Monday, November 14, 2011

Be Careful Who You Pay!

$59 million, was a bad choice!!!
Jay Cutler
Matt Cassel
Michael Vick
Kevin Kolb
Ryan Fitzpatrick

Quick! Tell me what these five quarterbacks have in common!



(Still waiting…)

Need help? OK, let me give you a few hints.
April 3, 2009 – The Chicago Bears trade QB Kyle Orton, a 2009 1st round pick (#18 overall), a 2010 1st round pick, and a 2009 3rd round pick to the Denver Broncos for QB Jay Cutler and a 2009 5th round pick.
October 21, 2009 – The Chicago Bears sign QB Jay Cutler to a 2 year contract extension worth $30 million, including $20 million in guaranteed money.
 Does that help? Let’s try another one to make sure…
February 28, 2009 – The Kansas City Chiefs trade a 2009 2nd round pick (#34 overall) to the New England Patriots for QB Matt Cassel and LB Mike Vrabel.
July 13, 2009 – The Kansas City Chiefs sign QB Matt Cassel to a 6 year contract worth $63 million, including $28 million in guaranteed money. The contract is reportedly worth $40.5 million in the first 3 years alone.
Let’s do a few more…just for kicks and giggles…
July 28, 2011 – The Arizona Cardinals trade a 2012 2nd round pick and CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to the Philadelphia Eagles for QB Kevin Kolb. The Cardinals subsequently signed Kolb to a 6 year $65 million contract extension with $21.5 million in guaranteed money.
August 29, 2011 – The Philadelphia Eagles sign QB Michael Vick to a 6 year contract extension worth $100 million, including $40 million in guaranteed money.
October 28, 2011 – The Buffalo Bills sign QB Ryan Fitzpatrick to a 6 year contract extension worth $59 million, including $24 million in guaranteed money. The contract is reportedly worth $33 million in the first 3 years alone.
By now, you should have a pretty clear idea of where I’m going. Each of the five quarterbacks I’ve mentioned has been given massive contracts in the past two years, some after being acquired at a heavy cost. Looking back, you have to wonder if their respective teams regret the decision.

At this point, saying that the NFL “is a QB driven league” is like beating a dead horse…only if “beating a dead horse” meant killing it via errant Joe Flacco passes to the head, dumping its corpse into the ocean, and repeatedly using it as nuclear submarine target practice. Still, it IS a QB driven league. The last eight Super Bowl QB’s (both winners and losers) have been Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Kurt Warner, Eli Manning, and Tom Brady. If that weren’t enough, 13 of the 15 winners from 1993-2007 are either in the HOF or soon to be in the HOF. That list includes Troy Aikman (3x), Steve Young, Brett Favre, John Elway (2x), Kurt Warner, Tom Brady (3x), Ben Roethlisberger, and Peyton Manning. Unless there’s a big surprise in this year’s playoffs, the trend should continue.

Fact: The best path to building an NFL winner is to acquire an elite QB. There’s no denying this fact. As early as 10 years ago, a strong argument could be made for defense being a priority (Ravens, Buccaneers), but that no longer holds water. For evidence of this, please see the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints (among others). While building a strong defense like the New York Jets can certainly find you some measure of success, the amount of success and the long term viability of that type of plan remains in question.

Using the Jets as an example, what would you say if I asked you about their Super Bowl chances? Probably no, right? Well, why is that? They have an excellent defense. They have solid coaching. Why would you discount their chances? The correct answer, of course, is because of Mark Sanchez. And that, in essence, is the point. It’s the same reason the mighty Baltimore Ravens, in all their defensive glory, have missed the playoffs 4 out of 10 seasons since they won the 2000 Super Bowl. If you don’t have a QB, then you don’t have a chance.

Given this information, it’s no wonder that the Bears, Chiefs, Eagles, Cardinals, and Bills went all in for a QB. The decision makers for each team accurately identified the team’s top priority and aggressively sought a solution. Hard to criticize anyone for that! Of course, finding the right solution is just as important, if not more so, than diagnosing the problem. At the time, each of these teams was lauded for their “aggressive action” and “shrewdness” in addressing their franchise’s biggest need.

