this doesn’t make the actual scouting, drafting, and developing of new players any easier, but this still provides a clear avenue for sensible salary allocation that did not exist previously.

Obviously, this sucks for the players on their rookie contracts. Not only are they not allowed to negotiate their own salaries, but highly drafted rookies are now under more pressure to play at a high level immediately, regardless of whether or not that expectation is realistic. The current CBA has now been around long enough for this method of team construction to have calcified into conventional wisdom. Every team is to some extent counting on the players drafted with their early picks to be good right away, which accelerates the expectations for those players and increases the hype surrounding them, which means and fans and pundits are quick to label players as busts when these expectations are not met.

Nowhere is this more apparent than when a rookie quarterback is drafted in the first round under the current CBA. Quarterback is canonically the most important and most difficult position in football at any level, and in the NFL, the best way to ensure year-to-year success is having a good starting quarterback. As such, starting quarterbacks are theoretically deserving of the most money. While veteran starting quarterbacks still get the biggest contracts, new rookie quarterbacks are stuck getting paid what the rookie wage scale dictates. This means that if a starting quarterback on his rookie contract plays at a high level, he is of incalculable value to his team precisely because he’s getting screwed on his salary. If building a team around cheap rookies is the best bargain in modern team construction, then building a team around a cheap quarterback is the best of all possible bargains.

This brings us back to poor Jared Goff, who is playing on a rookie contract under the current CBA. To say that Goff pooped the bed in the Super Bowl would be a disservice to the nocturnally incontinent. Goff looked lost and confused for the duration of the game, resulting in bad throws and bad decision making. He wasn’t the only Rams player to have a bad day on Sunday, but he did almost nothing to help their chances of winning. Again, my interest here is not to break down how or why Goff did a bad job in the Super Bowl. But as I watched the game, I could not help but think his predicament is a perfect demonstration of why this relatively idea – that you can build a Super Bowl-caliber team around a quarterback on a cheap rookie contract under the current CBA – is completely nuts.

Jared Goff was the first overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft. While he wasn’t given the starting job right away, he did get it eventually, and once he did, he played like ass. Look upon his 2016 stats and despair. I feel compelled to highlight a particular stat or two in order to demonstrate the depths of his sucking, but I cannot choose among them. They are all terrible. However, an inauspicious rookie year is normal for quarterbacks. Again, it’s incredibly difficult to play quarterback well in the NFL, and every rookie quarterback has to make lots of mistakes before they can start to figure out how to play well at the pro level. On top of that, Goff was playing for a bad team coached by Jeff Fisher, a weirdo with a demonstrated tendency towards treating his starting quarterbacks like shit.

So when the Rams fired Fisher and replaced him with a coach who had a keen interest in helping Goff succeed at his job, Goff went out on the field and succeeded. If you look at his career stats again, and contrast his 2017 and 2018 numbers with what he put up in 2016, the difference is night and day. In his first year he played poorly, and afterwards, he played well. Since Goff was now a good quarterback playing on a rookie contract, the Rams went out and spent a whole bunch of money and draft capital in order to surround Goff with a championship-caliber team and win a Super Bowl as soon as possible. In other words, the Rams made the decision to go cheap on quarterback, and spend their money elsewhere.

The result, well, we all saw the result. The Rams team-building strategy certainly worked, to a point. They got the Super Bowl and lost. This constitutes a tremendously successful season relative to the seasons of 30 other teams in the league. But alas, the goal of any team is not only to make it to the Super Bowl, it’s to make it to the Super Bowl and then win it. In this sense, which to the hyper-competitive goons who work in professional sports is the most important (if not only important) sense, the Rams failed. As the starting quarterback, Jared Goff shoulders some of the blame for this failure, some of which is deserved and some of which probably isn’t.

This isn’t what strikes me as crazy about Goff and the Rams’ situation. What strikes me as crazy is the idea of building a Super Bowl-caliber around a quarterback on his rookie contract in the first place.

