In America, we don’t have kings. We have quarterbacks. The QB is more than just an iconic sports position: It’s the dominant metaphor for capable leadership in America. Senators and CEOs would trade jobs tomorrow with Tom Brady. In him, they see a glimmer of themselves—the leader standing tall above the chaos, using the grunts around him to win the Super Bowl, again, and then going home to a bed occupied by a supermodel wearing nothing but six strategically placed Super Bowl rings.
NFL front offices are equally enamored of QBs—to their detriment. Teams have become so cultlike in their pursuit of a franchise QB, and so desperate to believe in their anointed Great Man, that the league is filled with overpaid incompetents, many of whom make $20 million per season. And because teams are paying QBs such exorbitant sums, they have less money to invest in other positions, given the league’s salary cap. Last season, only three defensive players made more money than Broncos QB Case Keenum, who earned $18 million, led the team to a 6–10 record, and got cut in the off-season. The Redskins, meanwhile, have nearly $24 million tied up in a pair of useless QBs: $20 million in Alex Smith, who’s injured, and another $3.5 million in his replacement, Case Keenum.
If you really want to see the QB cult in action, consider the cases of Tom Brady and Eli Manning. For years, Brady took a below-market annual salary of $15 million, to give the Patriots enough cap flexibility to build a title contender around him. In doing so, Brady revealed what the true market price should be for a Super Bowl–caliber QB. His contract carried an implicit admission: If you pay your QB more than $15 million, even if he’s the best QB in NFL history, you risk putting your franchise at a strategic disadvantage. The Patriots know they couldn’t do what they’ve done if they paid him more. In August, Brady agreed to a contract extension, entitling him to $23 million this season. But he deserves the pay bump. Other teams, for their part, continue to pay their doofuses $25 million. How can anyone justify paying a QB more than Tom fucking Brady?
Then there’s Manning, who, by every metric, stinks. He beat Brady twice in the Super Bowl, but that was years ago. Last season, his team, the Giants, went 5–11 and missed the playoffs for the second season in a row. And he got embroiled in a fake-autograph scandal. This season he’ll make $23 million, including a $5 million bonus, for the two games he stunk up before getting benched in week 3. That paycheck forced the Giants to deal away Odell Beckham Jr. this off-season, which is a real doozy since Beckham was Manning’s best weapon.
The NFL has lots of Eli Mannings—Blake Bortles, Andy Dalton, Joe Flacco, Alex Smith—who benefit from a system that props up failed investments and scapegoats everyone else when the losses pile up. What anchors these mediocrities in place is the cult worship. Eli is awful. But his last name is Manning. The owners and front-office executives have been in thrall to his family for decades. They’re friends, golf buddies. You go fire him.
The cult has already formed around Baker Mayfield, Beckham’s new QB in Cleveland. But Mayfield is really good. Plus, he’s 23 and will cost the Browns only $7.4 million this season. It’s unusual for a skill-position player to earn more than the guy throwing him the ball. And with the Baker-to-OBJ connection, the difference is stark: Beckham will clear $10 million more than his QB, practically an apostasy in the modern NFL. Then again, it makes sense: He has earned his money, and his quarterback hasn’t.
This story appears in the October 2019 print issue, with the title, “The Cult of the QB.”
For access to exclusive gear videos, celebrity interviews, and more, subscribe on YouTube!