Quarterback pay leads to talent drain for Steelers, Ravens

October 20, 2013 8:00 AM
By Gerry Dulac Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh shouted, "It's Steelers week," to his players early last week, the declaration probably didn't carry as much meaning as it might have in the past. The same could be said if Mike Tomlin declared it "Ravens week" to any of his players.

Used to be, the mere mention of a Steelers-Ravens meeting was enough to get the juices flowing and tempers roiling. It would conjure memories of Joey Porter going to the Ravens team bus after the game and challenging Ray Lewis to get off; cornerback James Trapp stomping on Plaxico Burress' facemask; Hines Ward decleating Ed Reed with a block so vicious that the All-Pro safety called him "a dirty player." Even the coaches, Bill Cowher and Brian Billick, didn't like each other.

But all those players are gone, and so is the nastiness, so is the dislike. When the teams get together at 4:25 today at Heinz Field, a large portion of each roster doesn't even know what a Steelers-Ravens game really means, let alone feels like.

That's because the Steelers have 19 players on their roster who have never played in one of these AFC North battles. The Ravens have 18 players who have never worn a purple uniform against the Steelers. That's 35 percent of the players at Heinz Field who have never participated in a Steelers-Ravens game.

That's quite a roster upheaval for two teams who meet twice annually on the field.

"There's enough guys who have been around here to know, and it's carrying over," said injured linebacker Larry Foote, who has been around the rivalry since 2002. "Hopefully those young guys will get in line and know what type of battle this is."

The Steelers and Ravens spent a large portion of the past decade paralleling each other, battling for the division title, meeting in the postseason, trying to win with aggressive defenses that tortured quarterbacks and suffocated running backs.

And now they're doing it again, though for a much different reason.

The Steelers and Ravens are not unlike a lot of teams who have had to pillage their roster because of age and salary-cap limitations. The Steelers parted with seven starters after the 2012 season, including five who helped them win two Super Bowls. The Ravens lost eight starters from last year's Super Bowl-winning team, including two of their all-time great players, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.

And it might not stop there. More longtime starters and key contributors could depart after this season, all because of what has become a disturbing trend in the National Football League -- quarterback inflation.

Teams have to commit so much money to pay a franchise quarterback that they don't have enough room under the salary cap to keep their other top players. As such, they have to resort to filling their rosters with rookies and low-priced free agents, creating constant turnover.

The $100 million club

Roethlisberger and Flacco are among the 16 NFL players who are part of the $100 million club. It's a fraternity that includes 13 quarterbacks, with Flacco ($120.6 million), Dallas' Tony Romo ($119.5 million), Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers ($110 million) and Atlanta's Matt Ryan ($103.75 million) as the newest members after signing lucrative contacts during the offseason.

The teams who seem to have plenty of talented depth -- San Francisco, Seattle, Cincinnati -- are able to do so because they haven't had to pay their quarterbacks the $100 million contracts that are increasingly becoming the norm in the NFL.

But when they do, when the contracts of Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and even Andy Dalton come due, those teams will suffer the same fate of all the others: paring their rosters and trying to maintain a winning team with a very expensive franchise quarterback and a few other core players.

"The thing about it is, if the guy is Peyton or Tom or Drew, how good is their team without them?" Roethlisberger said. "It's a franchise guy. If you prove it and won playoff games and Super Bowls, then you deserve it."

That is the position in which the Steelers find themselves with Roethlisberger, whose eight-year $102 million contract comes due in 2016. And that is the position into which the Ravens have been thrust after signing Flacco to his monster contract -- the highest in NFL history -- after winning the Super Bowl.

"You've got two issues, and the first one is a happy one, that you've got a great quarterback that can win the big one and be the top-flight quarterback at playoff time," former NFL general manager Bill Polian said in an interview with the Baltimore Sun. "The other side of the coin is now they have to pay him whatever amount of money they have to pay him, and that's going to take up a lot of cap room.