Looking back, it’s hard to say any of these moves have worked out:

Jay Cutler

Cutler has to be considered the most successful of the quintet, having led his team to the NFC Championship game just one season ago. Don’t get too excited though, as QB Wins is not a popular stat around these parts. Cutler certainly seems alright, as his 86.3 QB Rating last year ranked him dead in the middle of the QB pack…ironically one spot lower than Kyle Orton, the man he was traded for. Of course, QB Rating isn’t a popular stat around these parts either. A more telling stat is Cutler’s -1.5% DVOA, ranking him 30th in the league. That’s one spot lower than Donovan McNabb, one spot higher than Jason Campbell, and 13 spots lower than Kyle Orton, whose 17.7% DVOA would have been a significant improvement over Cutler. The results aren’t much better this year, as Cutler’s 3.3% DVOA once again puts him in the Donovan McNabb vicinity. All for the price of two extraordinarily valuable first rounders, and a superior QB…not to mention the insane extension they gave him!

Summary: While I don’t actually think Orton is better than Cutler, the difference is probably negligible. Given the Bears reliance on running, defense, and special teams, it seems they would have been better suited to sticking with the conservative Orton anyways. Also, the first round picks/extra cap space could have gone a long way towards rebuilding the offensive line and avoiding a messy contract situation with their true franchise player, Matt Forte. Grade: D

Matt Cassel

Cassel should probably be donating half of his giant salary to Bernard Pollard, because without that season ending hit on Tom Brady back in 2008, Cassel wouldn’t be swimming in money, “Scrooge McDuck style,” like he is today. While it’s popular to remember Cassel as a seamless Tom Brady replacement, nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, the Patriots won 11 games with Cassel at the helm, but that’s not terribly impressive when you remember they won 16 the season before! With the greatest offensive juggernaut in history at his disposal, Cassel was completely and utterly average, ranking 20th in DVOA. That clearly impressed Scott Pioli enough to import him to Kansas City, where he promptly repaid the Chiefs massive investment with a staggering -24.3% DVOA. Heck, that made Jay Cutler look good! In fairness, he did bounce back with a Pro Bowl season last year, while also guiding the Chiefs to the AFC West title. Also in fairness, he didn’t deserve the Pro Bowl since he ranked a mediocre 16th in DVOA, completing under 60% of his passes. Predictably, the Chiefs were blown out by a real team in the Wild Card round. Things aren’t looking much better in 2011, as Cassel has returned to his 2009 form.

Summary: Who didn’t see this one coming? Anybody who really examined his 2008 season could tell you that Cassel was no better than a league average QB…and that was with a record setting Patriots offense! Kansas City’s desire to find a franchise QB was understandable after the Brodie Croyle/Tyler Thigpen era, but the massive investment in Cassel was doomed from the beginning. Now, they’re stuck in an even worse place. Mediocrity. Bonus points for not giving up a first round pick, but the grade is still bad. Grade: D+

Michael Vick

Philadelphia found themselves in a tough spot with Vick, but their over the top extension offer looked iffy to begin with. In their defense, it’s easy to see why they’d want to lock up a player like Vick. His 2010 season was revelatory, and the excitement he brings to the game is a major draw. Still, there were some clear warning signs that should have given the Eagles pause. In the last 6 games of 2010 (including playoffs), Vick threw 7 interceptions. Furthermore, it appeared as if defenses had started to catch on, as both Minnesota and Green Bay effectively bottled up Vick in their final two games. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Vick’s inability to stay healthy should have been a major deterrent in any future deal. Yet, the Eagles disregarded this and made Vick one of the richest football players alive based on 13 games worth of work. That’s looking great now after “The Dream Team” fell to 3-6 on the year, in large part to Vick’s inefficiencies.

Summary: I’ll freely admit that I was one of those idiots who thought Vick was well worth his contract. Whatever magic he had going in his first six games of 2010 was clearly not sustainable in the long term. His accuracy is still off, his pocket presence is still lacking, and his propensity for turnovers is still very much present. While I still feel confident he’ll improve his play, I sincerely doubt any team can mount a sustained run with an inconsistent talent like Vick manning the helm. Unfortunately for the Eagles, his massive cap figure, combined with their recent free agent splurge, almost guarantees them a stay in salary cap hell. Grade: C-

Kevin Kolb

For the life of me, I’ll never understand why anyone was willing to give so much for Kevin Kolb. Seven whole career starts, a negative TD-INT ratio, and an abhorrent Y/A equals a future star? What am I missing here? Yet, the Arizona Cardinals were compelled to give not only a 2nd round pick, but also a young, Pro Bowl cornerback. Oh yeah, and $65 million. Given Kolb’s -16.4% DVOA, I’d say they’d like to have that trade back, wouldn’t you?

