That’s what drove the 2014 NFL offseason quarterback market. After the 49ers, Bengals and Chiefs made the playoffs last season, each team faced a decision at the most important position in sports: QB. And with little hesitation, each lavished big money on extensions for Colin Kaepernick, Andy Dalton and Alex Smith, respectively.
The result? All three teams are in serious jeopardy of missing the playoffs this season. Toss in the Bears ridiculously overpaying Jay Cutler and it looks like NFL teams went 0 for 4 on paying large sums to their quarterbacks in the 2014 offseason.
“Fear of the unknown drove that market,” former Philadelphia Eagles Director of Pro Personnel Louis Riddick told me this week. “Chicago and Marc Trestman thought they were the ones that would put Jay into the Brees/Rodgers/Brady category, but that’s a fail. Andy Reid’s investment in Alex Smith goes back years to Smith’s days at Utah, and Andy’s personal affection for the guy kind of played a part in the overall evaluation. But in the end, you don’t want to be left with someone who isn’t even competent, so teams overpaid.”
In January, the Bears faced a pivotal decision: Keep Jay Cutler, who had an injury-plagued 2013 season, or dump him for backup Josh McCown, who performed capably in a reserve role. Chicago retained Cutler and gave him a 7-year extension worth $126 million, with $54 million guaranteed.
Buyer’s remorse kicked in by late September, and the Bears have been so atrocious (5-8), there’s scuttlebutt that Cutler could be on the trading block (but who would want to absorb that contract?), and coach Marc Trestman and GM Phil Emery could be on their way out as well.
Two months later, McCown was snapped up by Tampa Bay. The 35-year old was handed the keys to Lovie Smith’s offense … and promptly totaled the car. He’s been injured, benched, and ineffective, and it didn’t take long for the team to regret giving him a 2-year, $10 million deal. Tampa Bay is 2-11 and in the mix for the No. 1 pick in the draft, in which they’ll almost certainly be looking for a QB.
In June, San Francisco locked up one of the best young QBs in the league, Colin Kaepernick, with a 6-year extension reportedly worth as much as $126 million. While it didn’t turn out to be as record-setting as first reported, it did extend Kaepernick before necessary, and means a new coach in San Francisco will have some decisions to make.
Kaepernick has regressed considerably this season, despite San Francisco’s attempts to surround him with skill players (drafting RB Carlos Hyde and trading for WR Stevie Johnson): a career-high 10 interceptions, the lowest yards-per-attempt in his career (7.1) and zero rushing TDs. The 49ers are 7-6 and will virtually be eliminated from playoff contention with a loss in Seattle Sunday.
“[These teams] could have watched and waited another year to get a fuller picture of the player, but chose not to,” Andrew Brandt, who spent nine years as Green Bay’s Vice President, and is now an ESPN NFL Business analyst, said via email. “Why not? I think it goes to the scarcity of the position and the teams saying, in essence, ‘We know he has flaws and he may not be elite, but he is better than the (unknown) alternative!'”
In August, after months of saying they were going to pay QB Andy Dalton, the Bengals gave the Red Rifle a 6-year, $96 million extension (“only” $17 million guaranteed). He’s thrown 13 interceptions in 13 games, and they often come in bunches, and frequently at home – two in a tie against Carolina, two against Jacksonville, three in a humiliating home loss to Cleveland and three against Tampa in a lucky victory. The Bengals defense has been lousy (and injury-riddled) but after getting big bucks, Dalton didn’t turn the proverbial corner.
The Bengals, after three straight playoff trips with Dalton at the helm – he was chiefly responsible for both 1st round losses – are clinging to a postseason spot for now. But they’ve got two road games and host Peyton Manning. Their playoff odds will take a hit with a loss to Johnny Manziel and Cleveland Sunday. Will heads roll in the front office if they miss the postseason six months after giving their average QB big money?
Lastly, we have Alex Smith, who days before the regular season began, was given a 4-year, $68 million extension from the Chiefs ($45 million guaranteed!). Smith helped lead Kansas City to the playoffs in his first year with Andy Reid, and this year … well, let’s start here: He hasn’t thrown a TD pass to a wide receiver yet.
Smith hasn’t been as bad as some of the other QBs above, but he certainly hasn’t elevated his play beyond that of game manager. With three games left, he’s on pace to eclipse his 11 turnovers last year.
“There’s only going to be so many Andrew Lucks and John Elways,” said Riddick, who is now an ESPN NFL analyst. “Being a quarterback at the highest level in the NFL? Let’s face it, that shit is hard to do. And if you don’t have the next Tom Brady, or haven’t made a trade for the next Drew Brees, what’s the alternative? Well, you can still win in the NFL if you get competent QB play and he’s not turning the ball over.”
