On ESPN.com yesterday, NFL writer Jim Trotter wrote a piece about the "jaw-dropping" contracts being given out to "non-elite" professional quarterbacks. (The NFL world is strangely obsessed with the status of "elite." It's a club no one applied to get in that keeps rejecting them anyway.) The story, a fairly straightforward rundown of how those in charge of spending money on players in the NFL feel so conflicted about spending all that money on players in the NFL (even though, unlike NBA and MLB contracts, the money is not guaranteed). This outrage is punctuated by anonymous reactions from around the league on Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton's new deal and the deals of other NFL signal callers. Are you kidding?! They did what?! They got how much?! They're apoplectic.
On Monday, Dalton signed a "six-year, $115 million" contract with the Bengals, an extension of his rookie contract. This looks like a lot of money, and I suppose it is, for us working schlubs with our computers and ditch diggers and lesson plans and pieces of flair. But all told, it's not an insane contract, and it's certainly not the potentially franchise-crippling albatross that the anonymous GMs and presidents in Trotter's article makes it out to be. As Deadspin's Barry Petchesky pointed out, that $115 million is an obvious fiction: In order to get all of that money, Dalton would need to reach performance bonuses that would require the Bengals to win six consecutive Super Bowls which strikes one as… unlikely. Petchesky notes that the Bengals can pick any of the following deals as their contract for Dalton.
- Two years, $25 million.
- Three years, $35.7 million
- Four years, $49 million.
- Five years, $62.9 million.
- Six years, $79.1 million.
- Seven years, $96.8 million.
If they'd like to keep Dalton beyond that second year, they can do so for essentially a $10 million option. If they don't want to? They can just cut him and not have to pay him a dime. It will be as if he never existed.
In 2013, the NFL brought in more than $9 billion in revenue, which makes it the most valuable sports league in the world. Major League Baseball is a lot closer than you'd think, at a reported $8 billion, though "closer" should probably be considered a relative term, considering we're talking about more than a billion dollars. (MLB revenues are basically behind NFL revenues by "Twitter revenues".) The NFL isn't just making a massive amount of money -- it's basically helping prop up the entire cable television industry. The NFL actively boasts of how it thinks it can reach $25 billion in revenue by 2027.
We tend to not focus on those numbers when we talk about the NFL, though. We focus on numbers like Dalton's, we focus on the big $115 million figures that aren't even real. So let's take a look at Dalton's contract. Dalton, this supposedly overpaid quarterback with his ludicrous, jaw-dropping base salary (which, I remind, is not in fact real), has a contract that looks shockingly puny when you compare it to, say, players on the baseball team in the same town.
Andy Dalton is being paid $25 million for the next two seasons. The Cincinnati Reds are paying four players more than $24 million over two years (2015-16): Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Homer Bailey and Jay Bruce. The Reds bring in roughly $200 million less in revenue per year than the Bengals do -- figures on this vary because until leagues open their books, we're really just guessing -- and they still have four players who make more than Dalton.
And -- this is key -- they have to be paid after that. Bruce is a free agent after 2016, and there's no way, assuming Bruce continues to hit as he has (or even slightly worse), that the Reds will be able to re-sign him for the $10.7 million the Bengals can get Dalton for. Votto, Phillips and Bailey -- they are due a collective $149 million after 2016. That's not fake money. That's real money. And it is guaranteed. That has to be paid even if each of them decide they're all going to start throwing with their opposite hand from now on.
Dalton? If Dalton stinks -- or even if he's fine but the Bengals drafted a quarterback they'd like to try out instead -- he'll be dropped like it was nothing and not owed a cent. And they can do this every year! For Dalton, a starting quarterback in the NFL, a man who has played in three playoff games, the next two years are going to cost the Bengals less than Johnny Peralta costs the Cardinals, than Brett Gardner will cost the Yankees and what Andre Ethier costs the Dodgers. Next year, the Dodgers will have two starting pitchers making more than Dalton will make in the next two years. Dalton is a man who has 350-pound monsters trying to destroy his brain every 35 seconds in a league that wants to make $25 billion a year in 13 years. And he's the one who is overpaid.
The issue is not so much with the leagues, or the salaries. This is what has been collectively bargained, after all, and it is not Clayton Kershaw's or Homer Bailey's fault that the NFL players union is so weak and eager to capitulate. It's with the way we talk about these contracts. We see Dalton's $115 million contract -- an amount of money, I repeat one more time, he is never, ever going to earn -- and it sends us to all sorts of fits, raising our hands to the heavens, shocked that a man like Andy Dalton could make that much money. Is he elite? Is he elite? Not only do we not bother to look at the actual construction of the deal, we assume that because Andy Dalton doesn't do well enough for a fantasy team, any amount of money he makes is by definition too much. Are you kidding?! They did what?! They got how much?! The rest of this season is going to be a referendum on Dalton. Every time he throws an interception, his contract -- his piddly little contract -- is going to come up. Every mistake is a refutation. Every wrong step an affront. The NFL is probably going to reach that $25 billion figure someday, and we're still going to freak out over fake contract figures going to players who can be let go for no reason, with no warning. That's not the NFL's fault: That's ours.
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