By winning Super Bowl LV, Tom Brady just heaped another set of ridiculous achievements on to his already-impressive stack.
You know them by now: only quarterback to win seven Super Bowls (adding to his record); only quarterback to win five Super Bowl MVPs (adding to his record); oldest quarterback to win a Super Bowl (breaking his own record).
You get the idea.
Here's an under-the-radar mark Brady achieved that might challenge the way in which folks think about roster-building in today's NFL.
EARNING THEIR MONEY
He was the first quarterback in the last five years to carry a top-10 cap hit at quarterback and help his team win a Super Bowl. Brady was fifth in 2020 with a cap hit of $25 million, according to Over the Cap. The last to do it? Peyton Manning with the Broncos, when he was sixth among quarterbacks with a cap hit of $17.5 million.
Between them, Brady won with the Patriots and a cap hit that ranked 18th among quarterbacks. Then it was Nick Foles (47th) when he filled in for Carson Wentz (28th), Brady again (11th) and Patrick Mahomes (31st).
The only other instances in which a quarterback with a top-10 cap hit at his position won the Super Bowl were Manning in 2006 (6th), Eli Manning in 2007 (4th) and 2011 (5th), and -- believe it or not -- Brad Johnson in 2002 (4th, per Spotrac).
Over two decades of Super Bowls, that's still a relatively low percentage of quarterbacks (30 percent) on top-10 cap hits. But what Brady proved was that in an era where young, cheap quarterbacks provide a roster-building cheat code -- look at the teams built in Seattle when Russell Wilson was on a rookie contract, or the ones in Kansas City with Mahomes on a rookie deal -- expensive quarterbacks can still pay off.
Brady's situation in Tampa Bay was a fascinating one, though, because typically a quarterback earns a big new deal with the team that drafted him and then that team has to figure out where they're going to cut costs elsewhere on the roster. With Brady, he was plopped onto a roster that already had cheap, young talent ready to go.
So is Brady's situation an outlier? In some respects. But there are other examples of teams finding success by doing what they can to build their teams up, then plopping an expensive quarterback into the mix. Look at the Broncos with Peyton Manning or the Niners with Jimmy Garoppolo. Both teams made the Super Bowl in relatively short order in those situations.
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THE DRAFT CAVEAT
Either way, whether a team is handing out a big contract to a quarterback already on the roster or a new face to the organization, that team needs to draft well to have a shot.
Tampa Bay had big-time contributors like tackle Tristan Wirfs, safety Antoine Winfield, linebacker Devin White, receivers Chris Godwin and Scotty Miller, defensive tackle Vita Vea and corners Jamel Dean and Carlton Davis all on rookie contracts.
When the Giants won it all in 2011, it was corner Prince Amukamara, defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, defensive tackle Linval Joseph and receivers Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham on rookie deals. When they won it in 2007, defensive end Justin Tuck, receiver Steve Smith and running back Brandon Jacobs were on rookie deals.
Peyton Manning had help from rookie-contract contributors like running back Joseph Addai, tight end Dallas Clark and safeties Bob Sanders and Antoine Bethea in 2006. Pass-rusher Robert Mathis was on a restricted free-agent deal that season.
Here's the point: An expensive quarterback can't do much without key contributions from less-expensive teammates on rookie contracts. Once it's time for all involved to get paid, as you'd expect, as you've seen, it's hard to keep the band together.
"Nothing is sustainable in its same form when you have to start paying a quarterback big money," former player agent and CBS Sports analyst Joel Corry told us for a Mahomes-focused piece last year. "We can look to what happened with the Seahawks. They really hit on a draft back in 2012 when they got Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner. And a couple other drafts have been really good. But ultimately they had to make choices on who to keep and who to let go so they couldn't keep that core together indefinitely.
"They paid Earl Thomas. Paid Richard Sherman. Gave some of those guys second contracts. But then you have to sacrifice in terms of your depth, and they started really cutting corners on the offensive line. Once you have a high-priced quarterback, you don't have the luxury to build the depth that you had. And you better hit on your draft picks because you're going to need cheap labor more than anything else." Corry added: "A great quarterback can mask a lot of mistakes, if you pay the right quarterback. We saw in Indy, when they were very top-heavy cap-wise with Peyton Manning the year he was out with his neck injury, they bottomed out because that high-caliber quarterback who could cover up some of the deficiencies of the team was out."
SUCH A THING AS TOO EXPENSIVE?
As long as a team drafts well enough, then, can the quarterback set records with his contract and cap hit and still win a Super Bowl?
Potentially. But we're still waiting to see it. Consider the quarterback who took up the highest percentage of his team's cap: Brady.
