How Flacco, Foles, others rolled big games into big money — and why Hill might be next

NFL

In the 24 years that Bill Polian was an NFL general manager, he developed a four-factor system that would help guide an organization’s philosophy on free-agent acquisitions. Whether he was guiding the Bills, Panthers or Colts, the system was generally the same.

Polian and his personnel staff would consider the following: a player’s production over time, injury history, system fit and the kind of money — particularly dead money — they could risk to acquire that player.

Was it possible, then, given all the hours of research dedicated to a specific player and the projection of these four categories, to sign a player based on the merit of one overly impressive, single-game performance?

“Do players perform well in contract years? Yes, that happens,” Polian said. “You need to be aware of it as a general manager. Everybody overreacts on Monday to what happened on Sunday. We tried very hard not to overreact to single-game performances. In my experience, general managers don’t do it. But agents can use it all the time.”

One veteran NFL agent with 23 years of negotiating experience shares a cautionary tale.

“I think what you’d find is there are a whole lot of players who have big moments in big games and don’t have big contracts after that,” the agent said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “As an agent, we probably see that more because we’ve had clients in that situation and we think, ‘Oh, man, they’re going to cash in big now and go for it.’ And that’s the drum you’re beating. Your guy has big games in big moments so let’s drag out the checkbook, but you can’t negotiate with, ‘No.'”

Indeed, it’s not all that common for a player to sign a hefty contract immediately following a big game or hot streak. So when it does happen — and it has occurred more frequently at the quarterback position than at other positions — it’s notable and stands out. The question then becomes whether the salary is justified by the production that follows, and the data indicates it isn’t. The criteria used to determine these scenarios was based on quarterbacks who signed a large-sum contract in the immediate offseason period that followed a big performance or playoff run.


Flacco completed 22 of 33 passes for 287 yards and three touchdowns against the 49ers. The fifth-year quarterback and Super Bowl MVP finished the playoffs with 11 touchdowns and no interceptions, which tied Joe Montana for the most touchdowns without an interception in a single postseason.

It also was the fifth consecutive season had Flacco started all 16 games for the Ravens. His durability made him a promising face of the franchise, and the Ravens rewarded him with a six-year, $120 million contract that made him the highest-paid quarterback at the time.

“I mean obviously you go out and win a Super Bowl like Joe Flacco did, pressure comes from both sides [to sign a new contract],” said veteran NFL agent Brad Cicala, who has negotiated contracts for Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson and many others. “You’re not going to let your Super Bowl-winning quarterback go.”

The following season, Flacco threw a career-high 22 interceptions, and the Ravens finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs for the first time in his career as a starter. Over the next six seasons, Flacco went 42-41 as a starter with 110 touchdowns and 80 interceptions, before he was traded to the Broncos.


With Aaron Rodgers resting for the playoffs in the final week of the 2011 regular season, the Packers called on Flynn, who had attempted just five passes that season. Flynn completed 31 of 44 attempts for 480 yards in a shocking, six-touchdown performance against the Lions. Rodgers led the Packers to a Super Bowl victory, and Flynn signed a three-year, $26 million contract with the Seahawks in the offseason.

“The [quarterback] is the piece they have to secure regardless, so that’s why you see that gold rush mentality on paying players who’ve had some success,” Cicala said.

The Seahawks were in major need after the 2011 season. Matt Hasselbeck had left the previous spring after 10 years in Seattle. Then Tarvaris Jackson went 7-7 and posted a QBR of 44.7 in 2011. Flynn was brought on to compete with Jackson, but ultimately they both lost the starting job to Russell Wilson, who was drafted in the third round a month after Flynn signed.

“In Matt Flynn’s case, you’re probably getting a terrific backup and a guy who might be a solid but not game-changing quarterback,” Polian said, “and it’s all about what you want to pay for that.”


The career journeyman brought greatness to Philadelphia with his performance at the end of the 2017 season. Foles threw for 373 yards and three touchdowns as the Eagles shocked the Patriots with a 41-33 win. The Eagles restructured Foles’ deal in the offseason to give him a $2 million raise that guaranteed him $9 million for the 2018 season. It also provided Foles an opportunity to hit free agency at the end of one season. Foles backed up Carson Wentz in 2018, then elected to pay back $2 million to the Eagles and voided his $20 million option. He signed with the Jaguars on a four-year, $88 million contract.

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In his first game this past season, Foles attempted just eight passes before he broke his collarbone. He didn’t return until Week 11 and finished the season with four starts. He completed 65.8% of his passes and threw three touchdowns and two interceptions.

“Nothing is exact,” Polian said. “And you’re dealing in a combative, physically overwhelming sport. … All you can do is look at injury data and say whether the odds favor a positive outcome or the odds favor a negative outcome. But you can’t predict with any degree of certainty.”


Keenum’s miracle 2017 season reached its climax when he completed a 61-yard touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs as time expired to advance the Vikings to the NFC Championship Game. After the Vikings then lost to the Eagles, Keenum signed a two-year, $36 million deal to be Denver’s starting quarterback.

“First of all, you have to define what role you want the player to play, and once you define that, within the context of your salary cap, you can determine what you want to pay for a specific player,” Polian said. “Case Keenum is a guy who is a top-flight backup quarterback and probably what I would call a middle-of-the-road starting quarterback.

“It goes without saying you have to have good receivers, but if you do, he’s capable of playing and even winning as a starter in the NFL, so what are you willing to pay for him?”

Keenum’s one season in Denver resulted in 18 touchdowns and 15 interceptions as the Broncos struggled to a 6-10 record and missed the playoffs. Afterward, coach Vance Joseph was fired, and Keenum was traded to the Redskins in the offseason.


New Orleans’ franchise quarterback, Drew Brees, announced he is returning for his 20th season, but can the Saints also keep their Swiss Army knife quarterback Hill?

During the Saints’ 26-18 win against the Falcons in Week 12, the 29-year-old restricted free agent had a spectacular first half. He blocked a punt, then three plays afterward scored on a 3-yard shovel pass from Brees. Later in the second quarter, Hill lined up at quarterback and scrambled for a 30-yard touchdown to give the Saints a 17-6 lead. Their win clinched the NFC South title.

He elevated his stock even further with a stellar performance in the Saints’ overtime loss to the Vikings in the wild-card round. Hill caught two passes for 25 yards and a touchdown, rushed for 50 yards and threw a 50-yard completion to Deonte Harris.

The Saints could give Hill a first-round tender, which would cost around $5 million. Any other team looking to sign him to an offer sheet would have to give up their pick if they’re successful.

Teddy Bridgewater revived his career last season when he went 5-0 while Brees was out of the lineup, but Bridgewater is an unrestricted free agent, meaning it’s more unlikely he’ll be back now that Brees is returning.

Hill’s performance elevated his stock, and he fueled the narrative by calling himself a “franchise quarterback” in an Associated Press interview.

It’s most likely the Saints give up their draft pick to sign Hill to a first- or second-round tender, but it’ll be worth watching whether another team tries to lure him away.

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