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Super Bowls, Quarterback cap percentage and Russell Wilson

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Wild Card Round - Seattle Seahawks v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

If your quarterback appears to be franchise-caliber, you must pay him. This is the modus operandi of the NFL as every front office subscribes to this line of thought. Extending Russell Wilson, the most important player on the Seattle Seahawks, had to happen.

John Schneider did it in an intelligent manner too. For the next three years, the contract fits what Seattle is trying to do. This year a few additions are needed, but the Seahawks should be able to make a serious push for the ultimate goal of a Lombardi Trophy. By the time the salary cap hit gets more severe, the cap should have risen exponentially and—as is the nature of QB deals—many more passers will be on much higher deals.

Wilson’s new contract, the biggest ever seen, maximized Seattle’s chances of winning a second Super Bowl, right?

Some would disagree with this statement, and they’re supported by 15 years of data. The salary cap percentage taken up by a quarterback is the emphasis.

In 2019, Russell Wilson has the lowest cap percentage of his new five-year-deal, with the quarterback accounting for 13.98% of the Seahawks’ salary cap. Since the implementation of the salary cap before the 1994 season, Steven Ruiz points out that only four quarterbacks have won a Super Bowl while accounting for more than 11% of the cap.

These signal callers are: Peyton Manning (twice), Tom Brady (twice), Eli Manning and Steve Young. Young holds the record for the highest cap percentage to win the Lombardi Trophy at 13.1%. You’ll notice that figure is below Wilson’s 2019 number of 13.98%. I’ll repeat, Wilson’s 2019 cap percentage is the lowest on his new deal.

Other passers have got close, on example being Drew Brees last season. The 40-year-old accounted for 12.1% of New Orleans Saints’ salary cap, and we all know how close they got in the NFC Championship Game.

Based on the research of Tom Mead at Inside the Pylon, in the last 15 seasons just nine of the 51 starting quarterbacks in the championship games were paid more than 12% of the salary cap.

The total cap number will continue to climb, which should see the cap percentage Wilson accounts for in the other years of his contract drop. Yet, it’s almost certain that Wilson will have to set a cap record to win another Super Bowl title.

The jackpot of a rookie quarterback contract after hitting on a newly drafted passer is undeniable. Having extra cap space buys a Front Office extra room for mistakes, even if they are trying to invest their cap wisely rather than splurging space for the sake of it.

While this thought process based around quarterback cap percentage challenges the typical thinking of roster construction, it ignores the fact that winning a Super Bowl is incredibly difficult. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s success, aided by a soft AFC East, have warped what we think is possible. Peyton Manning’s second victory above the 11% was largely thanks to a historic defense. Eli Manning owed a lot of thanks to that side of the ball too.

How often does the most talented team in the NFL end up as the overall winner?

Andrew Brandt clearly disagrees with the criticism of paying a quarterback:

It’s also true that an elite quarterback is how to regularly win and be in contention in the NFL. This isn’t Madden where you can reload your game if you don’t get the QB with the “superstar” development trait. Perhaps that will be the new line of thinking, and it’s something the Los Angeles Rams might do with Jarred Goff—surround a rookie who can throw to space with superstar talent in a high-powered, repetitive offense and keep churning though the position.

Overall, though, the alternative is dire and a teams odds get a lot longer. Finding quarterbacks who can consistently play well in the NFL is really hard. Some excellent work was done by @moo12152 which showed that teams did not get worse with a larger percentage of cap room paid to the quarterback—even on defense.

Getting over the hump is difficult and having as much talent as possible does of course help. The question, really, is this: is Russell Wilson closer to the Tom Brady’s and Peyton Manning’s than he is to Joe Flacco or Matt Stafford? Is being “elite” ranking in the top 3 quarterbacks, massively elevating an entire team? Does Wilson not do that in his own way?

Respected film analyst Voch Lombardi said this, ranking the criminally underrated Matt Ryan ahead of Wilson. The usage of “elite” is, of course, subjective:

I feel those trying to evaluate quarterbacks traditionally get lose in that sauce—another factor we can partially blame on Brady and Manning. Wilson is an elite franchise quarterback, just in a particularly unique way. Yes, he has his flaws, with some of the causation being environmental from the years of horrendous offensive lines. Wilson can: hold the ball too long; struggle to process zone; struggle to play in structure; be skittish in the pocket.

What makes him so incredible as a quarterback is his ability to succeed despite these bad traits. It disagrees with the conventional logic of the position. Amongst frustrating plays, there is brilliance never seen before in Seattle. For instance, his elite abilities to: throw guys open against man with pinpoint accuracy; place the ball perfectly against trail; throw at funky arm angles; regularly extend plays; and suit up for every game.

Last season there was an overly skewed tendency to run the football. Yet the passing concepts that Brian Schottenheimer gave Wilson often brought the best out of his quarterback. Whether Pete Carroll wants to operate with a more risky offense is another question, as is wondering if Wilson’s skillset even fits this approach.

That’s where his uniqueness comes in: he’s much better against single-high defense. But, if the 2019 offense maintains the same passing concepts, gains some more weapons and becomes less cautious, Wilson should be in for a career year. Quarterback Wins are a dreadfully flawed stat, but Wilson wins games. They had to pay him and the Seahawks did.