"You've got to understand that the cap is designed to hurt the Baltimores of the world. It's designed to make them disgorge talent, just as it did with the Colts and all the good teams. That's a very tough stumbling block to be in their situation."

Polian would know. During his years in Indianapolis, the Colts devoted a large portion of their salary-cap space to Peyton Manning but were still able to keep several other key players in place, such as receiver Marvin Harrison and defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. The rest of the team was filled in with low-cost role players, yet the Colts were able to make it work, putting together nine consecutive playoff seasons and winning the Super Bowl in 2006.

"Indy was a classic example where they became an offensive-dominated team with pass rushers, and they kept it going that way," said former Washington Redskins general manager Charley Casserly, a studio analyst for the NFL Network. "You're going to have to be dominant on one side of the ball, whether you like it or not. On the other side, you got to make a decision who you want to pay. I never saw a team so dominant with one player as Indy was with Manning."

The inflation has continued.

No end in sight

In 2000, Manning's third season, his $6.7 million cap number accounted for 10.8 percent of Indy's cap space. When the Colts won the Super Bowl in 2006, he counted $10.5 million against the cap, or 10.2 percent of Indy's cap space. The percentage of the cap space was slightly lower six years later, even though Manning was making more money -- proof that the rise in the salary cap was keeping up with his escalating salary.

But the problem for most teams is only going to get worse.

When the salary cap was implemented in 1994, it began at $34.6 million and rose steadily each year, reaching $123 million in 2013. The biggest increase in the cap has been $17 million, which occurred from 2005 to 2006.

But, given the number and staggering size of recent quarterback contracts, it is largely debatable if the increases in the salary cap can keep up with the growth of quarterback salaries.

This year, the three quarterbacks with the highest cap numbers -- Eli Manning of the New York Giants ($20.8 million), Detroit's Matthew Stafford ($20.8 million) and Peyton Manning ($20 million) -- take up between 16.2 percent to 16.8 percent of their team's cap space.

In 2014, it will get worse. Romo's new deal means he will count $21.14 million against the Cowboys' cap. And that doesn't count what might happen with three quarterbacks who are coming off their rookie contracts -- Kaepernick, Dalton and Carolina's Cam Newton. Also, New England's Tom Brady will be in the last year of his deal, and Roethlisberger will have two years remaining, typically the time the Steelers would talk contract extension with their two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback.

Roethlisberger counts $13.6 million against the cap this season, but his number will rise to $17.9 million in 2014.

When Flacco's exorbitant contract kicks in and he is to be paid $28.5 million in 2016 and $31 million in 2017, the Ravens are counting on the salary cap increasing enough to keep up with the rate of quarterback inflation. Right now, it's not happening. If the cap maintains its pace of increasing $3 million each season -- the amount since the inception of the new collective bargaining agreement -- Flacco will account for nearly a quarter (24.8 percent) of his team's cap space when his contract hits its peak.

"That's the biggest problem -- quarterback salaries," said one NFL team executive who did not want to be identified. "Something has to give."

Keeping and paying a franchise quarterback who has won a Super Bowl is understandable. But what about Romo, who has won just one playoff game in his eight years as a starter? Or San Diego's Philip Rivers, who signed a $98.25 million contract in 2009 and has the fifth highest cap value in the league this season ($17.1 million)? The Chargers keep banking on him to produce a Super Bowl and he hasn't.

So, the question remains, can a Super Bowl-winning team be built around a quarterback that takes up so much salary-cap space?

If not, and the salary cap remains relatively flat, teams such as the Steelers and Ravens will have to continue to build a roster with rookies and role players that don't cost as much money.

"The NFL is making so much money they should up the cap," Roethlisberger said.

"Both organizations do a good job of bringing their type of guys in," said Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs. "They do a good job of bringing Steelers players in, and we do a good job bringing the Ravens-type players in."

Even if they haven't experienced the rivalry.

First Published October 19, 2013 8:00 PM