Aaron Rodgers: QB1

Ever since the Seattle Seahawks and their $750K a season quarterback opened a jar of whoop-ass on the Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning, there has been a lot of discussion regarding the worth of the franchise quarterback and whether having one is detrimental to the construction of a defense capable of winning a Super Bowl.

Actually, even before that disgrace, the thought had already been in my mind that a top-of-the-market quarterback and a championship-caliber defense may NOT be able to cohabitate within the same salary cap.  This is a rather easy conclusion to come to for Green Bay Packers fans, who have seen the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and possibly the Carolina Panthers all eclipse the Packers in the NFC. All three of those teams have dominating defenses and cheap quarterbacks still within the terms of their rookie contract.

It also is easy to accept the logic that the more money spent on the quarterback obviously means less money for the defense. However, other than the simple logic of it and the impression given by three teams, is there empirical evidence to suggest that paying your quarterback a top market salary hinders your chances of fielding a good defense?

I have put all the numbers together to help us find out.

Offensive Rank QB Average Salary Defensive Rank
1. Denver Broncos $19 million 19
2. Philadelphia Eagles $690,000 29
3. Green Bay Packers $22 million 25
4. New Orleans Saints $20 million 4
5. San Diego Chargers $15 million 23
6. Detroit Lions $17 million 16
7. New England Patriots $14 million 26
8. Chicago Bears $18 million 30
9. Washington Redskins $5.3 million 18
10. Cincinnati Bengals $1.3 million 3
11. Houston Texans $10 million 7

In this first table of numbers, I have listed the top 16 offenses in the league, the salary average that they are paying their quarterback, and the rank of their defense. This table clearly shows that if you want an offense in the top half of the league, then you will either be paying your quarterback over $10 million per season or you are lucky enough to have a quarterback who is still finishing out his rookie contract. It also shows that having a top offense is likely to mean having a bottom defense. Not only are 11 of the 16 top offenses paired with a defense in the bottom half, but that includes eight of the 10 worst defenses in the NFL.

If you just look at the top 10 offenses, eight of those 10 have defenses that are ranked in the bottom half. The Bengals are an exception to this, but they pay their quarterback peanuts. The New Orleans Saints are the anomaly in this entire exercise, but I at least partially consider them an aberration because Sean Payton’s suspension in 2012 landed them a favorable draft position for last season. That influx of talent along with a new defensive coordinator resulted in at least a temporary boost to their defense.

The performance of the Saints suggests that consistently drafting at the end of rounds might have just as big an impact on the defense as giving the quarterback the big contract does. The Packers themselves support this, considering that 2008 was the last time the Packers had a losing season and the following 2009 draft was the last time the Packers obtained a Pro Bowl player on defense.

Finally, I put the 2013 playoff teams in bold. As you can see, eight of the top 16 offenses made the playoffs. That means if your offense finished in the top half of the league, you had a 50 percent chance of making the playoffs. That also means if your offense finished in the bottom half, you had a 25 percent chance of making it.

Quarterback Salary Defensive Rank
Aaron Rodgers $22 million 25
Matt Ryan $21 million 27
Joe Flacco $20 million 12
Drew Brees $20 million 4
Peyton Manning $19 million 18
Jay Cutler $18 million 30
Tony Romo $18 million 32
Matthew Stafford $17 million 16
Eli Manning $16 million 8
Philip Rivers $15 million 23
Tom Brady $14 million 26

This second table is a more direct look at the evidence regarding whether having a top-paid quarterback usually means a poor defense. I have the 11 highest-paid quarterbacks in the league, which is essentially one-third of the starters, their salaries and the corresponding rank of their defense. The obvious answer here is — yes. Eight of the 11 have defenses ranked no better than 16th, and of those eight, six are among the 10 worst defenses in the NFL.

Ironically, two of the exceptions to the trend here — the Ravens and the Giants, have terrible offenses, even with their highly-paid quarterbacks. Thus, having good defenses still didn’t get them to the playoffs.

Defense QB Salary
1. Seattle Seahawks $749,000
2. Carolina Panthers $5.5 million
3. Cincinatti Bengals $1.3 million
4. New Orleans Saints $20 million
5. San Francisco 49ers $1.2 million
6. Arizona Cardinals $8 million
7. Houston Texans $10 million
8. New York Giants $16 million
9. Cleveland Browns $2 million
10. Buffalo Bills $2.2 million
11. New York Jets $1.2 million

This is simply looking at the same argument from the other direction. I have listed the top 11 defenses in 2013 and the salary of their starting quarterback. Again, only the Saints and Giants stand out as teams paying top money for a quarterback and yet managing to field a quality defense. In fact, seven of the top defenses have quarterbacks still on their rookie contract.

So, by the numbers, we have somewhat convincing, if perhaps inconclusive, evidence that paying your quarterback at the top of the market indeed does typically lead to a poor defense. If that is the case, then the question for every GM is which one is better? Is a team more likely to win it all with a top defense than with a top quarterback?

Does defense win championships?

Well, of those top 16 defenses in the league, only the top five made the playoffs in 2o13. That means that having a top-half defense gave you a 31 percent chance of making the playoffs, as compared to the 50 percent chance that a top-half offense had of making it. Of course, what happens when you make the playoffs? Do the defenses rise to the top?

Super Bowl Champ Defensive Rank Offensive Rank
Seattle Seahawks 1 17
Baltimore Ravens 17 16
New York Giants 27 8
Green Bay Packers 5 9
New Orleans Saints 25 1
Pittsburgh Steelers 1 22
New York Giants 7 16
Indianapolis Colts 21 3

For this final table, I listed the last eight Super Bowl winners and their ranking on each side of the ball. What this shows us is that at least empirically speaking, there is NO trend. Good, bad and mediocre defenses have won the Super Bowl, and good, bad, and mediocre offenses have won the Super Bowl. In fact, the 2010 Green Bay Packers are the only Super Bowl winner in the last eight years who had an offense and defense in the top 10. Every other champion was stronger on one side of the ball than on the other, and the Baltimore Ravens weren’t particularly great on either side last season.

That suggests to me that current NFL GMs have it right. A better quarterback gives you a better chance of having a better offense, which gives you a better chance of making the playoffs. Once you’ve made the playoffs, anything can happen. As Packers fans have seen, it is easier to get it right with one player than it is with 11. Therefore, teams will continue to pay their quarterbacks top dollar while hoping to cobble together a defense good enough for a playoff run.