Summary: This is essentially the doppelganger of the Matt Cassel trade, in which a QB needy team overvalues a young prospect based mostly on desperation and hope. Yes, I understand that it was a shock to go from Kurt Warner to Derek Anderson and John Skelton. Yes, I understand that a real QB could likely vault you to the top of a crappy division (seemed like the case before San Fran blew up). Believe me; I know it sucks to not have a QB. My beloved Cowboys once trotted out Vinny Testaverde for an entire season! Still, that doesn’t make it a good idea to give the world for a lousy prospect. How about you draft someone that isn’t Matt Leinart?! Now, the Cardinals are stuck in an even worse condition than before. Their secondary is depleted thanks to the loss of Rodgers-Cromartie, their cap situation is worse thanks to Kolb’s massive, undeserved extension, they’re out a high 2nd round pick, and John Skelton is STILL the best QB on the team. Grade: F- - - -

Ryan Fitzpatrick

That brings us to Ryan Fitzpatrick, the man whom the Bills brass recently decided was the team’s long term answer for a long term problem. Since Jim Kelly’s retirement in 1996, the Bills have endured prolonged stints by the likes of Todd Collins, Alex Van Pelt, Rob Johnson, “Old” Drew Bledsoe, J.P. Losman, Kelly Holcomb, and Trent Edwards. Other than the short Doug Flutie stint (that Wade Philips inexplicably sabotaged with Rob Johnson), and Drew Bledsoe’s random 2002 season, there’s not much to hang your hat on if you’re a Bills fan. Last year, after another horrible start to the season by Trent Edwards, the Bills decided it was time to make yet another change. Enter Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick had started 20 games prior to last year, but given that he had been pretty awful in all of them, there was no expectation that he would be the long term solution. After opening up with 11 touchdowns in four games though, people weren’t so sure. Buffalo bypassed QB in both the draft and free agency, and committed to giving Fitzpatrick a chance. Once again, Fitzpatrick started hot, leading Buffalo to a surprising 4-1 start while throwing 10 touchdowns. That was apparently enough for the Bills, as they recently decided to commit to him long term with a giant $59 million contract.

While many have lauded Buffalo for “locking up their guy,” I feel the same way about Buffalo’s decision as I do the previous four decisions. Buffalo’s desperation to have stability is certainly understandable, but committing franchise dollars to a non-franchise player is a killer…especially if it’s a QB. And really, do you think Ryan Fitzpatrick is an elite QB? Even last year, in his breakout year, Fitzpatrick fell well short of the elite class of Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Ben Roethlisberger. In fact, his 57.8% completion percentage puts him more in the Mark Sanchez class. His meager 2.9% DVOA backs that assumption up, as he ranks just one spot above Sanchez.

To be fair, he’s shown improvements this season. His 65.3% completions is a career high, as is his 7.1 Y/A. (Available DVOA rankings only go through Week 9, which will not accurately reflect his standing after a horrific showing against Dallas) Still, warning signs are definitely popping up. For one, the Bills have been slaughtered two weeks in a row by two solid defensive teams, and Fitzpatrick’s ineffectiveness has been alarming. For another, his interception rate is consistently bad. Last year, he had a 94 INT percentage (100 being average). This year, it’s dropped to a disturbing 82. That not only puts him in Mark Sanchez land, that makes him the mayor of Mark Sanchez land!

Summary: It’s understandably difficult for the Bills to walk away from another QB, especially one that has given them their most promising start in nearly a decade. Still, it’s pretty clear that Fitzpatrick is just a guy…unfortunately, he’s now making franchise money. Thanks to Fitzpatrick’s ability to not be J.P. Losman, the Bills will probably be stuck at 6-8 wins for a while. That probably sounds good this year, especially after the recent dark days Bills fans have experienced. But what about next year? Or the next? The goal is to win a Super Bowl, and I can safely say Fitzpatrick isn’t taking you there. Sorry Bills fans, but this is money not well spent (but definitely not as dumb as Kolb!). Grade: C-

The tendency for struggling franchises, and their tortured fan bases, is to cling to any small measure of hope that comes along. While the initial reprieve is enormous, the long term pay off isn’t always worth it. Chiefs fans were probably thrilled with Cassel last year, but do they honestly think they’re closer to relevance right now? The same can be asked of Bills fans. As much as it sucks, it’s better to lose big and get a true franchise guy than to languish in mediocrity.