In order to describe what’s wrong with this line of thinking, we must first define what a Super Bowl-caliber team is. What is a Super Bowl-caliber team? Let’s start with the narrowest definition possible – A Super Bowl-caliber team is a team that proves it is capable of winning the Super Bowl by winning the Super Bowl. So let’s look at the teams that have won the Super Bowl since the 2011 season, the first season under the current CBA, and the starting quarterbacks for each. Those starting quarterbacks who were playing on rookie contracts under the current CBA are marked with an asterisk (*). All contract data retrieved from Spotrac:

Season Team Quarterback
2011 New York Giants Eli Manning
2012 Baltimore Ravens Joe Flacco
2013 Seattle Seahawks Russell Wilson*
2014 New England Patriots Tom Brady
2015 Denver Broncos Peyton Manning
2016 New England Patriots Tom Brady
2017 Philadelphia Eagles Nick Foles
2018 New England Patriots Tom Brady

So, since the implementation of the rookie wage scale, precisely one team out of eight teams to win the Super Bowl has done so with a starting quarterback on a rookie contract under said scale. That’s not very many! This would appear to be something of an indictment of the strategy of trying to win with a quarterback on a rookie contract. You would think that if building around a cheap rookie quarterback was a good way to build a Super Bowl-caliber team, it would result in more teams with quarterbacks on rookie contracts winning the Super Bowl.

But then again, perhaps this line of reasoning isn’t entirely fair. For starters, Joe Flacco was on his rookie contract when he won the Super Bowl. That contract wasn’t set under the current CBA and the rookie wage scale, though, so it doesn’t count. The whole idea here, is that the rookie wage scale has fundamentally altered the calculus of team construction, so we’re only looking at QBs on those contracts. Similarly, the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl with Nick Foles starting, who was not on a rookie contract. However, Foles wasn’t the team’s starter going into the season. That would be Carson Wentz, who was on a rookie contract and did a generally great job before getting injured and missing the rest of the season. Since the 2017 Eagles were constructed around Wentz’s rookie contract, and since Wentz won a lot of games and in so doing enabled the Eagles to get the top seed in the NFC and go on a deep playoff run, so in a very real way, this is still an example of successfully building around a quarterback on a rookie wage scale contract.

This still leaves us with only two out of eight teams who won the Super Bowl having been built around quarterbacks with rookie contracts under the current CBA. That still strikes me as not great odds. But what if we broadened our definition of ‘Super Bowl-caliber’ to include teams that made the Super Bowl at all, regardless of whether they won or lost? After all, winning the Super Bowl requires more than just good team building. It requires tremendous execution throughout the playoffs, great coaching, and a little bit of good luck. Therefore, perhaps it is fairer to say that the best one can hope for in building a team is simply getting to the Super Bowl. Whether the team wins or loses once they get there is not necessarily an indictment on how the team is built. So let’s list the all the Super Bow losing teams since the 2011 season and their starting quarterbacks, once again marking QBs on rookie wage scale contracts with an asterisk(*). All contract data retrieved from Spotrac:

Season Team Quarterback
2011 New England Patriots Tom Brady
2012 San Francisco 49ers Colin Kaepernick*
2013 Denver Broncos Peyton Manning
2014 Seattle Seahawks Russell Wilson*
2015 Carolina Panthers Cam Newton
2016 Atlanta Falcons Matt Ryan
2017 New England Patriots Tom Brady
2018 Los Angeles Rams Jared Goff*

This is only three out of eight, and again, we need to qualify this raw info a bit. Colin Kaepernick was on his rookie contract in 2012, but he won the starting job in San Francisco during the course of the season. The 49ers starting QB heading into and for much of the 2012 season was Alex Smith, who was not on a rookie contract. This forms a sort of opposite to the example of Nick Foles, Carson Wentz, and the Eagles provided in the winner’s table. While Kaepernick was a big part of his team’s success once he became the starter, going into the season the he was the backup, and the team was built assuming Alex Smith would get all the starts.

So, if we count both the winners and losers of these last eight Super Bowls, four of the sixteen teams involved started a quarterback on a rookie contract under the current CBA. If we’re being generous, we can count the 2017 Eagles as well, since they were built around Carson Wentz. So That brings the total to five out of sixteen. Compared to the winners only result, that’s hardly an improvement! Even among the Super Bowl losers, the starting quarterbacks were on veteran contracts more often than not. If having a good young quarterback on a rookie contract under the current CBA is that great of a way to build a contender, why aren’t more teams with rookie contract QBs actually contending?

