As in most major sports leagues, contracts are more about timing than anything else in the NFL. The next franchise player due for an extension (particularly quarterbacks) or new contract is bound to make more than the last and set a new standard. This offseason proved to be no different and Derek Carr was next in line. After a Pro Bowl caliber season in 2017, Carr inked an extension with the Oakland Raiders that made him the league’s highest paid player at $125 million over five years, eclipsing the previous mark set by Andrew Luck at nearly $123 million.
Admittedly I’m a little numb to hearing these gigantic numbers, especially considering the type of money NBA players are making right now under the increased salary cap (J.J. Redick just signed to make $23 million this season…think about that for a second). Nonetheless, Carr’s is a huge NFL number that has several collateral ramifications. I must warn you though- the deeper we dive into this, the less we’re going to talk about numbers. The most important effects of this deal have little to do with money and more to do with everything else. Such as life.
First the obvious, which is that the Raiders just paid Derek Carr a lot of money and now there’s less money to go around. I feel confident you follow. This is the first thing we all think of when our team signs a player to a big contract…how much do we have left to pay other players? But in reality this is a far less important factor in the NFL than it is in any other league. Have you ever noticed that the NFL offseason is extremely dull compared to the NBA or MLB? I mean, football is the most popular sport in America, yet it feels like there’s nothing for football fans to talk about in the offseason beyond the draft. Certainly nothing that matches the intrigue of NBA free agency or MLB trade deadline. My friend Kasey, who’s one of the biggest NBA fans I know, calls July 1 the best day of the year in the NBA. Not the start of the season, the start of the playoffs, or even the NBA Finals. The start of free agency. In fact, he and I skyped for three hours the night free agency began, discussing it all. No NFL fan has ever called free agency the best time of year, nor have I ever talked to anyone for even a half hour to debate and analyze NFL offseason topics.
There’s a reason for that, and it’s the extremely restricted player movement in the NFL, largely due to the franchise tag. That tag, which allows an NFL team to keep a player up to three years beyond the expiration of his contract and leaves the player no option, results in very little movement of stars. Most of the time the system lends itself to players just working out a new contract rather than playing under the tag because it’s usually more lucrative and they want to avoid playing under the pressure of a one-year agreement. A Pro Bowl quarterback has never been an unrestricted free agent in the modern era of the NFL salary cap. Not once. In relation to the topic of Derek Carr’s extension, that control that the franchise tag allows teams means that there’s no reason to worry about Oakland’s stars getting away from them…and furthermore, no reason to worry about any available free agent stars escaping their grasp. There’s virtually no such thing.
Now, let’s get beyond the numbers and focus on what’s really important: Football.
The structure of an NFL roster and the nature of football lends itself to being one of the least reliant sports on stars in terms of the success of a team. By that I mean that it is more difficult to reach the pinnacle of football off of the strength of one star than it is in most other sports. Certainly basketball. In football there are 11 players on the field and two sides of the ball, which means 22 starters on each team. That alone would lead you to believe that the individual has much less impact than in a sport where you have 5 starters or 9 starters. Additionally, each player has to achieve a job on each play and is likely not be the focal point of the play very often in relation to the total number of snaps. For example, a running back has to achieve a job on each play but may only touch the ball on a quarter of the offensive snaps. Even less for a wide receiver, and that’s only one side of the ball.
All this analysis of the sport would argue against the sense in signing Derek Carr, just one player, for a high amount. However, we’ve yet to discuss the player who controls the scoreboard most. The leader, the signal caller, the gunslinger. The quarterback.
There’s a phrase used in school and out in the professional world that refers to the person who’s most in charge of the success of an assignment. “Quarterbacking it”. You’ve heard this, you know what it means. “She’s quarterbacking the project.” That means she’s the key player. She’s going to come up with the ideas, she’s going to correspond with the boss or professor, she’s going to make sure everyone on the team knows and does their job. And guess who’s going to be holding the clicker when that powerpoint hits the screen in front of the important people. That’s right- she is. The quarterback.
So how did this phrase come about? After all, you don’t call that person “the point guard” or “the shortstop”. That’s because, contrary to what the nature of football would lead you to believe, quarterback is the most important position in sports and the most synonymous with the leadership of a team. The role of distributing the football to the skill players in an effective way that leads to points is the most important job there is.
Let’s examine the evidence and look at the 2017 NFL Playoffs. Who were the quarterbacks who led their team to the conference championship game? Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan and Aaron Rodgers. How about the year before? Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Cam Newton and Carson Palmer. All but one of those were a Pro Bowl selection that season (the one is Manning and I think we can excuse him with his 14 other Pro Bowl selections) and the league MVP for both those seasons is represented as well. Elite quarterback play goes hand in hand with success in the NFL, and that’s truer now than it’s ever been. The air game is powering the league and if you don’t have a quarterback who stacks up, you don’t have a shot at the title. Plain and simple.
Speaking of titles, I’d also like to take a look at Super Bowls over the years. First of all, a quarterback has won the league MVP in 16 of the last 20 seasons and all but one (Adrian Peterson in 2012) of the last nine. Of those 16, 10 have reached the Super Bowl. I like those odds much better than those of the 31 teams who don’t have the MVP quarterback. Additionally, over those 20 seasons only one Super Bowl champion team was led by a quarterback who’s never made the Pro Bowl (’12 Ravens). To be fair, most would also throw the ’00 Ravens and ’02 Buccaneers into a category of champions without an elite quarterback, but those were some of the most vaunted defenses of all-time. And that’s what it takes to win a championship without an elite quarterback. Usually it takes a fantastic running game as well, as was the case with Walter Payton and the ’85 Bears or 2,000 yard rusher Jamal Lewis and the ’00 Ravens. That combination of running game and defense is flat-out rare. And if you were wondering, the rest of that list of champions was sprinkled with names like Brady, Manning, Favre, Elway & Aikman. No coincidence.
The Raiders obviously possess a grasp of this. All that evidence just points to the fact that you have to do whatever it takes to lock up your elite quarterback and then worry about the rest later. The promise Carr has shown warrants that type of urgency and that type of money without question and that’s why I don’t think a single Raider fan was upset with the contract he got.
Finally, I want to take a minute to address the final step of this contract ladder. The only piece that’s more important than the football field itself; personal and team dynamics.
As Drake once said, “I like when money makes a difference but don’t make you different.” An allusion to the fact that money can create negative change in people despite its obvious benefits. It brings a lot of things with it, but in the sports world what it brings in abundance more than anything is pressure. To perform, to live up to that number. Really, only Derek Carr knows if his mind is right to handle that type of pressure. But only that is in his hands- the rest is up to the team. The figure he makes is so public that there’s no question that everyone on the team knows it. Their wives know it, their kids know it, their mailman knows it. If things go well on the field an issue is less likely, but when trials arise it will be up to the character of the team to see the bigger picture and put that number out of their minds. Other parts of the championship formula are up for debate, but egos are checked at the door on championship teams 100% of the time and the Raiders must be completely aware of that.
Personally, I think they are. Football players know the business side of the game and they know why quarterbacks get that payday. They know who’s in greater control of the team’s success than anyone else. For the Raiders, that man is Derek Carr. He’s quarterbacking their project. He’s holding the clicker.
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