By Jason Keidel
We have a curious bond with J.J. Watt. Almost all football junkies agree that he’s the best defensive player on the planet, and clearly the preeminent lineman.
But you’ll also hear the media and masses assert that Watt is either the most overrated or overpaid player in football; and that while he’s undeniably dominant, you don’t win by building around interior linemen.
There’s some logic behind that. With recent NFL rules slanted so heavily toward offense, it’s impossible to cover stellar wideouts like Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr. or Julio Jones. Hence you need someone to get these speedsters the ball. So no matter how ornery your pass rusher may be, the fortunes of an NFL team ultimately pivot off its QB’s play.
In all, 37 of the 50 Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks (about 75 percent) are either in the Hall of Fame or will be soon. (This assumes Eli Manning, Big Ben, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Kurt Warner will one day have their busts bronzed in Canton.)
But how do you explain to a fanbase letting J.J. Watt walk because of this historical algorithm? He’s simply too good to trade or cut or franchise-tag out of existence. Nevertheless, when was the last time a team won the Super Bowl with their best player on defense?
Well, last year. Von Miller was a roaming wrecking ball in Super Bowl 50, stalking Cam Newton so doggedly it seemed the Panthers’ all-world QB simply surrendered. Miller ended the Panthers’ seemingly ordained run to the title, and sent the NFL MVP into that famously dour, post-game presser where he mumbled monosyllabic answers, then stormed off the dais.
Not even the greatest Peyton Manning apologist pretends the Sheriff carried the Broncos to the Super Bowl championship. Indeed, when Manning took an eraser to the record book, he got smashed by Seattle in the Super Bowl. When John Elway retooled the team into a defensive beast, they throttled the 15-1 Panthers.
But still, it had been well over a decade since a clearly defense-first team won the NFL title.
According to Spotrac.com, Watt’s six-year contract is worth $100 million — including a $30.87 million signing bonus and $51.8 million in total guaranteed money — with an average yearly salary of $16.7 million.
Sounds a little more daunting than it really is. Watt’s contract doesn’t kill the cap the way it would have a few years ago, or even last year. Indeed, the NFL salary cap is $155.27 million in 2016, a $12 million spike from 2015.
The average yearly wage of the top 10 NFL quarterbacks is $21.2 million. Even still, three of them (Matt Ryan, Cam Newton and Philip Rivers) don’t own a Super Bowl ring. And only three (Big Ben, Eli Manning and Tom Brady) have won more than one.
But why is Watt’s contract under the jeweler’s eye when Miller makes more? The Broncos’ rabid pass rusher just signed a six-year $114.5 million deal, with a $17 million signing bonus and $70 million in guaranteed cash. His yearly wage is roughly $19 million.
The obvious reason is Miller has a ring, which he won just seven months ago as Super Bowl MVP. The image of Miller battering Newton and slapping the ball from his monstrous hands is quite fresh. So while it’s a virtual coin-flip to decide who is the better player, Watt doesn’t play for a blue-blood franchise like the Denver Broncos.
The problem really isn’t that Miller and Watt wind up sucking the salary cap out of their respective clubs, as much as it takes Homeric journeys to find franchise quarterbacks. Though there are 32 NFL teams, it’s a stretch to assert that half are led by Pro Bowl-caliber quarterbacks.
After winning the Super Bowl last year, Peyton Manning retired, leaving the Broncos with a most unholy trinity of Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch and Mark Sanchez. Many yards had melted from Manning’s arm, and long gone were his pyrotechnic TD passes. But he was still a pre-snap master who would never lose the game, something Mark “Butt Fumble” Sanchez can’t say with any certainty. Denver has an embarrassment of defensive riches, and they will need every level of their epic depth if they hope to defend their Super Bowl title.
But Miller was so big in the NFL’s biggest game, not even Elway, the picture of prudence, could ignore his singular heft. Football, the quintessential team game, still relies on stars for long-term prosperity.
Sure, if one player among the 53-man roster usurps 10 percent of your payroll, he had better be that good. And Watt is as feared and revered as any in the sport. In his five-year career, he’s made the Pro Bowl the last four, and is also a four-time first-team All-Pro, which is a glittering distinction in football. He’s been voted NFL Defensive Player of the Year three times, leaving little doubt about his eminence.
Watt had at least 20 sacks in one season twice, and led the NFL with 17.5 last season. While impressive in a bio, it hasn’t been enough to lead the fledgling Houston Texans to their first AFC title game, much less a Super Bowl appearance. It doesn’t help that Houston has planted a turnstile at quarterback, starting castoffs, journeymen, and failures, like Ryan Mallett, Brian Hoyer, Case Keenum, Matt Schaub, T.J. Yates, Matt Leinart and Brandon Weeden.
Watt will enter this season with yet another variable under center. Brock Osweiler, no matter how swollen his fresh, new contract — four years, $72 million, with $37 million guaranteed — is still no more than a neophyte. The $19 million salary is pretty robust for a guy with seven NFL starts.
Osweiler stunned the sport by jumping the good ship Bronco for a forlorn franchise still looking for its first Super Bowl appearance. It was strictly a business decision, no matter the bromides he belches about fresh starts. To paraphrase former Giants GM George Young and others, when they say it’s not about the money… it’s about the money.
We shall see if Osweiler’s cold-cash preference translates into the business of winning football games. J.J. Watt certainly hopes it does. If not, he will still be seen as the most overpaid player in the sport, even if he doesn’t have the highest salary on his own team.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.