The first and most obvious answer is that none of the teams are the New England Patriots. The Patriots have made five Super Bowl appearances in that time frame, the most of any team by far. (The Broncos and Seahawks have two each.) At this point, their success should be taken as a constant. Their quarterback hasn’t been the oldest and most decorated active QB for the entirety of this period, but he sure is both of those things at the time of this writing. But this only underscores my point. The Patriots’ success in this period isn’t solely due to Tom Brady, but Tom Brady is a huge part of it. It sure seems like the best possible quarterback for a Super Bowl-caliber team in this day and age is the most experienced and historically successful quarterback around.

But, most teams are not the Patriots, and most teams don’t have Tom Brady as their starting quarterback, so “Be the Patriots and start Tom Brady” is not actionable advice for most teams. And, if we’re being truly fair here, perhaps the goal of good team construction isn’t about winning the Super Bowl, or even getting to the Super Bowl. The playoffs can be a real crap shoot, and anything can happen once a team gets there. So, instead of narrowing our examination of team success to Super Bowl teams only, we should take a look at every team to make the playoffs since the 2011 season, who their starting quarterback was, and how many playoff games they started, then see what proportion of those QBs were playing on rookie contracts under the 2011 CBA. So let’s do that, then.

Since this is a broader task, let’s modify how we’re tracking this information. Every team in the league except the Browns, the Jets, and the Buccaneers has appeared in the playoffs since 2011, so let’s not bother to list the teams themselves. Let’s only worry about what quarterbacks started playoff games, and how many they started. Also, since 2011 was a while ago now, there are a handful of quarterbacks who entered the league since then and started multiple playoff games. Some of those starts were on their rookie contracts and some weren’t, so we have to make sure to differentiate between those.

There have been 88 playoff games since 2011, and because there were two starting quarterbacks per game, this means there have been 176 total playoff starts at quarterback in those games. The following is a list of all the quarterbacks to start a playoff game starting with the 2011 season. They are listed according to how many playoff starts made, with the quarterback who made the most starts at the top and the quarterbacks who made the least at bottom. The total number of starts made will be noted, and, when a given quarterback has started playoff games under a 2011 CBA rookie contract, the number of those starts will be bolded, italicized, and placed in parentheses in order to note them as a subset of that QB’s total starts. The starting QBs for each game were pulled from Pro Football Reference, and contract information was pulled from Spotrac.

Here we go:

Quarterback Total Playoff Starts Since 2011 Season
Tom Brady 21
Russell Wilson 13 (8)
Aaron Rodgers 11
Drew Brees 8
Joe Flacco 8
Andrew Luck 8 (6)
Peyton Manning 8
Ben Roethlisberger 8
Matt Ryan 8
Cam Newton 7 (3)
Alex Smith 7
Nick Foles 6 (1)
Colin Kaepernick 6 (6)
Eli Manning 5
Andy Dalton 4 (3)
Jared Goff 4 (4)
Philip Rivers 4
Blake Bortles 3 (3)
Dak Prescott 3 (3)
Matthew Stafford 3
Case Keenum 2
Patrick Mahomes II 2 (2)
Marcus Mariota 2 (2)
Brock Osweiler 2
Carson Palmer 2
Tony Romo 2
Matt Schaub 2
Tim Tebow 2
T.J. Yates 2 (2)
Teddy Bridgewater 1 (1)
Connor Cook 1 (1)
Kirk Cousins 1 (1)
Robert Griffin III 1 (1)
Brian Hoyer 1
Lamar Jackson 1 (1)
Ryan Lindley 1 (1)
A.J. McCarron 1 (1)
Matt Moore 1
Tyrod Taylor 1
Mitchell Trubisky 1 (1)
Deshaun Watson 1 (1)
Joe Webb 1
Totals 176 (51)