Fact is, making a high dollar mistake on a QB can set your franchise back for years. Not only that, but the track record of landing QB’s through free agency or trade is spotty at best. Currently, seven of the top ten in QB Rating were obtained as rookies. Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Eli Manning, Alex Smith, Ben Roethlisberger, and Matthew Stafford were all drafted by their respective teams, while Tony Romo was scouted by the Cowboys and quickly signed as an undrafted rookie free agent. Drew Brees is the exception, not the rule.

With that in mind, I have an early prediction for the 2012 Ryan Fitzpatrick Award winner. This player has been mostly bad throughout his career, but has suddenly found success thanks to a combination of great coaching, a powerful running game, and a gameplan light on high risk/high reward plays. His team has yet to have a winning record during his tenure, but is suddenly standing alone as the second best team in all of football. That’s right; I’m talking about Alex Smith!

Depending on how the 49ers season plays out, particularly in the playoffs, Alex Smith could find himself in a peculiar situation. QB of the future, Colin Kaepernick, will almost assuredly be given an opportunity at some point, leaving Smith out in the cold. And, after a breakout 2011 campaign, Smith will definitely want to cash in while he still has the chance. Remember, he’s only on a one year deal! You don’t think a team like the Seahawks would pay through the nose for Alex Smith? What about the Browns, Jets, Redskins, Dolphins, etc? There are plenty of QB needy teams right now, and Smith very well could be the only free agent QB worth looking at. After the giant contracts given to Kolb and Fitzpatrick, it would be foolish to underestimate the stupidity of NFL decision makers.

Once this giant contract has been doled out, I’ll once again take to my blog, decrying the stupidity of giving franchise money to an average QB. Until then, remember the Chiefs and Cardinals when someone explains to you how smart the Bills are for locking up Fitzy. It’s nice to have a competent QB…it’s even nicer to have a championship team. Sorry Bills fans, but Ryan Fitzpatrick and his $59 million aren’t taking you to the Promised Land.


  1. Interesting comment about Smith. I hadn't really thought that far ahead yet... probably because I don't yet want to face a day where Kaeparnick is our "QB of the future," especially not while we're winning! I guess you're right that some stupid team out there could over-value Smith. And believe me, if they did, it could be every bit as ugly as a Kolb situation. But I think it's different with Smith in a lot of ways, too.

    The thing that makes Smith so bizarre - and this particular year, fascinating - is just how long the 'let-down' of his career has lasted, and that he still starts in spite of it. This is a guy who may have been one of the worst #1 overall selections in a long time (not necessarily in results, but merely how good the choice looked when he was drafted). Ever since he was drafted too high, he was destined to be a let-down. And he has had it all happen - serious injury, horrible performance, dumb head coaches not equipping him with competent QB coaching... even getting benched in favor of J.T. O'Sullivan! Ouch. The whole league has watched him fail, for a long time now, and fail pretty consistently.

    So, that makes me think this is a little different than some of these other bad contracts. If you ask me, even at 8-1 and having had some pretty nice showings this season, it still seems like pretty much everyone out there, the GMs and head coaches who lose to him, are just saying the same old "he's a game manager" or "yeah, Harbaugh has done well to hide his flaws" quips. I'm not saying these things are inaccurate... just that I think long-term reinforcement of a reputation is difficult to change. That's what separates him from Kolb, who people could have just said "hasn't really had a chance yet," or Vick, who had at least shown some success, and is sort of an anomaly as a QB, so you never know where his unique talents can bring you (also, he had winning success).

    Finally, I have to wonder whether Smith would seriously consider leaving SF, unless perhaps the money were waaaay better somewhere else. I guess it all comes down to whether the 49ers want to risk locking him long-term and perhaps disposing Kaep (hey, who knows, maybe some foolish GM will pay a boatload for him - even better!). But if the 49ers were to offer him a decent contract, it's hard for me to picture him wanting to walk. Think about it, his whole career he's been surrounded by morons like Singletary and Mike Nolan. I sort of see Smith like a little boy who just wants a father figure that isn't a crack-addict. And suddenly, not only does he get a non-deadbeat. Now, he has the greatest dad in the world, who is willing to hold his hand and walk to the park with him and play catch every single day. Would he so flippantly walk away from Jim Harbaugh just for a little more money? Perhaps this is a good topic for me to explore some more and we'll see a piece on this someday down the road this year...

  2. The one thing I can say for certain is that money speaks volume in the world of sports. There are many examples across sports of guys walking away from good situations for a little extra cash. In baseball, Jeff Weaver walked away from a similar situation in St. Louis to cash in. If the contract is out there, then it's possible.

