NFL Player Performance: Do Contract Extensions Have an Effect?

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NFL Player Performance: Do Contract Extensions Have an Effect?
(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

As of late, many sports fans have questioned the motivating factors of professional athletes.  They have cited huge salaries as the primary culprit for why their idols have lost the passion and love for the game that the iconic sports figures of the past possessed so righteously. 

Fortunately, sports provide us with a unique opportunity to actually measure a player’s performance through statistics.  Thus, the question remains: Does a sports star’s success rise or fall after signing a massive contract extension? 

Three current NFL players will be dissected and analyzed to finally put to rest this age-old argument.

Let’s start with Cincinnati Bengals quarterback, Carson Palmer.  The former Heisman Trophy winner and longtime veteran signal-caller has been a model of consistency since he came into the league in 2003, earning himself two Pro Bowl selections so far in his career. 

On the other hand, Palmer has recently been plagued with more than a few injury-ravaged seasons.  In 2004, the former No. 1 draft pick started thirteen games, threw for 2,897 yards, had eighteen touchdowns, eighteen interceptions, and finished with a completion percentage of almost 61 percent. 

The following season, on December 29th, 2005, Palmer signed a six-year, $118.75 million contract extension through 2014.  Palmer’s 2005 campaign would bring relevance to a once-beleaguered and underachieving franchise, while also establishing himself as an elite NFL quarterback and fantasy football owner’s dream. 

Carson proved worthy of his gaudy contract by putting up some dazzling statistical numbers of his own, leading the league with 32 touchdown passes (a record at the time) and posting an unheard of, league-high completion percentage of 67.8.  The 2006 season would prove to be a stellar encore performance statistically, falling just short of Palmer’s career-best and record-breaking 2005 outing.
     
Next up, Ray Lewis, the tough-as-nails middle linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens.  Ray agreed to a five-year contract extension in August of 2002, which included a $19 million signing bonus.  Lewis' seven-year contract was worth approximately $50 million, making him one of the highest-paid defensive players in the NFL at the time. 

The subsequent season, after inking his new mega-deal, Lewis would go on to have far and away the best season in his career, punctuated by the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award (the second time he would receive it).  Lewis’ 2003 stat line read like this: 1.5 sacks, six interceptions, 161 total tackles and 120 solos, and one defensive touchdown. 

Those numbers would be superb for a safety, let alone a middle linebacker, a position that typically doesn’t allow for huge statistical numbers.  Following Lewis’ first contract extension with the Ravens, he would put together nothing short of a Hall of Fame career, garnering numerous accolades.

These include being selected to the Pro Bowl ten times, making the NFL’s first-team All-Pro selection six times, earning the Associated Press’ NFL Defensive Player of the Year award twice, winning Super Bowl XXXV and being named MVP of the game, and lastly, making The Sporting News’ Team of the Decade for the 2000s. 

Obviously, Ray Lewis’ career has been filled with grand achievements and record setting.  The 34-year-old Lewis may be a little long in the tooth, but has shown no signs of slowing down, and has proven that he has been worth every penny of his $50 million contract.

Finally, we have LaDainian Tomlinson, running back for the San Diego Chargers.  On August 14th, 2004, Tomlinson signed the richest contract for a running back in NFL history, an eight-year deal worth nearly $60 million. 

Tomlinson seemed deserving of the contract, and his numbers certainly warranted it, but despite his reputation in the early 2000s as being the best running back in the NFL, his stats took a slight nosedive in the 2004 season, following the extension.  Tomlinson’s 5.3 yards per carry average from the season prior fell to a pedestrian 3.9, as well as his total rushing yardage, which dropped 310 yards. 

Additionally, LaDainian’s receiving yards were slashed dramatically after signing his new deal, plummeting from 725 yards to just 441.  “L.T.,” as he is referred to by fans, did manage to muster 18 total touchdowns, one more than the season before.  Two years later, during the 2006 season, LaDainian Tomlinson would silence the skeptics, absolutely taking the league by storm with his unbelievable on-field production. 

Tomlinson would go on to finish the 2006 season torching the stat sheet with 1,815 rushing yards (5.2 yards per carry average), 31 total touchdowns (both career highs), and 508 receiving yards. 

His stellar production would lead to him shattering several NFL rushing records, including scoring 19 touchdowns in a span of merely six games and surpassing the most points in a season by an NFL player; a record that had stood for 46 years.  Tomlinson was rewarded by the Associated Press, receiving the NFL Most Valuable Player (MVP) award at the end of the season.

It is glaringly apparent that, generally, if an NFL player is good enough to sign a long-term contract extension with a team, he will most likely be good enough to prove he deserved it.  There are several factors involved in any sport that can skew player stats, such as injuries and schedules, which change every year. 

While it is common for players to see a slight dip in performance the year succeeding a contract-extension, usually because of complacency and lack of motivation (in Tomlinson’s circumstance), at some point, teams will receive their money’s worth. 

All three players analyzed improved drastically after their new deals from purely a statistical standpoint, however, their results represent only a fraction of the entire NFL. 

Statistics aren’t everything in the world of sports, as they can’t measure all of the intangible qualities that players exemplify on Sundays, but they do offer analysts the only fair and scientific method of judging ability. 

While the discussion may always linger about whether or not professional athletes are affected by seven, eight or even nine-figure contracts, the numbers prove that if money does have an effect, it is a positive one.

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