Kirk Cousins, The Salary Cap, and An Unprecedented 15%

Vikings Win
Nov 14, 2021; Inglewood, California, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) waves to fans as he leaves the field after defeating the Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL implemented a salary cap in 1994. Since then, teams have been trying to develop strategies for maintaining ongoing success while juggling the challenges of a fixed budget. The most common strategy, of course, is to get a franchise QB and then hold on with both hands. Doing so involves a hearty financial commitment from the team, leading to an inevitable question: how much is too much?

Admittedly, this exercise is inspired by Mr. Kirk Cousins, someone who causes no little debate among Vikings fans. To some, he’s a strong QB1 whose mediocre record is the result of his teams failing him rather than his own shortcomings (a bit of an oversimplification, but we’ll run with it). Others look at the consistency of his team’s mediocrity, concluding that he’s an essential ingredient in those average teams (I find myself increasingly in this camp).

Football is a team game, so something like an overall record can’t be solely the responsibility of a QB. What we can say is that the QB is the most important player, so they’re rightly paid the highest amount (usually). We can also say that a QB’s decision to accept more money necessarily means less money for the rest of the roster. True, the salary cap is highly malleable, but is it not imaginary; anyone who thinks the salary cap is imaginary is misguided.

All of this leads me to the main question for this piece: how much money is too much money for a QB? Obviously, there’s a huge discrepancy between player salaries from the mid-90s and today. In 1994, the salary cap was a mere $34,608,000; today, it’s $208,200,000. My point is that Cousins making more today than Tom Brady did in the early 2000s doesn’t tell us very much. It’d be far more productive to contextualize those numbers within each year’s salary cap

Indeed, to help get to the bottom of this mystery, I’ve decided to key in on the percentage of the salary cap that a quarterback contract occupies. Generally speaking, how much of the cap can a QB account for while still having the ultimate team success? Is it possible for a team to win the Super Bowl with a QB who makes the 15% of the cap that Kirk Cousins will make in 2022?

As you’ll see, it’s a somewhat unprecedented event, though one that needs added nuance and clarity for a fuller understanding.

The Quarterback Percentage of the Salary Cap:
1994 to The Present Day

I’ve relied on information from Spotrac and Over the Cap to help me with this chart. The OTC history of player earnings and the percentage of the cap made this exercise feasible. The Spotrac piece detailing the history of the salary cap was essential. Furthermore, Pro Football Reference provided me with wonderful resources to confirm the SB winner for each season and who started at QB. I’ve done my best to triple check all the minor details. Alas, I’m a mere human, and quite a flawed one at that. The flaws – I’m sure some are in there – are the result of your bumbling author and not the handy sites I’ve relied on.

Without further ado, the chart. I provide the year, the team that won the SB, the QB who won that SB, and then the QB’s contract number + percentage of the cap.*

Check it out:

YearTeamQBCap Hit% of Cap
199449ersYoung, Steve$4,525,00013.1%
1995CowboysAikman, Troy$2,491,2506.7%
1996PackersFavre, Brett$4,175,00010.2%
1997BroncosElway, John$2,058,6665.0%
1998BroncosElway, John$2,543,6664.9%
1999RamsWarner, Kurt$750,0001.3%
2000RavensDilfer, Trent$1,000,0002%
2001Patriots Brady, Tom$310,8330.5%
2002BuccaneersJohnson, Brad$6,800,00010%
2003PatriotsBrady, Tom$3,318,7504.4%
2004PatriotsBrady, Tom$5,058,7506.3%
2005SteelersRoethlisberger, Ben$4,220,2504.9%
2006ColtsManning, Peyton$10,566,66810.4%
2007GiantsManning, Eli$10,046,6669.2%
2008Steelers Roethlisberger, Ben $7,970,0006.9%
2009SaintsBrees, Drew$10,660,4008.7%
2010PackersRodgers, Aaron$6,500,000N/A
2011GiantsManning, Eli$14,100,00011.7%
2012RavensFlacco, Joe$8,000,0006.6%
2013SeahawksWilson, Russell$681,0850.5%
2014PatriotsBrady, Tom$14,800,00010.6%
2015BroncosManning, Peyton$17,500,00011.7%
2016PatriotsBrady, Tom$13,764,7068.6%
2017EaglesFoles, Nick$1,600,0000.9%
2018PatriotsBrady, Tom$22,000,00012.2%
2019ChiefsMahomes, Patrick$4,479,8082.4%
2020BuccaneersBrady, Tom$25,000,00012.2%
2021RamsStafford, Matthew$20,000,00010.7%
Shout out to OTC, Spotrac, and Pro Football Reference

A few bullet point highlights before offering some more robust thoughts below:

  • The highest salary cap percentage for a single Super-Bowl-winning quarterback is 13.1%. That occurred in the very first year of the cap when Steve Young’s 49ers won it all.
  • Kirk Cousins currently sits at 15% of the Vikings 2022 cap. The barebones fact is that a single QB has never won a Super Bowl with such a high percentage of the cap. We need to say more about this (and we will) but don’t miss this point: there’s no historical precedent if we simply look at the individual QB and his cap percentage.
  • Aaron Rodgers won his Super Bowl in a year when there was no cap.
  • Including Nick Foles is somewhat misleading. True, he won the Super Bowl, but Philadelphia’s main QB money was spent on Carson Wentz. Wentz carried a $6,062,804 cap hit in 2017, which was 3.4% of the Eagles’ cap. In other words, Foles and Wentz combined for less than 5% of the overall cap.
  • A really tricky one is the most recent Super Bowl. Stafford was playing on a value deal: a mere $20 million cap hit. However, Jared Goff left $24,700,000 million on the books, which is 13.2% of the cap. Just Stafford and Goff counted for nearly 24% of LA’s budget. We’ll discuss this more below.
  • Tom Brady – the undisputed GOAT – is remarkable. Seven Super Bowls and the most he has commanded is 12.2% of his team’s cap. If anyone could demand more, it’s him. We may never see another QB like Brady in our life.

