On September 3, ESPN Sports Business Reporter Darren Rovell released a list of the top National Football League salaries from 1989. A few things immediately jumped out upon reviewing Mr. Rovell’s Tweet:
Inflation and also the fact that the NFL grows in popularity with each year has resulted in some massive modern players’ salaries.
Hall of Fame quarterbacks were paid what they were worth – perhaps they were even underpaid – 25 years ago.
Both the Buffalo Bills and Cleveland Browns probably should have won at least one Super Bowl from 1986 through 1994.
Finally, there is a greater disparity between the top 10 salaries of 2014 than there was between the top 10 of 1989. This goes to show that teams are willing to pay more than ever to secure the players they deem essential to their game.
Here are the 10 highest-paid NFL players in 1989 and how they stack up to the top 10 in 2014.
2014 values courtesy of Spotrac
10. Eric Dickerson ($1.31 million) vs. Ndamukong Suh ($12.55 million) — Difference: $11.24 million
Dickerson was coming off one of his best seasons in 1989, having rushed for 1,659 yards and 14 touchdowns during the prior year. His numbers did drop in ’89, but he still proved to be worth his price tag. The Hall-of-Famer gained 1,311 yards on the ground in 15 regular season appearances. He found the end zone a total of eight times, and seven and of those were rushing scores.
Suh, meanwhile, will likely soon become an even richer man than he is today. The best defensive tackle in the NFL can opt out of his contract following next February’s Super Bowl, and all indications are that he will do so. Detroit’s cap situation is an absolute mess at the start of September, to the point that many insiders expect the Lions to attempt to trade Suh to avoid the threat of losing him for nothing next winter.
9. Al Toon ($1.35 million) vs. Gerald McCoy ($12,732,253) — Difference: $11,382,253
1988 was a banner year for Toon, as he finished that campaign with a career high in catches (93). Toon also went for 1,067 and five touchdowns that year. He appeared in only 11 games the following year, though, and he finished the ’89 season with 63 grabs and two touchdowns.
Toon’s career did not last much longer. Having suffered no fewer than nine concussions as a pro football player, the WR called it quits after the 1992 season.
McCoy is the best young defensive tackle in the NFL. The 26-year-old has accumulated 14.5 sacks over the past two years, and 9.5 of those came last year. Tampa Bay will have to splash the cash to keep the defensive asset, as McCoy’s contract can (and will if no extension is signed) be voided after 2014.
8. Joe Montana ($1.368 million) vs. Greg Hardy ($13.116 million) — Difference: $11.748 million
Joe Montana was a steal for San Francisco in 1989. He completed over 70 percent (70.2) of his pass attempts. He ended the season with a rating of 112.4. Montana threw 26 touchdowns and only 8 interceptions that year.
He earned regular season and Super Bowl Most Valuable Player honors, and Montana ended the campaign by hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Greg Hardy‘s time as an NFL player could be running out. The undeniably talented defensive end was involved in an ugly domestic violence incident last May, a case that earned him 18 months probation and a suspended jail sentence. Hardy will receive a jury trial at some time in 2015.
With the NFL cracking down on players found guilty of domestic violence, Hardy’s tenure as an active defensive end is up in the air.
7. Bernie Kosar ($1,442,857) vs. Chris Long ($13.2 million) — Difference: $11,757,143
Bernie Kosar could do no wrong in the eyes of an adoring Cleveland fan base. The most beloved player in the history of the Browns helped lead the franchise to a third AFC Championship Game in four years in 1989. As was the case with the other two conference title contests, the Browns came up short against the Denver Broncos. Kosar would never again have a winning record as a starting NFL quarterback, and the Browns have yet to again make it so far in postseason play.
St. Louis supporters couldn’t ask for much more from Chris Long. He has 50.5 career sacks since being drafted by the Rams in 2008. Long has appeared in every regular season game played by the Rams in the past six years, and he is a cornerstone on what is an impressive and intimidating defensive front.
6. Herschel Walker ($1.525 million) vs. Philip Rivers ($13.8 million) — Difference: $12.275 million
1989 was the year that the Cowboys began a turnaround that would see them become the Team of the 90s, and it was because of Walker. Dallas traded the superstar running back in his physical prime to the Minnesota Vikings, and the ‘Boys in return obtained five Minnesota players and six draft picks. Emmitt Smith, Darren Woodson, Kevin Smith and Russell Maryland were four of the players drafted by the Cowboys via those Minnesota selections.
