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WAR helps explain the balance of paying a top quarterback like Aaron Rodgers

Aaron Rodgers is still good, but you can’t pay good like it’s great.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

A few days ago I made the mistake of tweeting that I wouldn’t have given Aaron Rodgers an extension, which was retweeted by a writer who is much more popular than I am. Since that time, my Twitter mentions have been a tire fire of negative comments, which is fine, because this is a point that is definitely too nuanced for Twitter.

I don’t think extending Rodgers was a catastrophically bad idea or anything of the sort, but I do think the Packers underplayed their leverage, and given that he’s been less effective and frequently injured for about four years now, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to argue against the extension. The fact is that prior to this season, the Packers had Rodgers signed through the end of 2019, with the franchise tag looming afterwards as well. They could have, at the very least, waited another year to take in more information before committing that much money to Rodgers’ elderly seasons. Paying a quarterback too much is one of the most dangerous things a team can do.

Wins Come From Players

In baseball, the best player in the game is Mike Trout, who is worth about 10 wins over a replacement level player (WAR) per season. Because baseball is a 162 game season, or about 10 times longer than a football season, if Trout were a football player he would be worth about one win. There is no good WAR equivalent in football yet, but Pro Football Focus has been taking a crack at developing one.

Last season, PFF had Tom Brady at about 8.2 WAR. That’s an incredible number, and I suspect it’s a bit high, but it supports the general idea that quarterbacks are much more important than everyone else. You probably already knew that, but it’s worth noting that “important” doesn’t necessarily mean “valuable,’ and in that distinction, the position of quarterback becomes dangerous. Brady was valuable last season because he was brilliant, but not every quarterback is, and a bad quarterback can do as much harm to his team as a good one help. PFF still has not published their WAR research, and it’s PFF, so take ALL of this with an enormous grain of salt, but in their promotional video they contrast defensive lineman Aaron Donald of the Rams against Brady. While Donald is a phenomenal player, they have him at just 1.2 WAR, or about one-seventh of Brady’s value.

We don’t have WAR readily available (and it’s speculative anyway), but we do have Football Outsiders’ DYAR (Defense-Adjusted Yards Above Replacement), so let’s assume for now that the two are proportional. Last season, Tom Brady led the league with 1595 DYAR. Let’s also assume that due to age or an exodus of supporting talent, Brady is less effective the following year. Let’s say he declines by two Aaron Donalds, or in mathematical terms, say he produces 5/7 of his previous DYAR (knocking him down to about 1130). That would put him on par with the 2017 versions of Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, or Alex Smith in his final year with the Chiefs. All of those players are pretty good and in a vacuum, you may think that such a QB situation is fine, but in reality, you’ve lost two wins.

In reality, Brady has been quite a bit worse than that this season, on pace for just 704 DYAR; the Pats, who went 13-3 last season, are 7-3 this year with a 6-4 Pythagorean record. The Patriots are fortunate that they don’t actually pay Brady all that much and that they play in one of the worst divisions in NFL history. But even with those factors working for them, they are noticeably worse.

In 2011 Aaron Rodgers played one of the greatest offensive seasons ever, and put up 2059 DYAR, a staggering total. He did this while consuming only 6% of the Packers’ salary cap. The Packers had drafted well and used some of their free cap space on a cornerback named Charles Woodson, who took up 7% of the cap, allowing them to field a dominant team.

Since that time, Rodgers’ highest DYAR was 1564, which is good, but still only 75% of his 2011 season. In 2016 — again, a pretty good year — it fell to 1279. This season, he is on pace for just 534 DYAR. Put simply, in 2011 Rodgers produced 343 DYAR for every percentage point of salary cap he consumed. This season, he is likely to produce 48.5 DYAR per 1% of salary cap consumed. It’s difficult to make up the difference at other positions because your money doesn’t go as far at other positions, and because Rodgers is consuming more of it.

An Impossible Problem

When you have to pay a quarterback in the NFL, life gets tough fast. You get an enormous surplus value from quarterbacks on their rookie deals even if they aren’t very good. Call it “Trubisky’s Law” if you want. Aaron Rodgers at his peak gave you well in excess of anything you could reasonably pay him under the cap, but there is no guarantee that continues, and for every Tom Brady, playing well at 40, there’s a Peyton Manning who was washed up at 39. Whatever the Packers do going forward, the time to find a successor is here.