The Main Takeaways and Analysis

NFL teams have done far more sophisticated work than what I’ve done here. It’d be shocking if there was a team out there that didn’t have a thorough understanding of the entire history of the salary cap. Every team likely understands the trends that have emerged over time, the ones that demonstrate how money should be allocated.

In recent years, NFL commentators have commonly pointed out the benefits of getting a high-end QB on a rookie deal. We saw how Kansas City capitalized on this precise scenario with their SB win following the 2019 season. A more recent example is over in LA. Think of the Chargers and their offseason. Adding Khalil Mack and J.C. Jackson is possible largely because Justin Herbert is coming at such a discount, a modest $7,248,751 hit that accounts for just 3.4% of the cap. This deal gives them the unique chance to have their cake and eat it too, get high-end QB play and fill out their roster in a robust manner.

Now, the most obvious exception to all of this historical data is the recent Super Bowl winner, so let’s discuss the Rams in further detail. I was talking to my buddy Mitch and he pointed out this issue.* Sure, Stafford didn’t make a lot, but their overall QB budget was sky high.

When you combine Stafford, the Goff dead money, and then the hits for the depth QBs (Bryce Perkins and John Wolford) you arrive at nearly 25% of the team’s cap. It’s an astronomical number, one that flies in the face of the picture that cap history has been painting. Consider, though, all that the Rams had going for them to pull this off:

  1. A boy wonder at HC who is a perennial contender for Coach of the Year.
  2. Hall of Fame talent at nearly all the premium positions: WR, CB, DT, EDGE, and LT.
  3. The aforementioned talent all played for less than market value. Cooper Kupp, Jalen Ramsey, Aaron Donald, Von Miller, and Andrew Whitworth all could have been making more. Donald and Miller are surefire Hall of Famers. Whitworth will likely get in. A couple more strong seasons from Kupp and Ramsey will get them in.
  4. Several talented players scattered around the roster who demanded large raises once reaching the open market post-SB: Austin Corbett, Darious Williams, Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, and Sebastian Joseph-Day.
  5. A general manage whose mantra became – and I quote – “F*&% them picks.” The general point Les Snead was so eloquently articulating is that the Rams were willing to move a ton of present and future draft capital to make it work in the short term.

What I’m trying to suggest, folks, is that the Rams were a perfect storm. We can objectively say that a team can win the Super Bowl with a massive amount of the overall budget going toward the QB position. We know this because the Rams just accomplished that feat.

All they had to do was have an elite HC, Hall of Fame talent on value deals at nearly all the most important positions, several strong players playing below market value, and a GM who was willing to not have a first-round pick from 2017-2022. They also shipped out their seconds in 2018 and 2022. Oh, and their 2023 first is gone, as well. F*&% them picks, indeed.

If a team can replicate all those things, they’ve got a good shot at winning it all.

What does this tell us about the Vikings and their $31,416,688 million man? Even better, what does it tell us about the 15% man?

It tells us that history hasn’t been kind to QBs who have demanded so much of the salary cap. The majority of the time, teams win the SB with excellent QB play. Those QBs, the overwhelming majority of the time, don’t consume as much of the cap as Cousins does. So while it’s true to say that a lot of the struggle last season was due to the poor defense, we can’t ignore the fact that Cousins gobbled up 16.7% of the salary cap.

Now, a few percentage points doesn’t seem significant, but it adds up. Last year’s cap was $182,500,000. 1% of that amount is $1.825 million. If Cousins had a salary that consumed 10% of the cap, the Vikings would have had an extra $12,227,500 million to spend. That’s the kind of number that could, say, bring in a strong corner or edge rusher (and perhaps more).

Part of what makes sport so excellent is that we commonly see marvellous things. Most often, that takes the form of incredible resilience, athletic ability, and teamwork in pursuit of a collective goal. I know this all sounds a little cliché, but there’s something to be said for cliché in this instance: sports really can be magical. Sports benefit when the unexpected happens – just look at the Bengals from last season.

The Vikings haven’t waived the white flag by doling out 15% to Cousins. It’s very possible for them to win. If it does occur, though, then we can say that it’ll in some senses be without historical precedent. In other words, history tells us that the Vikings face an uphill battle as they compete for the Super Bowl.

* In moments where there is a discrepancy in numbers, I provide the Over the Cap numbers.
*Mitch also pointed out that various posts on Reddit had performed a similar analysis. I’ll admit I didn’t look into these too closely due to concerns about their accuracy. Some stuff on social media is remarkable; some stuff on social media isn’t. Interested readers can surely find several pieces on a place like Reddit that look to historical cap hits to get a better understanding of the present day. Some of them will be excellent.

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