The Seattle Seahawks are in a race against time to meet quarterback Russell Wilson's reported demand of a new contract extension by April 15 and avoid whatever undisclosed consequences could follow a failure to meet that deadline.
Maybe Wilson would refuse to negotiate further in hopes of testing free agency next offseason with the plan of holding out if Seattle dares slap him with the franchise tag. Or, maybe Wilson would simply table negotiations until next year as to not burden himself with sticky negotiations for longer than needed.
Or, maybe, just maybe, he would demand a trade. And maybe, just maybe, Seattle should oblige.
The idea of Wilson and Seattle parting ways is flat out frightening. He is the greatest quarterback in franchise history and one of the 10 most important and influential athletes to ever play in Seattle. The odds appear to be long that the Seahawks would even entertain trade offers for Wilson, disgruntled, or not. He is the face of the franchise. A marquee talent that is only 30 and still in his prime and who one day will be enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. NFL teams simply do not give up quarterbacks who fit that mold.
High-priced quarterbacks past the age of 30 that eat up a huge portion of cap space and aren't named Tom Brady have not proven to be the keys to very many Super Bowl success stories. In fact, since John Elway won back-to-back Super Bowl titles with Denver following the 1997 and 1998 seasons, it could be argued that destroying your cap allotment on a high-priced quarterback is not the way to go.
So, let's at least ponder all the avenues here before outright rejecting the notion of trading Wilson for a king's ransom that could create cap space for other key players and net Seattle at least two first-round draft picks, one of which could be used to acquire a new, younger and cheaper quarterback just like Wilson was when he led Seattle to a Super Bowl title in his second season before he became a highly-paid superstar.
Wilson, whose cap number is $25.286 million this season, is next in line to become the highest paid quarterback in the league, is likely going to command an annual salary at or above the $33.5 million that Green Bay is paying Aaron Rodgers. Seattle could argue that Rodgers is better that Wilson - he is - and maybe get Wilson off of that number, but he at least will get paid more than the likes of Jimmy Garoppolo, who has never started a full season and makes $27.5 million per year with San Francisco. Wilson should also receive more than Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, who makes $30 million per year and is very good but in no way better than Wilson.
Paying Wilson north of $30 million would put a huge strain on the Seahawks' salary cap, which for all teams is set at $188.2 million for the 2019 season. His cap number would account for nearly 16 percent of the pie. Seattle also is in a predicament with defensive end Frank Clark, who wants a new deal. He just watched Dallas give defensive end Demarcus Lawrence $105 million and certainly will want a deal at least in the neighborhood of $20 million per year. Clark, who has been franchised tagged by Seattle, is set to be paid $17.1 million this season.
Of the past 20 Super Bowl champions, only two teams have won the Super Bowl with a quarterback making what would be considered huge money for his position and they are New England with Brady and Denver with Peyton Manning when he was far past his prime.
During that same time frame, only five titles were won by quarterbacks who were over the age of 30 when the season began. Brady won three. Peyton Manning got one. The other went to Brad Johnson, who was 34 the season Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl in 2002.
The average age of the Super Bowl winning quarterbacks over the past 20 years has been 29.5 years. Remove from the equation Brady's three recent titles and Manning's win with Denver at the age of 39 when he was merely a game manager and the average age drops to 27.1.
Most marquee quarterbacks don't start getting paid the big bucks until their late 20s, so the idea that the majority of Super Bowl champion quarterbacks during the past 20 years were under 31 is telling. It means that the aging, superstar veteran quarterback is not the key to Super Bowl success. Well, unless he is married to Gisele.
Other factors, of course, come into play with teams not winning multiple titles with elite quarterbacks. First off, if a league has 10 great quarterbacks they can't all win multiple titles before all 10 retire. It's not mathematically possible. Also, just because a team wins a Super Bowl doesn't mean that that same group of players should be guaranteed to win another in a league built on parity. Rosters change, players get injured and retire.