Both in 2020 and in 2018, according to Over the Cap, Brady's cap hit made up 12.2 percent of his team's cap. Per OTC, he's the only quarterback to take up such a significant percentage of his team's cap and still come away with a Lombardi. Peyton Manning (2015) and Eli Manning (2011) each absorbed 11.7 percent of the cap in years when they finished as champs. (Brady's cap percentage in New England maxed out at 13.6 in 2006. He never exceeded 13 percent again and only hit 12 percent twice under Belichick.)
What's it mean? A quarterback can be expensive and win it all, but maybe not too expensive since that 12 percent threshold seems to represent the magic number over the last two decades. Not great news for teams with expensive quarterbacks about to embark on an NFL season with a cratering cap -- going from almost $200 million in 2020 to, reportedly, about $180 million in 2021. The Chiefs, Niners, Titans, Vikings, Seahawks, Eagles, Packers, Falcons and Steelers are all scheduled to spend 13 percent or more of their cap on quarterbacks. Even the Bucs are in this territory, as Brady is about to take up 15.3 percent of the cap in 2022.
Of course we can't say for certain that these teams can't win a Super Bowl. Of course they can. It's just that history would suggest they'll need a lot of help from the rest of their roster.
But the analytical school of thought would suggest it's better to be in that spot, with an expensive quarterback who can provide tremendous production, than looking at not having a similarly-skilled player at that all-important spot.
Pro Football Focus did a study last year to determine just how much value Brady had given the Patriots over the years by not maxing out his dollar value at the negotiating table. The answer? Not much.
"The study was essentially: Brady playing elite quarterback for this long, that's what really puts them into position to potentially win these championships," PFF senior analyst Steve Palazzolo said during last year's Super Bowl week. "I think the elite quarterback play trumps everything else.
"If you have a Patrick Mahomes, you have to pay him. You have to pay those guys. You have to pay a Russell Wilson. It takes up a big chunk of the salary cap, but it gives you this baseline. You're gonna get close, and then you need some things to happen around that.
"You need to draft well. It puts a little bit of pressure on you, but it's way better than having the 15th-best quarterback or the 20th-best quarterback and needing all those other guys around him to hit. It might be a little more difficult for the Chiefs, keeping that band together, so to speak. But you have to stick with that baseline quarterback because he'll get you pretty far by default every year."
WHAT WILL THE PATRIOTS DO?
Given how the Patriots spent on Brady during his tenure in New England, one could assume that Bill Belichick may not have much of an appetite for exceeding that 12 percent number -- or exceeding it by very much -- when it comes to cap allotment to a quarterback.
Will that mean he'll be reluctant to trade for Garoppolo, if that were an option? Garoppolo's base salary of $24.1 million, which would travel with him in a trade, would take up about 13 percent of next year's cap.
Not necessarily. That number could be re-worked. But it's worth keeping in mind this offseason as we bat around quarterback options for the Patriots. It's why we continue to bring up the name Marcus Mariota, who is under contract with the Raiders for 2021 and scheduled to be paid a base salary of only about $10 million.
The draft remains an option as well. No better place to find a cost-effective quarterback than in an incoming rookie class.
"It’s certainly changed the roster building a lot," Belichick said in November when asked about the rookie wage scale, implemented with the collective bargaining agreement ahead of the 2011 season. "Teams that have had young quarterbacks that have been productive have been able to take those resources and put those into other positions on the team. Then once the quarterbacks hit their, let's call it close to market value-type contracts, then that process shifts a little bit in some way -- whether it’s cap borrowing or just less spending on other positions because you reallocate it to the quarterback. But, that quarterback number is generally such a high number ... or if it's a low number, it creates quite a bit of extra spending dollars. It's an important component to the roster building strategy that you just referred to, absolutely."
Teams that hit on those quarterbacks on rookie deals can quickly open up championship windows, Belichick acknowledged.
"I think that's exactly what it's done," he said. "It's reallocated and given the money to more established players, because ... when the rookies -- regardless of what position it was, but especially the quarterbacks -- were essentially taking the same contracts that veteran quarterbacks were taking, that limited the ability of a team to draft a quarterback high and still maintain the opportunity to improve other areas of your team while that player is under a lower contract.
"So, it's definitely changed the roster building component of it. I mean, the key, obviously, is to have a good player. So, there are some teams that have gone to free agency and put that money, invested that money into a free agent -- let's call it, more proven players, more proven level performance -- as opposed to the rookies that are less expensive, but with the key being you have a productive player at the quarterback position. That's the goal for every team. However that happens, then you work around it."
How that happens for the Patriots this offseason, at this point, is anyone's guess. But given their track record, spending big money at that spot seems unlikely.