Over the past few years while writing for this lovely site, I’ve heard the following sentiment many, many times:
Rookie quarterbacks and their cheap contracts help teams succeed. Teams with cheap quarterbacks can carry an additional player which they may not have been able to afford with a veteran quarterback. That extra player really helps push teams over the hump.
All this is relevant right now because Patrick Mahomes is the Kansas City Chiefs quarterback and is currently playing on his rookie deal.
But is this actually true? Does having an affordable quarterback on his rookie deal help teams find success in the playoffs?
Let’s find out.
A little background
First, let’s discuss a point or two regarding the data used in this article.
All contract information was pulled from OverTheCap.com. I have chosen to use the years from 2013 to 2018 for one reason: Over the Cap had team positional spending data that went back to 2013. Without the data, I couldn’t go back any further.
If you’d like to see the data, you can do so here.
Getting to the playoffs
To have success in the playoffs, you have to get there first.
If there exists an advantage for cheap quarterback contracts, then teams with cheaper quarterbacks should make it to the playoffs more frequently.
So, I counted rookie-deal quarterbacks on opening-day rosters for NFL teams from 2013 to 2018.
Percentage of NFL Teams with Starting QB on Rookie Deal
Note: I couldn’t find an abbreviated form for opening-day rosters in 2014, so the quarterbacks were taken from a mid-season article.
Knowing the percentage of teams who run with rookie-deal quarterbacks to start each season, we can see if there were a greater percentage of teams who make the playoffs with rookie-deal QBs.
Looking at the graph, we can see the rate of rookie-deal quarterbacks in the playoffs does not outmatch the rate of rookie-deal quarterbacks who start the season with their team.
This graph tells us rookie-deal quarterbacks in the playoffs are a function of the quantity of rookie-deal quarterbacks currently playing in the NFL — you can see this as the “in playoffs” line tends to follow the “season start” line.
It also shows us there is no strong relation between a rookie-deal quarterback and a team making the playoffs.
So, no, Chiefs fans, Mahomes’ cheap contract won’t help the Chiefs get to the playoffs.
In the playoffs
OK, well yeah, Gary, there are too many bad teams that trot out rookie quarterbacks and get killed. I bet once the Chiefs get to the playoffs, things will change for sure.
Fortunately, before I started arguing with myself, I tracked playoff numbers too. And I’m sorry to admit it, but you probably won’t like the results for this section either.
Note: I removed four playoff games which were problematic: Matt Moore and Connor Cook’s playoff starts in 2016, AJ McCarron’s playoff start in 2015 and Ryan Lindley’s start in 2014. I chose to remove these because though these quarterbacks were on their rookie deal, they were forced to start due to injury.
Non-rookie-deal QBs vs rookie-deal QBs
I tracked each playoff game since 2013 and looked for games in which one QB wasn’t on a rookie deal and the other QB was. I wanted to see if there was any advantage for either side:
Rookie-contract QB playoff record since 2013 = 10-11
If having a rookie contract was such an advantage in the playoffs, wouldn’t they, at minimum, have more wins than losses? I see no discernible advantage for rookie-quarterback contracts in the playoffs.
QB cap Hits
I also tracked how teams with cheaper QB rosters fared. The idea is the following:
If having a cheap QB really helps, wouldn’t it follow that teams who spent less on their QBs could afford better players at other positions?
Shouldn’t those teams have some kind of advantage?
Team records with the cheaper QB in the playoffs = 27-24
Here, we see a three-game advantage for teams with the cheaper quarterbacks. However, if two of these games were to flip, the advantage would swing toward the more expensive quarterbacks.
The difference is too small to really count towards anything, so no — cheap quarterbacks don’t help you win either.
Arguing with myself
Sometimes, I’ll research something and what I find actually disagrees with the public’s narrative — this article is one such case.
This happens to be a narrative I kind of believed in and now I’m left grasping at the straws of life, desperately trying to make sense of what’s true and what’s not.
I guess I have no other option than to argue with myself.
— Gary, you dummy, only good teams with rookie quarterbacks do well in the playoffs. You already have to be very close, the rookie QB contract just pushes you over the hump.
So... you’re telling me only good teams count. But don’t you have to be a good team to win the Super Bowl? This kind of sounds like a ‘horse before the cart’ argument to me. Russell Wilson’s 2013 Seahawks were a great team, and that probably has more to do with their winning the Super Bowl than a rookie contract.
— Some guy on Facebook said you didn’t know anything because you had a man bun, so there’s no validity to anything you do until you cut your hair.
Let it go Gary... let it go.
— Rookie QB deals have to matter; it makes too much sense intuitively. The extra cap room helps you afford one more player. How can that not help?
My response to this is simple: If one (non-QB) player defines whether or not your team wins a Super Bowl, then you didn’t have that great of a team to begin with. You’re living on a prayer.
There are 53 players on an NFL roster. One thing that often gets lost in the wash is that one player will not drastically change how a team plays — especially on an Andy Reid team. We have seen Reid play with second-stringers against teams who were trying to make the playoffs, and still win (or should have won if the refs wouldn’t have messed up a call on a field goal).
Finally, I don’t like it
Honestly, I don’t like the numbers here. With Mahomes being under a rookie contract, I was hoping the numbers would line up to give the Chiefs some kind of advantage.
Unfortunately, that’s not true.
However, I am glad Sammy Watkins is on the team.
So what do you think? If you hate the analysis let me know and/or prove me wrong. I want to hate the results and I want to be wrong too!