Last offseason, five quarterbacks signed splashy, big-money deals -- and none of them will be playing in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Tony Romo and Matthew Stafford all got their respective teams to pony up the dough within a span of months, and all but one (Rodgers) went on to miss the playoffs entirely. And yet, given the current state of the NFL, it would be tough to fault the Packers, Falcons, Ravens, Cowboys or Lions for doing what it took to lock things up at the game's most important position. Sure, the Seattle Seahawks made it to the Super Bowl with a relative bargain in Russell Wilson, who is still playing on his rookie contract as a third-round draft pick, but consider that the Denver Broncos are paying their signal-caller a pretty penny.
The QB spending spree of last spring was not an isolated event, of course. The year before, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees signed huge contracts of their own, while earlier this month, Jay Cutler received a healthy reward for staying with the Chicago Bears. And it's worth noting that not all quarterbacks pushed to break the bank; Tom Brady signed an extension with the Patriots last February in such a way that he left some money on the table (though he did get a good amount guaranteed).
The contracts given to Brees (which I'd call a push, given that the Saints have worked around the financial obligation by drafting promising players like Terron Armstead and Kenny Stills), Manning and Cutler (which I think will work out for the Bears, as I see a more disciplined Cutler fulfilling his tantalizing potential with coach Marc Trestman) are certainly worth examining. However, I want to focus in on the five quarterback deals struck last spring. With a full season in the books since those deals were made, where does each quarterback and team stand -- and what does it say about the position overall?
Here are the five quarterbacks, ranked from the safest investment to the shakiest:
1) Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
The deal: Signed five-year, $110 million contract extension in April 2013.
The details: $54 million is guaranteed; average salary is $22 million; 2014 salary-cap number is $17.9 million.
Rodgers offers the perfect blend of mobility and pocket-passing ability, making him tougher to defend than his more one-dimensional counterparts. The Packers knew what they were doing when they signed him to that contract extension, which I think will end up working out very well for both Rodgers and the team. This season was something of a tough campaign for Green Bay, which struggled to an 8-7-1 record while dealing with injuries to key pieces like Randall Cobb, Jermichael Finley, Clay Matthews and, of course, Rodgers himself. And yet, (with an ample assist from Eddie Lacy, who took up the offensive mantle in Rodgers' absence) the quarterback was able to salvage the season, returning in Week 17 from a fractured collarbone to lift the Packers to a playoff berth.
Some quarterbacks hit a wall when they approach Rodgers' age (he turned 30 in December), though most these days are hitting it much later than they once did, a trend for which we can probably thank modern year-round training practices -- as well as the fact that none of these guys are going back to their factory jobs in the offseason. I don't think Rodgers will be slowing down dramatically any time soon. His ability as a ground threat isn't based solely on speed; he understands defenses and knows when to take off. I think he'll stay athletic enough in the coming years that he'll be able to maintain that important aspect of his game.
The bottom line is, I don't think the Packers are going to regret this deal at any time, even toward the end, when many veterans in his shoes might struggle to keep pace with the value of the contract. I think Rodgers will still be giving Green Bay its money's worth when this deal is up.
2) Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
The deal: Signed five-year, $103.75 million extension in July.
The details: $59 million is guaranteed; average salary is $20.75 million; 2014 salary-cap number is $17.5 million.
When the Falcons ponied up for Ryan, they were paying a quarterback who was well worth the price based on what he'd done to that point, having led Atlanta to five consecutive winning seasons and getting within a game of the Super Bowl in 2012. At the time, Ryan was fresh off a season in which he'd completed 68.6 percent of his passes for 4,719 yards and 32 touchdowns against just 14 interceptions, notching a quality passer rating of 99.1.
And then, of course, the wheels seemed to fall off in 2013, as the Falcons finished with a 4-12 record that was decidedly not commensurate with the production expected of a team with a big-money quarterback. That said, it's important to note here that most of the squad's biggest problems were beyond Ryan's control. Atlanta's attempt to provide him with a running game fell flat, as free-agent signee Steven Jackson had a lackluster, injury-interrupted campaign. Top receiver Julio Jones was lost for the season in Week 5 with a foot injury, while veteran Roddy White struggled. And the offensive line had serious issues, with Peter Konz unable to fill the shoes of retired center Todd McClure and tackles Sam Baker and Mike Johnson landing on injured reserve.
