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Alex Smith Reportedly Wants "Jay Cutler" Money, Which Shows the High Cost of Paying for a Good Quarterback

Alex Smith has music, Alex Smith has dancing

Alex Smith is reportedly pushing for “Jay Cutler” money this offseason, with one year left on his contract with the Kansas City Chiefs. Kansas City would be insane to pay anywhere close to that with one year remaining on Smith’s contract. The argument for Smith, I suppose, getting top level money is that his teams are 30-9-1 in games he has started over the last three seasons, in San Francisco and Kansas City. The argument against is pretty much everything else.

The problem? Twelve of the league’s likely starting quarterbacks are currently on their rookie deals at reduced rates, and five more involve situations where there is a competition between a veteran and young player (I count Houston, Minnesota, New York Jets, Oakland, and Tampa Bay in that group). Less than half the teams have a solidified starter on a premium veteran deal. Or as Ian Rapoport puts it:

Well, teams need to be willing to set that market. Alex Smith is one of the 15 guys who is locked in as the starter on a veteran deal. Where would you put him compared to the group? You’d put him ahead of Bradford, and Bradford is overpaid at $14 million a year. You’d put him ahead of Palmer, but his salary is less than $10 million already. The remainder, you would have to come up with a pretty good argument or fall back on wins. Cutler’s average annual money is only $4 million per year less than Aaron Rodgers, $2 million less than Brees, $1 million less than Manning, and more than Brady, Rivers, and Roethlisberger.

The problem is the high cost of “good”, not the high cost of “great”, when it comes to the quarterback position under the new salary structure. It’s very similar to the problem that FiveThirtyEight looked at with NBA stars and max contracts.

In the NFL, most quarterbacks who get these huge deals, while being good players, will not be worth the amount they demand. To put it another way, the value difference between Aaron Rodgers and the average of the other veterans is way more than $6 million, but the decay rate in salaries does not reflect this. Just look at the playoff teams: the seven teams with the highest percentage of their salary cap devoted to the five highest paid players missed the postseason in 2013.

Alex Smith shovel pass in AFC Wildcard game

With quarterbacks and their agents constantly using the “my dad can beat up your dad” comparison–“I want Jay Cutler money”, “I’m worth more than Sam Bradford”, or potentially soon to be “If Alex Smith made that much, I’m worth way more”–teams have to make a decision. They must either play ball, or take the ball and go home in a figurative sense. Many are afraid of what’s behind door number two (perhaps they should see that numerous teams have had great success going with young quarterbacks instead of average veterans).

In the Chiefs’ case, they have Smith under contract this year. They can franchise him at the going rate for starting quarterbacks for one season a year later. That’s at age 30 and 31. There is a very real reason specific to Smith that they may be wise to do so.

Quarterbacks like Smith have not aged well in their thirties. In baseball terms, he’s like the starting pitcher who can’t afford to lose much off his fastball. He’s not known, for good reason, as a strong arm or accurate deep thrower. He is conservative, he avoids turnovers, he will hold the ball and take sacks rather than put it up for grabs, and does not generally throw into dangerous spots.

Looking back at history, then, we want guys who were, relative to the league numbers at the time, good at avoiding interceptions, guys who took sacks, guys who profile as more conservative with higher completion percentage rankings than yards per attempt rankings, and middling passing touchdown numbers.

When I run a comparability study looking at other quarterbacks ages 27 to 29 (which should be favorable to Smith since I exclude the rest of his career and just focus on his best seasons) I get the following ten guys most similar to Smith over the last three years: Neil Lomax, Jason Campbell, Bernie Kosar, Ken O’Brien, Neil O’Donnell, Jim Zorn, Donovan McNabb, Jim Harbaugh, Drew Bledsoe, Bubby Brister.

alex smith jim harbaugh

That’s not a list of guys who you would have wanted in their thirties. Smith’s former coach Jim Harbaugh started 90 more games, but he was the outlier. The group averaged 37 starts after their 30th birthday, 2.3 seasons where they made at least 8 starts after turning 30, and 0.4 pro bowls. Several of them were more accomplished than Smith before turning 30. Neil O’Donnell is a good comparison for the stats vs. wins crowd. He was a good, solid quarterback in his late twenties. He was not among the league’s best. The team, though, won a lot of games. In 1995, he led five 4th quarter game winning drives, and the team reached the Super Bowl. After the season, Pittsburgh let him walk.

In this case, the downside for Kansas City of paying now–at Jay Cutler money–is way out of whack with the downside of waiting. My goodness, if he’s the league MVP next year, that’s *only* $4 million more by waiting. If in two years, he’s Matt Cassel or Matt Schaub, though, well, that’s about $12 to $14 million you’ve saved a year, on several seasons, by not extending now. Which is more likely? Let’s just say I’m not pre-ordering those MVP shirts.

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