NFC title game teams are both led by bargain price quarterbacks
NFC title contenders have built strong teams because QBs are two of the cheapest in the league
In a quarterback-driven sport, no National Football League team is spending less on the position this season than the Seattle Seahawks. They're also the oddsmakers' favourite to win the Super Bowl.
Russell Wilson (main image) is making about US$681,000 in salary and bonuses in his second NFL season, less than 24 players on the Seattle roster, including backup quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. The money the Seahawks pay to quarterbacks this season accounts for 1.1 per cent of their US$133.5 million in player salaries, providing financial flexibility to assemble a squad that has six players in the Pro Bowl.
It is a similar situation for the Seahawks' opponents in the National Football Conference championship game tomorrow morning (Hong Kong time), as 2.6 per cent of the San Francisco 49ers' total cap spending goes to quarterbacks, with Colin Kaepernick getting about US$1.4 million in salary and bonuses. The eight players the 49ers had voted to the Pro Bowl tied for the most in the NFL.
"These teams are certainly drawing the benefits of having a successful starting-calibre quarterback, but not having to pay that much money for them," said former Washington Redskins and Houston Texans general manager Charley Casserly, who's now an analyst for the NFL Network. "It not only deepens your roster, but allows you to have better starters at other positions."
By comparison, quarterback salaries in the American Football Conference title game between the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots account for between 11 and 14 per cent of their player payrolls, according to USA Today figures.
The Las Vegas Hotel's SuperBook currently has whichever team comes out of the NFC as a 21/2-point favourite for the February 2 Super Bowl.
While Wilson, 25, and Kaepernick, 26, are still signed under their four-year rookie contracts, four-time NFL Most Valuable Player Peyton Manning, 37, of the Broncos is making US$17.5 million this season and three-time Super Bowl winner Tom Brady, 36, tops the Patriots' payroll at US$13.8 million. Under the NFL's collective bargaining agreement signed in 2011, the salaries of Wilson and Kaepernick are predetermined based on where they were selected in the draft.
When looking at the quarterbacks still playing, it's "old school" in the AFC title game against "new school" in the NFC, Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders said last week. Beyond that, this weekend's conference championships spotlight how the league's best teams have assembled rosters based on the constraints or flexibility offered by quarterback pay.
"The thing you have right now with the quarterbacks is you have the upper echelon, which you could say are around US$15 million annually up to the low US$20 millions, and then you have the rookie contracts," Casserly said. "Among contending teams, the only guy really in the middle is Kansas City's Alex Smith at US$7.5 million plus incentives. You have that huge void there."
NFL quarterbacks threw a record 804 touchdown passes during the 2013 season and the average of 471.2 combined passing yards a game was also the highest in league history.
Wilson's production at a relatively low salary has helped the Seahawks in building a winning team focused on the league's fourth-best rushing offence and No 1 defence.
Wilson's 24 career regular-season wins over his first two years in the NFL are a record, and he joined Manning and Dan Marino as the only quarterbacks to throw for more than 50 touchdowns in his first two seasons. Wilson's numbers have dipped in the Seahawks' past five games, however, as he's thrown for an average of 157.6 yards during that stretch and is coming off a season-low 103-yard passing performance in last week's rainy and windy play-off win against the New Orleans Saints.
"I think it's more of a function of the way the games went," Wilson said this week when asked about his recent struggles. "We've played some really good defences, but there's definitely some room for improvement. We're winning a lot of football games and that's the best thing."
The Seahawks are 31/2-point favourites against the 49ers for the NFC championship game. They're also listed at 7-4 to win the Super Bowl, according to oddsmakers at the Las Vegas SuperBook.
"We're excited about the opportunity," Manning said this week. "There is no question that we have come a long way in the two years that I have been here."
Manning's salary in Denver equals the combined pay of two players the Broncos lost to season-ending injuries: left tackle Ryan Clady and linebacker Von Miller, the team's second- and fourth-highest paid players. The Broncos' quarterbacks account for 13.35 per cent of the team's total spending toward the salary cap, according to USA Today.
In New England, quarterback pay is 11.27 per cent of the payroll on a team that's lost four of its 11 highest-paid players to season-ending injuries. The Patriots entered this season without their five leading pass-catchers from 2012, yet won at least 10 games for the 11th straight year.
"When you get a franchise quarterback, you're going to pay him a lot of money, but he has to be able to deliver like the Mannings and the Bradys and be able to carry the people around him," Casserly said.
With the 49ers, 26 players on the active roster make more than Kaepernick, a 2011 second-round draft pick whose rookie contract runs through next season. Kaepernick's salary - a base of US$741,000 - helped the 49ers assemble an offence that had the third-most rushing yards this season and a defence that allowed the third-fewest points.
NFL rules prevent players from renegotiating until after the third year of their rookie deals, so the 49ers, who are seeking to reach the Super Bowl for the second year in a row, could negotiate a long-term deal with Kaepernick this off season.
Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco signed a six-year, US$120.6 million deal last year after leading the Ravens past Kaepernick and the 49ers in the Super Bowl. Kaepernick won't have the same leverage after this season, Casserly said, because the Ravens would have had to pay more than US$20 million for one season if they tried to retain Flacco with their franchise player tag. That designation gives the player an average salary of what the top five at the position are costing.
Wilson, a third-round pick in 2012, would not be able to renegotiate his contract until after next season. "It's going to change down the road when they have the big quarterback paydays," Casserly said of the Seahawks and 49ers. "When you get to that big contract, it changes the makeup of your team."