Should NFL Contracts Be Performance Based?

Don’t you hate when a player cashes in on a huge contract and then under performs or gets injured? Of course you do. It’s frustrating in a sport like the NFL with a salary cap that a player can take up a huge fraction of your available money and just coast from there. With the new CBA, rookies can only be paid so much, over perform and be worth much more than what they are paid. Is this fair? Maybe you can say that the big contracts are a reward for a player who’s earned it, but how often does that get to apply to a situation and how many excuses can you make for an overpaid player before it’s time to question whether a contract was worth it? Obviously contracts are a gamble, but in a league where the risks of a big contract can be the difference between a playoff team and a cellar dweller, should there be changes in how the NFL pays its players? Should contracts be based on actual performance, and not expected performance?

Here are some numbers for thought. These are two players 2013 numbers. The first set of numbers belongs to player A. The second set, player B. Advanced Stats brought to you by Football Outsiders, who are much smarter than me.

Comp – Att, %, Yards, Y/A, Long, Total TD, Total Turnovers, Sacks, NFL Rating

Player A: 362-614 59.0 3,912 6.37 74 20 25 48 73.; 40th in DYAR, 35th in DVOA, 35th in Y/A (out of 37 qualified QB’s), 32nd in NFL Rating, 27th in completion %

Player B: 257-407 63.1 3,357 8.25 80 27 13 44 101.2; 9th in DYAR, 8th in DVOA, 7th in NFL Rating 4th in Y/A, 12th in completion %

If you were to look at these it’s pretty obvious based on numbers that player B had a much better year in every category except yards, but in reality yards are a very small indicator of a QB’s success, if any at all. Which one of these QB’s do you believe makes more money? It has to be player B right? Well, let’s take a look at some more numbers.

Here are the current contract numbers for each player. Numbers thanks to Over The Cap

Total Value Average Per Year Guaranteed Money 2013 Cap Hit

Player A: 120.6 million 22 million 29 million 6.8 million

Player B: 3 million 750K 3 million 680K

Wow, Player A is making about 21 million dollars a year more than Player B? How is this possible? Player B put up better numbers across the board? How is Player A worth so much money? By now it’s pretty obvious who player A and B are. Player A is Joe Flacco and Player B is Russell Wilson. This is where the obligatory "Joe Flacco just won the Superbowl, and Russell Wilson is only on his rookie contract" comes up. Yeah, Joe Flacco had an unbelievable postseason, capped with a great performance against one of the best defenses in the NFL in the Superbowl. Russell Wilson was in his first year and only led the Seahawks to the Divisional round with the number one defense in the NFL which is still incredibly impressive. Maybe you could say the Ravens were rewarding Flacco for his great numbers, but can that be justified by his 2013 numbers? If we’re to say Flacco’s contract value was equal to his performance, than Flacco would be one of the greatest QB’s in the NFL which is simply not true.

Does it seem fit that a player who was an MVP candidate for most of the season, one of the top five to seven quarterbacks in the NFL, who was a huge reason his team is 13-3 and the #1 seed in the NFC is paid peanuts compared to a Flacco who was pretty bad this year? I don’t believe it is. So why are players paid based on a gamble of potential achievements and past performance, instead of their in the moment numbers? Players want long term deals; they want the financial security of a usual short career in the NFL. Could you blame them for wanting to squeeze every dollar possible from their teams? Of course not, but they should have to earn it. It would be impossible to go back and change contracts to favor an idea like this but future contracts are always a good place to start. Something like this would need to be implemented by every team, so free agents aren’t turned away from certain teams to one’s who will give them the big contracts up front. What would it be like if a player had to prove he was worth the money while playing through a contract? You could still reward players for their dedication, talent and past performance through guaranteed money still, but the big chunks of money could all be incentive laden. Not only does this assure that players who get injured, or underperform aren’t rewarded for a lackluster season or an unhealthy one (even though that’s not really their fault, but life isn’t fair) but that players who play up to or better than expectations are rewarded too.

How would something like this work, with the salary cap you need a solid figure and to stay under the cap with fluctuating contract numbers? That’s where it gets a little more difficult. Obviously you wouldn’t know how they would do this upcoming season, and if they’re going to end up playing well or not or giving out contracts would be a lot easier. One way I could imagine this working, and hopefully it would work so I don’t look like a complete idiot here would be this. This idea works a lot like it does now. A player’s cap value can still be counted; it can still be a solid predictable number. Players can be given a max number that counts against the salary cap. With all of the max incentives and everything else combined this is as much as the player’s yearly value can reach and what will go against the cap. Much like how it is now, minus the performance based money. For example: Pretend Russell Wilson signs a six year contract extension with the Seahawks. This contract goes for six years with 42 million dollars guaranteed. That’s his reward for his past performance and his numbers and hard work and dedication he’s given the Seahawks. But what do you do about the rest of the contract? This seems incredibly cheap for a top tier QB in the NFL. Here is where incentives kick in for the contract. With max incentives, for whatever is agreed upon, staying healthy, number of touchdowns or wins or anything his max yearly value beyond guaranteed money would be 15 million dollars a year. So the cap hit for Russell Wilson would be 15 million, since that’s the max that can be paid for said year. You could still front load or backload contracts too! Does it come with risk? Of course it does, but in a different way. This risk though, is a little more cushioned. Instead of worrying if you’re paying too much money for the actual value, it is now taking cap space for money they may or not make. Would something like this work? Possibly, players might not like this idea very much though. This means players can’t play a few good years, cash in and then do nothing throughout their new contract, play with little effort or unfortunately catch the injury bug and be rewarded. Maybe if this were the case in the NFL, Russell Wilson would be making 10 times more than Flacco this year, instead of the other way around.

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