So will any of the teams who overpaid their QB in 2014 make a radical move in 2015? That seems unlikely. They’ll have to live with their multi-million dollar mistakes for another year or two. The 2015 free agent QB class is even murkier: Mark Sanchez, Jake Locker, Mike Vick, Christian Ponder, Brian Hoyer and … yikes.
The 2015 draft? Uncertainty reigns. Beyond Oregon’s Marcus Mariota (system QB?) and FSU’s Jameis Winston (off-the-field headache) options are extremely limited. War rooms in April are going to be divided between the likes of … inaccurate not-yet-ready Brett Hundley of UCLA and immobile 6-foot-5 Sean Mannion from Oregon State, who was much better as a junior and was sacked 36 times this season. All of those guys would be considerably cheaper than making an expensive mistake in free agency, but that’s when you weigh the known (free agents) vs an unknown (rookie).
Which leads to a story from Riddick’s days in Philadelphia. His coach, Andy Reid, was enamored with a carefree QB from Arizona, Nick Foles. Riddick didn’t see it. “My instinctive sense told me he wasn’t going to be a guy who could function at a high level week after week.”
Foles threw 27 touchdowns last season and only two interceptions, leading Chip Kelly’s Eagles to the playoffs.
“He was a guy I missed on,” Riddick admits. “Sometimes, it’s a roll of the dice. Some guys melt when the lights go on, and others ask for more challenges. That’s the beauty and the challenge of a business that is largely subjective.”
LOCK OF THE WEEK
Was Championship weekend good to you? A backdoor cover from Georgia Tech gave me a 4-1 last week – damn you, Rich Rod! – and heading into Bowl season, I’m 26-26 for the year. Exhibition season (aka Bowl games!) is usually a profitable one because it’s sometimes easy to predict which teams may or may not care about the game. Will gutted TCU and Baylor show up? What about teams that lost their coach? What about teams with stars thinking about the NFL? With 73 bowl games this year, I’ll break them into thirds – this week Pre-Christmas Bowl games; next week Bowl games from the 26th-31st, and on December 30th (no column on the 24th), we’ll do the rest.
Air Force +1.5 vs. Western Michigan (Idaho Potato Bowl): The Broncos stepped out of conference twice this year and lost to Purdue and Virginia Tech. The Falcons beat Boise State and Colorado State, who were a combined 21-4. I’ll take the 8th best rushing offense (272 yards per game) over a D that gave up 4.22 yards per carry (61st).
San Diego State -1.5 vs. Navy (Poinsettia Bowl): The Midshipmen have to play this weekend against Army, so they’ll have a week less of prep for the Aztecs. SDSU played very well in the last month, with the only loss being at Boise State after collapsing in the 4th quarter. Also, it’s a home game.
Utah -4 vs. Colorado State (Las Vegas Bowl): Utes have a habit of playing up or down to the comp (beat UCLA, USC, Stanford; lost to Washington State, barely beat Colorado). Colorado State lost coach Jim McElwain to Florida.
Memphis -1 vs. BYU (Miami Beach Bowl): Slight concerns about the Tigers enjoying South Beach too much (obviously the Cougars won’t), but the Tigers have been a covering machine this year, and Justin Fuente is one of the best young coaches in the sport.
ODDS & ENDS
Scroll way, way down here in Peter King’s column for a great story on Bryan Burwell, who passed away this month … gosh, these “50 Most Influential” lists are hilarious. So did Adam Silver win out because he gave SBJ the scoop on the NBA’s new TV deal? Does anyone in sports really think Silver belongs at No. 1 on this list? He’s done a decent job so far, but come on … I should just link the 27 pieces out there about the seismic changes at the New Republic, a publication that maybe 5% of this website’s audience reads … Rogers Communications made a $5.2 billion gamble on the NHL, and it isn’t exactly do great so far … Props to the forward-thinking Washington Post for naming Dan Steinberg of DC Sports Bog fame as the paper’s new columnist. He’ll replace Mike Wise, who left for Jason Whitlock’s new ESPN website. The sports columnist of the 80s and 90s, strictly writing navel-gazing opinion is a thing of the past; in a click-or-die era, the new sports columnists will be those with a blogging background. Writers with the ability to quickly turn around breaking news, those who are incessantly talking with readers on social media, constantly checking site metrics (what clicks and what doesn’t) and possess the ability to drive discussion rather than always react to it … Bloomberg News has lost its editor-in-chief after 24 years, as Matt Winkler is leaving, to be replaced by John Micklehwait of the Economist … Uh-oh: “the erosion in live TV viewership appears to be accelerating.”