Of the 176 quarterback starts in the playoffs since 2011, 51 were made by QBs playing under a rookie contract under the modern CBA, which comes 28.977%. That’s…not a whole lot better than four in sixteen, and it’s slightly worse than five in sixteen. Also, the distribution of rookie contract QBs is very top heavy. 21 of the 44 quarterbacks listed above started at least one playoff game on post-2011 rookie contracts. Nine such quarterbacks only started one playoff game on their rookie contract. Three of them (Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, and Andrew Luck) account for 20 of the 51 starts, which is a whopping 39.2%. Two others, Cam Newton and Nick Foles, started more playoff games on veteran contracts than they did on their rookie contracts. T.J. Yates and A.J. McCarron were backups starting in place of Matt Schaub and Andy Dalton, respectively, both of whom were injured and on veteran contracts at the time of those games. Connor Cook was also a backup, but the starting QB for the Raiders that year was Derek Carr, who was still on his rookie deal at the time.

So, to sum up, less than 30% of starting QBs in playoff games since the 2011 season were playing on rookie wage scale contracts. Only 25% of all QBs to start a Super Bowl in that time were on rookie wage scale contracts, a figure that only describes three unique individuals. And, of those three unique individuals, only one of them ever actually won the dang Super Bowl.

Let’s circle back to Jared Goff and the Rams again for a minute. This is the last time, I swear. Jared Goff has done pretty well the last two seasons, but he’s struggled occasionally against good defenses. He struggled mightily against the Patriots on Sunday, who made it a point to make their defense as confusing as possible. Since this was Bill Belichick designing said defense, it was quite confusing indeed. The Rams may have gotten to the Super Bowl because of all the talent around their young, cheap quarterback, but once they got to the Super Bowl, his youth and inexperience was their biggest disadvantage. And that sucks, because it means that sports history will remember this game as the time Jared Goff choked when it should probably remember this game as the time poor Jared Goff was thrown in the deepest of deep ends for the sole purpose of exploiting perceived market optimization.

That gets at the question posed by all that boring data from a few paragraphs ago. Why is it considered a smart idea to build a championship team around a rookie wage scale quarterback, exactly? While it may seem crazy to even try this, the appeal of the strategy to front offices is all too easy to understand. Again, team-building under the current CBA is all about getting the most from players on rookie contracts at all positions while they still provide disgracefully cheap labor. Regardless of a given quarterback’s age and level of experience, getting an elite level of play out of said quarterback or winning even a single Super Bowl is extremely difficult and extremely unlikely for any team, so why not try as hard as possible to get elite play out of the cheapest decent quarterbacks?

Blessedly, this strategy hasn’t worked on a large scale yet, if it ever will or could. Under the current CBA, the players in the NFL are unquestionably getting fucked to a reprehensible degree. Almost no contracts are fully guaranteed. The players sign contracts with as few guarantees as possible for salaries that are far less than the value of the labor they provide, and in exchange, they get to suffer horrific, life-altering injuries and brain damage. They are also subject to the disciplinary whims of an incompetent commissioner and the scorn of the owners, yet another cabal of farcically crotchety patrician jerkoffs in a society all too sadly dominated by said. And, in at least one instance, they are blackballed for publicly pointing out that maybe the police should give due consideration to not murdering American citizens based on the color of their skin, and suggesting that those with the privilege of not having to worry about getting murdered by the police should still be bothered when it happens.

That blackballed player, by the way? That’s Colin Kaepernick, who as we’ve seen, is one of the most successful QBs to play under a rookie wage scale contract. Now he’s out of the league entirely, because the owners are cowards who have almost completely succeeded in disassociating the league’s success with the success of the guys who actually play the games. Star quarterbacks still have just the tiniest bit of power as players, so it’s hard to see trying to get these rookie QBs on blatantly below market contracts to be the wave of the NFL’s future as anything other than a veiled attempt to take away the last bit of leverage the players have. If the league were to succeed, it’s hard to see how the players could possibly regain their power.

That hasn’t happened just yet, though, and perhaps it never will. The current CBA expires after the 2020 season, and who knows, maybe the player’s association will get their shit together, dig in during negotiations, and come away with a fairer arrangement. I hope they do, and I hope that afterward, we look back on this era of professional football as the time when front offices, blinded by their own greed and stupidity, wasted an entire decade trying to turn lead into gold.

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