Walker retired at the end of the 1997 season having never won a Super Bowl.
Philip Rivers went through a revival in 2013. He completed 69.5 percent of his passes, tossed for 4,478 yards, and he ended the campaign with 32 touchdown passes and a 105.5 rating. The 32-year-old is nearing the end of his peak, and it is possible that Rivers could, if he doesn’t get to the mountaintop, be the best quarterback of his generation to never win a Super Bowl.
5. Randall Cunningham ($1,593,571) vs. Sam Bradford ($14.015 million) — Difference: $12,421,429
The fleet-footed Philadelphia quarterback had a Pro Bowl season in 1989. He won eleven regular season contests, he threw for 3,400 yards and 21 touchdowns, and Cunningham rushed for 621 yards and four touchdowns. The Eagles finished second in the division standings behind the New York Giants, and Philadelphia was downed by the Los Angeles Rams in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs.
Rumors are swirling about that the Rams could soon return to LA. Bradford may not join them. The often-injured QB tore his ACL for the second time since October 2013 during an August preseason game at the Cleveland Browns. Bradford is expected to attempt an NFL comeback, but the Rams may feel that they have no other choice but to search for a new franchise quarterback.
T3. Warren Moon ($1.7 million) vs. Mike Wallace ($15 million) — Difference: $13.3 million
The master of the run-and-shoot offense wouldn’t have his best seasons as a member of the Oilers until 1990. He threw for over 4,680 passing yards in ’90 and ’91. Moon had 56 passing touchdowns in those two years, and he found the end zone on carries six times during that stretch of time.
Houston was a one-and-done playoff team for the ’89 campaign, being downed by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Wild Card Round.
Outside of the previously mentioned Bradford (on Injured Reserve), Mike Wallace is the most overpaid player on this list. His 73 catches, 930 receiving yards and five touchdowns in 2013 are all good numbers, but they do not come close to comparing with the stats put up by the best wide receivers in the business. Wallace must do better this fall if he is to truly earn his salary.
T3. Jim Kelly ($1.7 million) vs. Peyton Manning ($15 million) — Difference: $13.3 million
Jim Kelly is deservedly enshrined in Canton, but 1989 was a season to forget as it pertains to his personal play. He dealt with injuries during the fall, he missed three games, and he went 6-7 as a starter in the regular season. The Bills finished at 9-7 and they earned a playoff berth, but they lost when away to the Cleveland Browns in the Divisional Round.
Peyton Manning continues to be the greatest regular season quarterback in NFL history. He and the offense of the Broncos had a historic year in 2013, but that campaign ended in misery thanks to a blowout loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Super Bowl Sunday. Some around the league expect the Broncos to be better in 2014 than they were a year ago, so Manning may have one more title run left in the tank.
2. Dan Marino ($1,783,333) vs. Eli Manning ($15.15 million) — Difference: $13,366,667
Dan Marino, an all-time great and perhaps the best quarterback to never win an NFL Championship, had a down year in 1989. He threw 22 interceptions and completed 56 percent of his passes, over three points lower than his career completion rate of 59.4. Marino finished the year with a 76.9 rating, the lowest rating he would have until his last year in the league (67.4 in 1999).
The younger Manning brother had a dreadful 2013, but his payday stems from what he achieved prior to last season. Manning is a two-time Super Bowl champion, a two-time Super Bowl MVP, and he has notched two championship-winning drives. Consistency is not his strongest trait, but the greatest quarterback in the history of the Giants has been worth every cent.
1. John Elway ($1,853,571) vs. Jay Cutler ($17.5 million) — Difference: $15,646,429
It’s easy to forget that Denver never was the best team in the NFL in the 1980s despite the fact that they made it to three Super Bowl games. John Elway and the Broncos were run right out of the stadium by a vastly superior San Francisco 49ers side in Super Bowl XXIV. That 55-10 scoreline makes for the most lopsided Super Bowl game to date.
Elway would eventually have his days in the sun while in the twilight of his career. He and the Broncos won back-to-back championships for the 1997 and 1998 seasons.
Rather than use the franchise tag or risk losing Jay Cutler entirely, the Bears chose to make a man who has never won a Super Bowl, and who also isn’t even the best quarterback in his division, the highest-paid QB in the NFL. The pressure will now be on Cutler to prove himself worthy of such a contract. With Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery as his wide receivers and Matt Forte in the backfield, Cutler will have plenty of weapons in 2014.