Take Seattle for example. The Seahawks' failed to repeat following the 2014 season because they lost to New England, a franchise that has won six Super Bowls titles since the 2001 season. Since gone from those Seattle teams are a plethora of stars who have aged or been injured. The odds of Seattle having been able to rebuild while losing star after star to win another Super Bowl along the way, even with Wilson at quarterback, were not very strong. The question now is if the team can do so again with Wilson making about 60 times more than the $526,000 he pulled in during the 2013 season when the Seahawks won it all.
Now let's return to Elway and then take a look at some other championship quarterbacks since he retired.
Elway signed his final contract with Denver in 1996 shortly before turning 36. The deal paid him $29.5 million over five years at an annual rate of $5.9 million per season. That is the cost of a good backup quarterback these days but back then his salary accounted for 14.4 percent of the salary cap of $40.7 million. That percentage shrunk to 11.2 percent when the Broncos won their second of two consecutive Super Bowl titles following the 1998 season when the cap was $52.3 million.
Still, that signing and Elway's success qualifies as an example of a team signing a veteran quarterback to big money and still winning the Super Bowl. But since then, such scenarios haven't played out very often.
- 2012, Joe Flacco and Baltimore: The Ravens went on to win Super Bowl XLII when Flacco, who during the regular season threw just 22 touchdowns with 10 interceptions, ignited during the playoffs and tossed 11 touchdowns with zero interceptions over four games including a 34-31 win over San Francisco in which he was named Super Bowl MVP. Flacco that offseason received a six-year, $120.6 million contract. The Ravens have made the playoffs just twice since.
- 2010, Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay: Rodgers lead the Packers to a Super Bowl title following the 2010 season at the age of 27. His statistical output improved dramatically the following season when he was named league MVP. In the spring of 2013, Rodgers signed a five-year, $110 million deal. His average annual salary of $20.2 million accounted for 15 percent of the $133 million cap in 2014. Green Bay has not returned to the Super Bowl since but has reached the NFC title game twice. Rodgers last year signed a four-year, $134 million deal. The average amount of that deal, 33.5 million, will account for 17.8 percent of the 2019 cap of 188.2 million. Green Bay went 6-9-1 last season.
- 2009, Drew Brees and New Orleans: The Saints won their first Super Bowl following the 2009 season with Brees leading they way at age 30 while he was in the middle of a six-year, $60 million deal. The annual salary of $10 million accounted for just 8.1 percent of the $123 million salary cap for the 2009 season. Three years later in 2012, Brees signed the richest contract in football worth $100 million over five seasons. His $20 million average salary accounted for 15 percent of the $133 million cap in 2014. The Saints have yet to return to the Super Bowl despite Brees continuing to put up ridiculous numbers that led to him becoming the league's all-time leading passer. Of course, they came one bad pass interference no-call away from going to the big game last season.
- 2005 and 2008, Ben Roethlisberger and Pittsburgh: Roethlisberger game managed the Steelers to a Super Bowl title his second season in the league in 2005. He had a subpar year again in 2008 and again the Steelers won the Super Bowl. Roethlisberger entered the league with a six-year deal worth $22.6 million that did include plenty of incentives. But his impact on the salary cap was nothing compared to when with two years remaining on his rookie deal he signed an eight-year extension worth $102 million. Roethlisberger has developed into a hall of fame quarterback but the Steelers have yet to return to the Super Bowl. However, his contract was actually cap friendly. His annual average salary of just under $13 million per year has never devoured a ridiculous amount of cap space. His latest deal, which expires after this season, counts $23.2 million, or 12.3 percent, against the 2019 cap.
