How hard is it to win the Super Bowl with a QB on a top-tier deal?
While Rex Burkhead’s renegotiated contract is more consequential from the immediate perspective of the New England Patriots, the news of his reworked deal pales in comparison to the extension signed by Patrick Mahomes on Monday: the fourth-year quarterback, who led the Kansas City Chiefs to their first Super Bowl win in half a century earlier this year, signed a record-breaking 10-year extension worth up to $503 million if all escalators and bonuses are met. By all accounts, the deal is the biggest in NFL history.
While it seems unlikely that Mahomes will be playing the next decade-plus on the same deal, the numbers broken down in more detail show just how much the Chiefs invested in their MVP passer (via Miguel Benzan):
While Mahomes’ salary cap impact will remain relatively modest for the next three seasons considering the caliber of player that he is, future cap hits such as 2027’s $59.95 million show just how much the pact is actually worth. This breakdown as presented here also leads to a natural follow-up question: Will Kansas City still be able to continuously compete for the Lombardi Trophy if one player, albeit arguably the best in football, takes up that big a chunk of the organization’s payroll?
Let’s start by taking a look at some historical context.
The NFL’s salary cap era began in 1994, and no team has been able to maneuver through the challenges presented than the Patriots under head coach and de facto general manager Bill Belichick. New England won six Super Bowls between 2001 and 2018 while being among the favorites in every single season. This was in large part due to some outstanding roster and payroll management that generally valued the middle class over some high-priced star players. It also was because of quarterback Tom Brady, though.
The notion that Brady continuously left more money on the table in order to help the team can be disputed somewhat — he signed the richest deal in the league back in 2010, for example — but he and the Patriots did have an understanding that him taking up too much space under the cap could be problematic for the team as a whole. Just take a look at his salary cap share during New England’s six championship runs (via Over The Cap):
As can be seen, Brady did command some large cap hits compared to how the league’s spending ceiling developed. However, the Patriots never spent more than 12.2 percent on him during one of their Super Bowl runs and no more than 13.6 percent in any other season (2006). Those shares put the future Hall of Famer in some noteworthy company considering that no starting quarterback ever won a title while taking up more than 13.1 percent of his club’s salary cap.
That quarterback was Steve Young, who cost the San Francisco 49ers $4.53 million versus 1994’s salary cap of $34.6 million. Since then, the highest cap percentage spent on a quarterback by a Super Bowl winning team was Brady’s 12.2 percent two years ago. So to go back to the question asked on the top of this here article — How hard is it to win the Super Bowl with a quarterback on a top-tier contract? — the answer is this: It is very hard, at least when going by historical precedent as context.
When looking at the Mahomes deal and his potential impact on the Chiefs’ chances of returning to the big dance particularly from 2021 on, however, the answer is not that cut-and-dry. After all, there are too many variables that cannot yet be accounted for in regard to the cap’s development over the coming seasons.
John Dixon from Arrowhead Pride calculated Mahomes’ potential cap impact by projecting it to go down to $150 million next year before bouncing back to $200 million in 2022 and subsequently increasing five percent each following year. Under this projection — one that will largely depend on the impact the Coronavirus pandemic will have on the NFL’s revenue this season and how the league plans to account for its likely losses both in 2021 and beyond — Mahomes would take up between 15.7 percent in 2022 and 23.5 percent in 2027.
As noted above, of course, it appears unlikely that Mahomes’ deal will remain as is until the 2031 season. Nor does it seem likely that the salary cap grows at as steady a rate as the one projected.
The calculated cap percentage therefore turn out to be a very conservative estimation. On the one hand, this could therefore mean that the Chiefs may have a bargain on their hands further down the line. On the other, however, such a development could lead to Mahomes’ camp demanding a return to the negotiating table at one point. Of course, this could also all turn out to be a moo point if the cap does not climb as steadily after what could be a tough financial season for the NFL.
The point is this: It is hard to project what the league and the financial framework of pro football will look like in one year let alone one decade.
Will the Chiefs have to accept sacrifices at other positions to account for Mahomes’ salary cap share increasing? Possible. Will Mahomes’ deal turn out to sink their chances at establishing the dynasty they have been talking about since February? Possible. But could we look back on the contract 10 years from now and see it as a stroke of genius that laid the foundation for a Patriots-like run of excellence? Maybe not likely, but still very much possible.
As was established above, it is hard to win a Super Bowl or even find continuous success with a quarterback being paid that much money — just ask the Los Angeles Rams, who signed Jared Goff to a four-year, $134 million extension last year that has already forced them to make some financial adjustments. Mahomes is a better quarterback than Goff, though, and he has proven himself capable of elevating the Chiefs’ offense to a level the Rams’ passer can only dream of at this stage in his career.
Ultimately, however, time will tell how to judge Mahomes’ deal and whether or not the old adage “You can’t win with a quarterback on a top-tier deal” still holds true 10 years from now.