Ryan had his struggles, too, including a 10-point dip in passer rating (99.1 to 89.6) and a huge uptick in interceptions on the road (five to 14). Still, I think that if the Falcons can upgrade the offensive line and figure out a way to inject some balance in their offensive attack, Ryan will resume producing at an elite level. While this season might make some wonder if Atlanta was right to spend all that money on Ryan, I think eventually this will turn out to be a good deal.
3) Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys
The deal: Signed six-year, $108 million extension in March.
The details: $55 million is guaranteed; average salary is $18 million; 2014 salary-cap number is $21.773 million.
Romo is an enigma to almost everybody. He had a better season in 2013 than he did in 2012, throwing more touchdown passes (31 compared with 28) and fewer interceptions (10 compared with 19) while boosting his passer rating (96.7 from 90.5) -- and yet, the Cowboys finished with a perfectly mediocre 8-8 record for the third consecutive season. This likely had much to do with Dallas' poor defense. Still, Romo continued to further his reputation as a snakebitten player, making the kinds of late-game mistakes that have a way of wiping out otherwise solid efforts.
The Cowboys really gave him a significant amount of money, considering Romo's age (33) and lack of playoff success. But that just goes to show that there simply is not much in the way of quarterback talent out there; it's the most difficult position to replace in the sport. Though the back surgery that prematurely ended Romo's season might make this extension look a bit shaky, Romo's toughness is underrated, and he could still end up turning the deal into a good one for the Cowboys.
4) Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens
The deal: Signed six-year, $120.6 million contract in March.
The details: $52 million is guaranteed; average salary is $20.1 million; 2014 salary-cap number is $14.8 million.
The Ravens failed to extend Flacco heading into the final year of his rookie contract in 2012 -- and they paid for it. The quarterback went on a phenomenal playoff run that culminated in a Super Bowl victory and, eventually, a megadeal the likes of which he'll have difficulty matching with his performance. Though his guaranteed money and annual average salary are similar to those of Rodgers, Flacco hasn't shown that he can put a team on his back like Rodgers can. The consistently inconsistent Baltimore quarterback needs a strong supporting cast, especially when it comes to the ground game.
In Flacco's defense, the Ravens' rushing attack was anything but strong in 2013, with Ray Rice appearing to be a shadow of the back he'd been before. Flacco also lost some key pieces in the passing game, including Anquan Boldin (traded away in the offseason) and Dennis Pitta (kept off the field until Week 14 by a fractured hip suffered in training camp). Plus, Flacco likely dealt with the tendency of players on Super Bowl-winning teams to ease up a bit with their preparation.
Flacco might have a target on his back, but at the end of the day, he's a good player who can succeed if he has the right playmakers around him. Will the Ravens be able to find that talent? Somewhat luckily for them, his 2014 cap number ($14.8 million) is easily the lowest of all the quarterbacks on our list (it was just $6.8 million in 2013). Though more important is the Ravens' history of drafting well, which is one good way to ensure balance on a roster that includes big-money contracts. The bottom line is, Baltimore really had no choice but to fork over the cash needed to keep Flacco, which still leaves the team better off than if it had allowed the quarterback to walk away. His situation illustrates just how hard it can be to properly evaluate a quarterback's worth -- and then make that match what you actually end up paying him.
5) Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions
The deal: Signed three-year, $53 million extension in July.
The details: $41.5 million is guaranteed; average salary is $17.67 million; 2014 salary-cap number is $15.82 million.
Stafford proved to be the most serious gamble of all the guys on this list. He's got a great arm, but lacks great mechanics, and he has not lived up to expectations since his breakout 2011 campaign. At this point, you have to ask how a quarterback who threw for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns two seasons ago could lead the Lions to a combined 11-21 record in 2012 and '13. Of course, it doesn't help that Detroit needs another receiver to complement stud Calvin Johnson, to whom Stafford tried to force the ball too much this season.
Frankly, I think the Lions extended Stafford a year too early. New head coach Jim Caldwell and freshly hired offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi have quite the reclamation project on their hands. Here's hoping, for the Lions' sake, that Lombardi has more than a little bit of his grandfather, Vince, in him.
Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.