Now consider teams that won Super Bowls without big money stars at quarterback. The St. Louis Rams won the Super Bowl following the 1999 season with Kurt Warner, an undrafted free agent who only became the starter after Trent Green went down with a knee injury during the preseason. Warner, famously, went on to win both the regular season and Super Bowl MVP while orchestrating what was to that point the most potent offense in league history. Trent Dilfer quarterbacked the 2000 Baltimore Ravens to the Super Bowl title while producing an unimpressive 12 touchdown passes with 11 interceptions thanks to an all-time great defense. There's the already-mentioned Johnson with Tampa Bay, which cruised by Oakland thanks mostly to a devastating defense, and nobody will soon forget the great run put forth by Philadelphia's backup Nick Foles during the 2018 playoffs. He replaced starter Carson Wentz and led the Eagles to a Super Bowl win over Brady & New England and was named the game's MVP.
To be fair, it must be pointed out some high-priced quarterbacks making big money have come close to winning it all in recent years. Ryan and Atlanta lost in overtime to the Patriots when Ryan was 31. Peyton Manning was 37 and making a boatload of money with Denver, and still playing at an elite level, when his team lost to Wilson and the Seahawks during the 2014 Super Bowl. And we've already mentioned Brees, who last season lost in the NFC title game to the Rams on a controversial no call.
You might be wondering about Carolina's Cam Newton. He reached the Super Bowl at age 26 following the 2015 season before his $100 million contract extension kicked in and hasn't come close to returning since losing to Denver.
Let's get back to Brady and his most recent titles after the age of 35 and while making great money. It cannot be ignored that he should be considered the model an elite athlete giving up money late in his career for the sake of winning (it must be mentioned that former San Antonio forward Tim Duncan did the same thing late in his career). According to Business Insider, Brady, 41, has made $197 million during his career but has forfeited about $60 million along the way by restructuring deals and taking less than market value to allow the Patriots to spend money elsewhere to improve the team. He is scheduled to be a $27 million cap hit this season but was just a $22 million hit last year when the Patriots won their third Super Bowl in five seasons. Brady won his first three Super Bowl titles before the age of 28 and before he broke the bank. His willingness to take less money in the twilight of his career has certainly helped him earn the most Super Bowl rings for any quarterback in NFL history.
Would Wilson do the same for Seattle? Given the past 20 years, a safe bet would be that Wilson and Seattle would not win another Super Bowl title if the Seahawks pay Wilson north of $30 million per season. There are a lot of good, young quarterbacks in the NFL playing on rookie contracts that already play for legitimate contenders, such as reigning league MVP Patrick Mahomes II (Kansas City), Mitchell Trubisky (Chicago), Deshaun Watson (Houston), Carson Wentz (Philadelphia), Jared Goff (Los Angeles Rams) and Dak Prescott (Dallas). However, the latter three, all drafted in 2016, are due huge raises soon.
Wilson's best play from a winning standpoint would be to take less per year for more guaranteed money over more years in order to help Seattle's cap space so it can better build a contender around him. This is a fact proven out over time and by Brady's career.
Such a haul would start with at least two first-round draft picks. One of which would likely be used on a quarterback. Seattle could then take the money saved by letting go of Wilson for a cheaper option at quarterback, and additional draft picks and build a stronger team around the new leader in the huddle.
Unfortunately, that's far easier said than done. Seattle could easily whiff on its choice at quarterback. A rehash of all of the failed highly-drafted quarterbacks is far more enlightening than the list just presented of high-priced quarterbacks unable to duplicate their early Super Bowl success.
The bottom line is that Wilson is special. Even if Seattle relies heavily on the run and playing good defense to win, Wilson is the key. His ability to avoid mistakes and come up big in the clutch makes him great. Those traits are not easily replaced. But it's a virtual guaranteed that none of the teams with young quarterbacks previously listed would trade their passer for the right to sign Wilson to $30 million plus. They'd rather have the younger, cheaper quarterback because in today's NFL, unless you have Brady at the helm, the most desirable way to win is with a very good but relatively cheap, younger quarterback and plenty of cap space to build around him.
Seattle will likely reach a deal with Wilson. But if an agreement doesn't materialize, trading Wilson could also end up setting up a young Seahawks team for an equally bright future.