Though it has been the surprising headline theme of the offseason, star quarterbacks retiring from football and immediately jumping into calling games is not a new thing. In 1984, Terry Bradshaw left the NFL for CBS; in 1994, Phil Simms made the leap from the Giants to ESPN; Troy Aikman was calling games for Fox in 2001, less than a year after his final game for the Cowboys. But these moves were basically forced by the harsh realities of the human body and its limitedness in being able to do things beyond a certain age or to return from serious injuries.
The recent transitions of Tony Romo and Jay Cutler from calling signals to calling games appear to be forced by something entirely different: The harsh realities of business.
On Friday, Cutler announced that he would stop pursuing football and instead move to Fox, joining Romo as high-paid quarterbacks who decided to leave football despite the fact that they both still seem capable of starting and winning games. Cutler only appeared in five games for the Bears last season, going 1-4, but over the previous three seasons he completed 64.7 percent of his passes with an average of 23 touchdowns per year and a passer rating of 90. He had only just turned 34 a week ago, making him younger than Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers and Eli Manning. There was still a place for Cutler, or so it seems.
Next season’s starting quarterbacks could include Deshaun Watson on the Texans, Cody Kessler on the Browns, Josh McCown on the Jets, Blake Bortles on the Jaguars, Trevor Siemian on the Broncos, Jared Goff on the Rams and Cutler’s 2016 teammate Brian Hoyer on the 49ers. Even the Bears opted to pay Mike Glennon – a QB who hasn’t started since 2014 and wasn’t very good – $15 million this year simply to not be Cutler.
If Jay Cutler is “the greatest average QB of all-time,” then that means he should be at least as good as half of the starters in the league. It would be easy to argue that all of those teams would be better off next season with Cutler, and there’s at least a few more in the middle that qualify too, but no team came close to signing him despite the fact that Cutler said he probably would not have retired if Chicago hadn’t released him. And though Romo is three years older, he should have garnered even more interest given that he’s only two seasons removed from leading the NFL in passer rating, completion percentage, and yards per attempt. Houston and Denver almost made too much sense for Romo on the surface, but what laid beneath could be a truth that sets a trend for other aging quarterbacks who may have seen their best days behind them – even if they still had plenty of good days ahead.
Salaries are more generous than ever, but teams are also more picky than ever with whom the highest-paid quarterbacks will be, thanks in large part because of the contracts that Cutler and Romo were just released from. It is possible that other quarterbacks who’ve made a small fortune in the game may decide to walk away early once the offers start to dictate significant pay cuts.
In the case of the Cutler, his $17 million cap hit in 2016 made him the 16th-highest paid quarterback in the league – perfect for the average QB. That was a downward trend that began in 2014, when his salary was the third-biggest just after signing a $126 million extension. With other extensions being handed out since, Cutler’s $18 million a year average suddenly became paltry in comparison, and the new normal for an experienced veteran starter begins at $20 million and goes up from there. Kirk Cousins will make almost $24 million on the franchise tag next season, and Ryan Tannehill will make $20.3 million.
There is no evidence to suggest that Tannehill is a better player than Cutler, but if Tannehill were to hit the market in the next couple of years he may also be met with the same disappointment. How will other overpaid quarterbacks react when the market bounces back and tries to pay them what they’re actually worth?
Though he’s by far the better player, Romo may have been even less likely to find a new job than Cutler. Prior to being released by the Cowboys, Romo was set to be the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL in 2017, making $24.7 million. What real options would Romo have if he were looking to be paid what he was worth – a minimum of $20 million – and if he wanted a high percentage shot at the postseason? The Texans were the only team that really fit the criteria, but may have not been willing to part with $22 million for one season of a 37-year-old who had missed most of the previous two years. The Broncos don’t have that kind of cap room. Few teams do.
Romo and Cutler did not get offers from teams that met their expectations, but did receive several offers for a life after football that few players will get. An opportunity to leave the game with most of your body intact and to begin a new career that will likely last much longer than the one you had as a player. There are others who could follow the early retirement plan sooner than we think.
Joe Flacco continues to underwhelm in Baltimore. When 2019 rolls around the Ravens will finally be able to save cap room by releasing him, which would put him on the market when he’s 34. What will the cost of a veteran starter be at that point? Over $25 million? Is any team willing to pay that for a QB with a career passer rating of 84.5? The Chargers have yet to prepare for life after Rivers, but that day could come soon. The 35-year-old has led the NFL in interceptions in two of the last three seasons and they’d save $9 million in cap room by releasing him next year. What will the market look like for a QB who is 36 and might want $22 million? It wasn’t there for Romo. You apply the same logic to Eli and Big Ben.
A potentially complicated situation is brewing in Detroit with Matthew Stafford and the Lions. Still only 29, Stafford is a productive passer who hasn’t missed a start in seven years, with a contract set to expire after next season. The two sides are reportedly working on an extension, but what should they pay him? He’s never won a playoff game. He has a career passer rating of 86.8. He had an incredible eight game-winning drives last season, but that’s not as desirable as a player who doesn’t need eight game-winning drives. The new normal for a quarterback like Stafford is in the $25 million a year range if teams continue to just pay the next guy more than the last guy, but it also doesn’t seem right that Stafford would be paid like a top-three player. That’s where the impasse could not just hit players towards the end of their careers, but for quarterbacks in the middle like Stafford; just look at the two-year stalemate between Cousins and the Redskins.
For a large generation of fans, Bradshaw, Simms and Aikman will mostly be known as broadcasters, not quarterbacks. Those transitions happened as quickly as the ones for Romo and Cutler, but for different reasons. Aikman had to walk away from the game because of concussions. Simms was 38 and coming off shoulder surgery. Bradshaw’s elbow cost him virtually all of the 1983 season, and then finally gave out for good. Romo and Cutler had their issues, but they are absolutely still in a phase of their careers where they can still physically play the game.
The game didn’t decide that they should stop, but the business sure did.