    I'm not saying my fictional scenario is going to happen. Even in my "prediction" I mentioned that it will all be situational. There's a lot that can happen between now and the offseason, including the 49ers possibly winning a Super Bowl.

    You're definitely right that there are major differences in the individual QB's I mentioned. The piece is less about the QB's, and more about the over assessment of talent made by the respective personnel guys. We see desperate teams make dumb decision all the time, and the market could be lining up for Smith (or someone else) to be the next bad investment. It's not that he's bad, because he's made tremendous strides this season. It's that he's not worth franchise money, because he isn't a franchise QB. Other than Alex Smith, I don't know of any decent QB's that will be on the market next offseason. Jason Campbell? With so many teams potentially in the market (especially those that fall short of Luck), the odds of someone making an outlandish offer is actually pretty good. I mean, consider some of the other contracts in the NFL right now!

    As far as the league wide hate of Smith, I think it stops at fans and analysts. The truth is, we don't really know what other coaches/GM's really think of him. In fact, it's very possible that Smith's resurgence under Harbaugh will only serve to increase interest, as high ego coaches like Pete Carrol and Rex Ryan will probably assume that "if Harbaugh can do it, so can I."

    Anyways, I just thought it was interesting look at a league trend. The five specific guys I mentioned were all pretty high profile topics at the time, and it's interesting to look back and see how bad those investments turned out. Maybe Alex Smith is the next guy, and maybe he sticks with SF. Who knows? We'll see how the season plays out. Interesting to ponder though.

  3. Dear Casey, your Alex Smith-draft-letdown comment reminded me of Tim Couch...and every other player the browns drafted until Joe Thomas...and then I cried...I'd talk about it more, but I'd need a really sad movie score and a handgun.

  4. Hahaha... yeah. Poor Browns fans.

    As for the QB market, here's another interesting thought... Jon, I know you've been very critical of the QB crop these days. I have to agree to an extent. The question is, if we assume this is circadian, which I think it is, as most trends are... then when does the trend it shift the other way again? If you think about the QB draft this year, which we all thought sucked, it ended up populating the NFL with perhaps several mainstay QBs. Looking ahead to 2012, it should only get better, right? Considering that other guys such as Rodgers, Ryan, Stafford, and Bradford are still quite young, is it possible that the resurgence of the QB will happen soon?

    I'm not saying this means there will be NO market for Smith... but it's another thought that occurred to me. Many of the teams we say will 'just miss' the Luck sweepstakes will still be hitting the Barkley/Jones/Moore sweepstakes. So perhaps the demand won't be as high. You never know, though... there's always dumb GMs out there.

  5. #1 - Kellen Moore is not a major NFL prospect. He will likely not be a 1st day pick.

    #2 - The success of this past draft is pretty overplayed. Cam Newton and Andy Dalton are the only two having an impact. Gabbart is clearly a throw away, while Ponder and Locker still have a lot to prove.

    #3 - There is almost no way the draft can adequately fill the QB needs of all the needy teams. Even if there are 4 "sure fire" guys, there will still be a market for a veteran like Smith. Consider that the Titans invested good money in Matt Hasselbeck despite drafting Jake Locker. There will likely be at least two teams that sell themselves on Alex Smith being the missing link to a championship puzzle. My best guess would actually be the Jets, who would definitely view themselves as a true contender given an upgrade at QB.

    #4 - I don't believe the QB issue is circadian. I believe it is the exact same problem that the NBA has with a lack of franchise players. Fact is, there will always be a limited supply of true star QB's, and over expansion will ensure this continues.

  6. I wonder what it looks like when we compare a QB class with a DB class...and more specifically a DB class within the same conference. I haven't looked up any numbers to support this at all, but my hunch is that the quality QB's come out of systems that regularly face quality secondaries.

  7. I wouldn't necessarily think that's the case. The Pac-12 is noted for poor defensive play, but that hasn't stunted the development of Luck, Aaron Rodgers, Carson Palmer (pre-injury), and others. Likewise, several successful QB's have come from small conferences. Examples of this would be Tony Romo, Daunte Culpepper, and Steve McNair.

    I honestly believe that the notion of "developing a QB" is vastly overplayed. Either you can play, or you can't. There are obvious exceptions to this (Alex Smith currently being one), but it's true for the most part.

  8. fair enough...either that or the true effect of quality coaching/learning/whatever you want to call it doesn't take place until the NFL, i.e. Rodgers.