Playoffs Bring Fame But Not Fortune for NFL Players

Which Kansas City Chiefs quarterback earned more money from his NFL contract last week: Patrick Mahomes, who threw 50 touchdown passes during the regular season, or Chase Litton, who didn’t throw a pass in the regular season—let alone one that scored a touchdown?

If you answered Mahomes, your answer would make a lot of sense. Except it would be wrong. As a member of the Chiefs’ practice squad, Litton was paid whereas Mahomes and other players on the Chiefs’ 53-man roster were not. This illustrates one of several quirks to postseason pay for NFL players.

Like Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Jared Goff and other players on teams that earned byes in the first round of the NFL playoffs, Mahomes is subject to Article 37 of the collective bargaining agreement. Article 37 dictates compensation rules for postseason play, which says players on the 53-man roster are only paid if their team appears in a playoff game. The underlying logic is that if a playoff team doesn’t appear in a playoff game, its players shouldn’t be paid. The leading counter argument is that players on teams with byes still spend considerable time preparing for the divisional round of the playoffs. And, as mentioned above, their practice squad teammates are paid.

One could argue that practice squad players, who earn $129,200 (or more) during the regular season, need the money more than a player like Mahomes, who in 2017 signed a four-year contract worth $16.4 million; Brees, who in 2018 alone earned $27 million in salary and bonuses; or even a player earning the league minimum of $480,000. While that argument is defensible, it doesn’t align with how pro athletes are normally compensated: by their talent, performance, age and ability to get multiple teams to bid for their services.

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The atypical method of NFL pay during the postseason is also seen through the amount of money players are paid. While teammates are paid very different amounts during the regular season in accordance with their contracts, they are paid the exact same amount during the postseason. As we explored last year, such an arrangement, particularly when combined with NFL trade rules and differences in state income tax rates, can lead to very peculiar outcomes: Jimmy Garoppolo, who the New England Patriots traded to the San Francisco 49ers in the middle of the 2017 season, earned more from Super Bowl LII than did Tom Brady despite Garoppolo not even being on the Patriots roster. 

Under Article 37, each player on a playoff team’s 53-man roster—whether its Mahomes or fourth-string Chiefs running back Charcandrick West—receives an equal share as follows:

Playoffs Week 1        

 

Players on division-winning teams that earn a wild-card bye

$0

Players on division-winning teams that play in wild-card

$29,000

Players on wild-card team that plays in wild-card game

$27,000

Playoffs Week 2

 

Players on teams in the divisional playoffs

$29,000

Playoffs Week 3

 

Players on teams in the conference championship

$54,000

Playoffs Week 4

 

Players on Super Bowl-winning team

$118,000

Players on Super-Bowl losing team

$59,000

For most players, these “shares” are less than their weekly pay during the regular season. Take a player earning the average NFL annual salary, which is around $2.1 million. When this salary is divided by 17 (weeks), the player receives about $124,000 per week—an amount that is higher than every playoff share, including even shares received by players on the winning Super Bowl team. Of course, a player earning the league minimum may view this topic differently. During the regular season he earns $28,235 each week. This amount is larger than all but one playoff share ($27,000 for players on wild-card teams when they play in a wild-card game).

While players are generally paid less in the playoffs than in the regular season, playoff players who break NFL rules get no financial break. The schedule of fines under Article 42 remains the same in the playoff. This means that if a team fines a player for an unexcused absence, neither the player nor his agent can’t cite the player’s lower playoff pay as compelling the team to impose a lower fine. The same is true if the NFL punishes a player under Article 46. Consider the NFL fining 49ers safety Antone Exum Jr. $53,482 a few days ago for his hit on a defenseless player (Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Robert Woods) during Week 17. If the league imposed the same monetary penalty on a player in the playoffs, the fine would nearly equal what the player would earn by appearing in the conference championship.

Meanwhile, NFL playoff games sell out, which for some teams means increased ticket gate receipts, concessions sales and parking charges. Playoff teams also usually do well in selling apparel and merchandise. Likewise benefitting teams’ owners—who equally share most types of revenue—playoff games tend to attract higher TV ratings, which in turn positions the NFL to negotiate more lucrative TV contracts. While this arrangement might seem unfair to NFL players, it is worth noting that the players’ union, the NFLPA, agreed to these terms in the CBA.

Not all players financially ‘suffer’ during the playoffs—some have negotiated lucrative bonuses, like Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles. Last summer Foles and his agent, David Dunn of Athletes First, negotiated a new contract with the Eagles that ensured that if Foles—the MVP of Super Bowl LII—again replaced an injured Carson Wentz in the playoffs, Foles would be paid very well. The bonus stipulated that Foles would earn $500,000 if he played at least a third of the team’s snaps in a playoff game. The bonus further outlines that he would net another $500,000 if the Eagles win that game.

Foles has already earned $1 million in bonus money during this year’s playoffs by virtue of him quarterbacking the Eagles to a victory over the Chicago Bears in one of the two NFC Wild Card games. That $1 million, of course, is in addition to the $27,000 Foles and each of his Eagles teammates received for playing in the game. Foles is well positioned to earn at least another $500,000 in this Sunday’s matchup between the Eagles and the New Orleans Saints. His teammates won’t fare as well: they, like Foles, will each take home $29,000 for playing in a game in which they’ll risk their health for the sake of their team.

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

Michael McCann is SI's legal analyst. He is also the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.

Robert Raiola is the Director of the Sports & Entertainment Group of the CPA and Advisory Firm PKF O’Connor Davies.

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