The NFL’s Billion Dollars’ Worth of Injured Quarterbacks

From a Wall Street Journal story by Andrew Beaton headlined “The NFL’s Billion Dollars’ Worth of Injured Quarterbacks”:

After quarterback Joe Burrow suffered a wrist injury last Thursday that will likely end his season, Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor tried to sound optimistic.

“I’m excited to see this team respond,” he said. “This season is far from over.”

Taylor was just the latest coach forced to reckon with losing his most important player. A year that began with Aaron Rodgers tearing his Achilles just moments into his debut as a New York Jet has turned into a war of attrition among quarterbacks.

These injuries have already upended the playoff picture as teams scramble to replace their sidelined stars. The most consistent trait of Super Bowl contenders this year has been keeping their quarterbacks upright, and it has never been more costly to have someone at this one particular position get hurt. This unusual flurry of injuries coincides with a moment when quarterbacks are getting paid more than ever.

The quarterbacks who have dealt with major injuries this season—forcing them to miss significant time and in many cases sending them to injured reserve—have contracts with values exceeding $1 billion dollars. Burrow alone accounts for $275 million of that after he signed a record-breaking contract before the season that pays him $55 million a year.

Now a Cincinnati season that kicked off with championship aspirations rests in the hands of quarterback Jake Browning, who had thrown one career pass before subbing in for Burrow during a loss to the Ravens that dropped the Bengals to 5-5 on the season.

One of the Bengals’ division rivals has the misfortune of sharing the same problem. Right before Burrow went down, the Cleveland Browns said Deshaun Watson would miss the remainder of the season because he needs shoulder surgery.

When the Browns traded three first-round picks for Watson last year, they handed him a groundbreaking contract that’s fully guaranteed for $230 million over five seasons. They haven’t gotten much of a return on that investment. Watson has played in just 12 games during his first two seasons with the club, owing to injury and an 11-game suspension in 2022.

Watson’s injury also came during a season the Browns were all-in on financially. When they tweaked Watson’s contract earlier this year, it reduced how much he cost against this season’s salary cap and allowed them to afford the other talent on their roster. That bill will be due in the coming years, when his cap cost will sky rocket and gum up their books.

The Browns still have a good shot at the playoffs because of all that other talent. Buoyed by arguably the NFL’s best defense, the Browns managed to beat the Steelers 13-10 on Sunday despite a poor game from rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson.

The Giants are another team that handsomely rewarded their quarterback with a rich new contract last offseason. Then with a new $160 million deal, Daniel Jones regressed before he tore a ligament in his knee, which has him sidelined for the rest of the year.

That puts the Giants in an awkward position. While they can’t get out of the money they owe him next season, they’re also on track for a top draft pick to potentially replace Jones and make him an extraordinarily expensive back up.

Another rookie, Tommy DeVito, led the Giants to a win over the Washington Commanders on Sunday, and he’s part of a phenomenon all the injuries have helped create. Ten rookies have started games at quarterback this season—the most in any non-strike year since at least 1950. One of those is the Indianapolis Colts’ Anthony Richardson, who had a promising start to his career before he became another name on the long list of injured passers.

No team has pivoted quite as seamlessly as the Minnesota Vikings, who were unlucky to lose Kirk Cousins but lucky that he went down before the trade deadline. That allowed them to swing a deal with the Arizona Cardinals for Joshua Dobbs, who led the team to back-to-back wins in his first two games before Minnesota lost a 21-20 nail-biter to the Broncos on Sunday night.

The Jets didn’t bring in a replacement after Rodgers went down and instead handed the offense back to Zach Wilson, the quarterback who has disappointed since they took him with the No. 2 overall pick in 2021. They may regret not having made a move for Dobbs or someone similar. Their offensive futility continued on Sunday when they lost 32-6 to the Buffalo Bills.

Rodgers hopes to defy expectations and return this season. But now, with the Jets losing three straight games, the question is just as much about whether there’s a point to an attempted comeback: the Jets may fully sink out of playoff contention by the time he’s ready.

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