For better or for worse (and many times, mostly worse), a team’s success or failure is laid upon the shoulders of its quarterback. The quarterback position is, after all, the most visible one on the team, and it’s easy—though not quite correct—to pin wins and losses on him even though this is a team sport. But a value of a quarterback is more than wins and losses, and that’s not been more clear this season than with the Cleveland Browns' Josh McCown.
In fact, McCown should be one of the least of the Browns’ worries. There are concerns, of course, particularly his turnover rate. McCown has fumbled the ball six times this year, including two in Week 7 against the St. Louis Rams. But, as a passer, McCown is set to have a career year. He’s currently completed 147 of his 220 pass attempts—or 66.8 percent, a personal best—for 1,686 yards, and eight touchdowns thrown to three interceptions. And even in what was an ugly loss against the Rams, he still managed to complete a season-best 81.25 percent of his passes, doing so while under significant pressure. McCown was sacked four times on Sunday, hit numerous more times and hurried 18 times, according to Pro Football Focus.
Given that McCown is set to count $3,916,666 against Cleveland’s salary cap for the 2015 season, just thousands more than backups like Drew Stanton, Mark Sanchez and Chad Henne, and the Browns are making a significant return on their investment. Because, to truly evaluate a quarterback’s value to his team, something like Cleveland’s 2-5 record isn’t very relevant. Other parts of the Browns’ on-field strategy—defense and the run game in particular—are what have done the most to doom this Browns team this season. McCown is actually one of the few bright spots keeping the team competitive.
McCown was signed this offseason to a three-year, $14 million max-value contract that includes $6.25 million in guaranteed money, $2 million of which is in the form of a signing bonus that pays out $666,666 this year and in 2016 and $666,667 in 2017. His base salary for this year is just $2.25 million. Though that number jumps to $4.375 million in 2016, only a fraction of it is part of his guaranteed cash; thus, if the Browns keep him on the roster, he’ll have a cap hit next year of $5,041,666 but a dead cap charge of $2,333,334 if they choose to cut him. For a 36-year old journeyman serving as some degree of a bridge for Johnny Manziel (or someone else) and is outperforming expectations, this is a pretty good bargain for the Browns.
Granted that McCown starts in each game for the rest of the season—something currently up in the air because of his shoulder injury—he’s on pace to throw for 4,215 yards, 20 touchdowns and eight interceptions. That gives him a going rate of just $956 per yard (taking into account games played, rather than weeks paid, for sake of this exercise). There are quarterbacks in this league who will spend the entire season on the bench, throwing precisely zero passes for zero yards, who are costing their teams more. And there are also quarterbacks whose per-yard value is far more expensive than the return on the investment—just look at Peyton Manning and his $17.5 million 2015 cap figure combined with his 1,524 passing yards to date as an example of the latter.
Further, McCown’s current 66.8 percent completion rate is better than those of both Peyton and Eli Manning’s, better than Matthew Stafford’s, Carson Palmer’s, Matt Ryan’s and Sam Bradford’s. These are quarterbacks who are counting as much as six times more against their team’s salary caps than McCown is against Cleveland’s. McCown isn’t a diamond in the rough, because diamonds don’t come as cheaply as McCown; but he is like finding a pearl when all you thought you were doing was having dollar oysters for dinner.
McCown has done more to keep the Browns in games than he has done to lose them, which is what they signed him to do to begin with. And at bargain-basement prices—especially compared to the so-called “franchise” quarterbacks he’s currently outperforming, the Browns really are in a very good quarterback situation. While that matters less when there are more losses than wins at this point in the season, it is valuable to know that McCown is neither the problem nor being overpaid to underperform. If anything, he’s over-delivered relative to what the Browns are paying him.