Gary Lawless of the Winnipeg Free Press had an interesting story this week on the process of contract negotiations with Buck Pierce (which are very much ongoing), and it included a remarkable sidebar with salary ranges for every predicted CFL starting quarterback. What's most notable about those salaries (notoriously hard to find, given the league's lack of a salary database) are not the top ones (Ricky Ray and Anthony Calvillo, both long-established as dominant CFL quarterbacks, can each make up to $400,000 with incentives), but rather the bottom ones.
The lowest player listed is B.C.'s Travis Lulay, whose salary for 2011 will top out in the range of $250,000 if he hits all of his bonuses; meanwhile, Lawless' story reports that Pierce made around $200,000 with incentives last season and suggests that his base salary could be as low as $150,000 in 2012 (with incentives perhaps raising it to the neighbourhood of $300,000 if he hits all of them). That's remarkable, as Lulay and Pierce were the quarterbacks facing off in last season's Grey Cup. If quarterback's the most important position, how is it that the teams paying their quarterbacks the least made it all the way to the title game?
There are a few potential explanations. First, Lulay's contract in particular didn't really reflect his play; he took home the league's most outstanding player award in 2011 and was a deserving candidate for it, and he was certainly in the echelon of the league's top quarterbacks (with Calvillo and Ray). His contract is low mostly thanks to being a younger player who was only anointed as the Lions' starter towards the end of the 2010 campaign, so B.C. caught him at the right time. If they're able to sign him to a contract extension after this year, his pay will undoubtedly go up substantially and likely be close to the level of what Ray and Calvillo are making.
Pierce's 2011 play wasn't as spectacular as Lulay's, but he was still reasonably efficient, completing 63.5 per cent of his passes. The Bombers' advance to the title game had as much, if not more, to do with their defence and ground game as it did with Pierce's play, but he did his part. His salary was mostly low thanks to a history of injury concerns and limited proven experience as a top starter. Don't expect to see him get a massive pay advance this year, either; as Lawless' story points out, in fact, he may well have to take at least a cut to his base salary. Still, he and the Bombers can certainly use each other, so there's every reason to expect a deal will be done.
Moving beyond the specific circumstances that led to Lulay and Pierce both being relatively low-paid by CFL QB standards in 2011, there's an interesting philosophical question. In a league with the CFL's tight salary cap, are teams better off going with a young quarterback like Lulay or an unproven one like Pierce than a veteran star like Calvillo or Ray? Could it be that the savings on a quarterback are enough to improve the rest of the roster enough to make a better overall team? For the moment, the answer seems inconclusive. Consider that the previous two Grey Cups were won by Montreal, who had one of the league's top-paid QBs in Calvillo. Saskatchewan, led by the reasonably-well-paid Darian Durant (a maximum salary of $300,000 per year), also made it to both of those games. There are indisputable advantages to either approach; going with a young quarterback like Lulay not only allows you to upgrade the rest of the roster, but can help you prepare for the future, while an experienced veteran like Ray or Calvillo may demand more cash, but leaves less chance for things going catastrophically wrong at the quarterback position. Overall, it looks like the most important approach is having a good quarterback, not necessarily a highly-paid or cheap one.