Eisenberg: A Salary Cap-Based Explanation for the Eagles' Championship Roster


I'm pretty sure Super Bowl 52 will be framed in history as that time when the Philadelphia Eagles used a backup quarterback to fell a mighty foe – an underdog story for the ages.

That's certainly an accurate description of what happened Sunday night when Nick Foles led the Eagles over Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

A salary cap-based, spreadsheet-style explanation for what went down isn't nearly as compelling, but behind closed doors, in the front offices of the Ravens and the 29 other teams that were watching instead of playing Sunday night, that bone-dry version of events is a hot topic of conversation.

Around the league, everyone is studying, with some envy, how the Eagles built a championship roster in part because they were NOT paying a mega-salary to a veteran franchise quarterback.

Without that big number dominating their cap ledger, they had the flexibility to add a passel of quality players who helped put them over the top, including Foles, who, contrary to the underdog narrative, is a capable, starting-caliber signal-caller with a significant price tag.

The Eagles probably wouldn't have gone all the way if they hadn't had such an able guy ready to step in for their 25-year-old star quarterback, Carson Wentz, who suffered a major knee injury in December and was lost for the season.

Well, Foles was in place only because the Eagles had the cap room to offer a backup quarterback a two-year, $11 million deal before the 2017 season. That's a lot of money for a guy who isn't going to play, but the Eagles could afford it largely because Wentz is still on his relatively modest rookie contract.

The Ravens don't have nearly as much flexibility because their quarterback, Joe Flacco, is one of the league's highest-paid players. They gave his backup, Ryan Mallett, a one-year, $2 million deal in 2017.

Quite simply, the Ravens and Eagles were in different worlds this season personnel-wise because of their differing cap situations. With less room to spend, the Ravens carried just six players with cap hits of at least $4 million. The Eagles had twice as many.

The Jacksonville Jaguars were an even more extreme case. With their quarterback, Blake Bortles, also still on his rookie deal, they had the flexibility to suit up 17 guys with cap hits of at least $4 million – almost three times as many as the Ravens.

Is it any wonder the Jags reached the conference finals and the Ravens didn't make the playoffs?

Don't misunderstand what I'm saying. The Ravens aren't sorry to be paying Flacco so much. Having a Super Bowl-winning quarterback significantly raises their chances of getting back to the big game. That's why the market for successful quarterbacks dwarfs the markets at other positions. Most recent Super Bowl winners had cap ledgers dominated by expensive quarterbacks.

But at the same time, the market for such players has skyrocketed to the point that it can hamstring you when you're trying to fill out the rest of your roster.

It's probably not a coincidence that the Ravens won Super Bowl 47 before Flacco started making so much, when he was still on his rookie deal. His salary comprised 6.05 percent of the team's cap allotment that season, according to Spotrac. This year, Flacco is projected to make 14.18 percent of the allotment.

The Seattle Seahawks know all about this. They went to two Super Bowls, winning one, when quarterback Russell Wilson was playing on his rookie contract. But they haven't been back since Wilson signed a big deal in 2015. He gives them a better chance of winning, but he's scheduled to take up 14.37 percent of the Seahawks' cap budget in 2018.

Philadelphia's Wentz might have won the league's Most Valuable Player award this season if not for his injury. Provided he recovers, he'll probably sign a big contract in a few years. At that point, the Eagles, like the Ravens and Seahawks, would have to start making tougher choices and cutting corners, inevitably to the detriment of their overall product.

Until then, though, they'll have quite a bit of room to maneuver, putting them in the ideal position to achieve more glory.

As always in today's NFL, the story behind the story lurks amid the decimal points of the cap.

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