The 2012 season was proof that money doesn't buy championships in the NFL.
Based on my numbers, the top seven spending teams in 2012 didn't make the playoffs. It's understandable the New Orleans Saints fell short. Head coach Sean Payton, assistant head coach Joe Vitt and general manager Mickey Loomis were suspended because of the bounty scandal.
Thanks to Drew Brees' contract and the addition of three free-agent linebackers, including Curtis Lofton, the Saints led the league with a $167 million payroll. Thrown off by the loss of their front-office leaders, the Saints finished 7-9.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were next with $158.2 million. They paid wide receiver Vincent Jackson $11.11 million a year, guard Carl Nicks $9.5 million and cornerback Eric Wright $7.6 million. The Bucs weren't thinking championship. They were trying to upgrade a roster the front office neglected after a 10-win season in 2011.
The Bucs improved by three games to 7-9, but Nicks missed nine games because of an injury and Wright was suspended for four and might be cut.
The Buffalo Bills gave defensive end Mario Williams $16 million and grabbed defensive end Mark Anderson for $5.25 million on what turned out to be the third-highest payroll at $143.9 million. The defense was terrible. Coach Chan Gailey lost his job, and the Bills finished 6-10 for the third time in four years.
The Jacksonville Jaguars went 2-14 with the fourth-highest payroll, $142 million. The Detroit Lions restructured deals to get under the cap and finished six games worse than the previous season with a $140 million payroll. The Arizona Cardinals were seventh at $138.2 million and were three games worse than in 2011.
Spending might work in baseball, but it doesn't guarantee anything in football because of the salary cap. Sure, Peyton Manning was cut by the Colts and turned the Denver Broncos into a No. 1 seed with a $19.2 million contract, but surefire Hall of Fame players rarely become available like that. Signing him turned out to be a no-brainer even though John Elway gambled that Manning could recover from four neck operations.
Big contracts coming due for Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan and maybe Aaron Rodgers should put their teams at the top of the 2013 payroll list, particularly with top veteran quarterbacks angling for $20 million a year.
Paying those quarterbacks is good business. Going crazy in free agency, though, doesn't translate into success.
From the inbox
Q: I know Ted Thompson isn't known for spending money on free agents. But do you think the Packers will make an offer to Steven Jackson? He seems like a perfect fit -- a blue-collar, power runner who can block and catch.
Reckless in Milwaukee
A: I think that would be a great idea. Jackson isn't going to make $7 million this year. Jackson has until the start of free agency to void the last year of his Rams contract. Although the Rams want him back, I think he will hit the market. If that is the case, Thompson could offer $5 million and see whether that could lure Jackson to Green Bay. He would be perfect for that offense.
Charlie in Houston
A: They could make the AFC Championship Game if all of that happens. The loss of Cushing clearly affected them in 2012. Their defense wasn't the same after he went down. Plus, CB Johnathan Joseph wasn't the same after he suffered his groin injury early in the season, and that negatively affected the Texans when they played good quarterbacks. They are still the best team in the AFC South, but Indianapolis is closing.
Q: As a Falcons fan, we took our fair share of criticism for blowing big leads and often narrowly winning games we should have won easily. This ultimately was our demise in the NFC Championship Game. It seems to me that this has become a leaguewide trend. Look at the Super Bowl, where the Niners nearly overcame a huge deficit. Is this happening more often than in the past, and if so, is it because of the focus on offense? And why are defenses unable to stop teams from coming back from these deficits?
Matt R in Atlanta
A: I offer two theories. First, the quarterback play is so good that comebacks happen often. You've seen that in home games at the Georgia Dome for the past five years with Matt Ryan there. The number of double-digit comebacks in the regular season has increased each season. Quarterbacks are increasingly using no-huddle in games and are comfortable in comeback situations out of that offense. My second theory involves the wear and tear on defenses. Defenses tend to wear down during the season. As seen in the playoffs, several defensive ends with pass-rush ability were out with injuries or playing hurt. Some of those defenses don't have great second pass-rushers. Because of that, quarterbacks tend to have a little more time to throw.
Q: Will the new marijuana laws in Washington and Colorado have any impact on the NFL's rules? If something is legal in a state, can the NFL continue to ban it?
Tom in King Cove, Ark.
A: That's the plan for now. If marijuana is found in a player's system during a drug test, that player will enter the substance abuse program and face suspension after several positive tests. The one advantage players in those states face is not getting arrested for marijuana possession. That saves them from some sanctions. But the NFL has no plan to lift the ban on marijuana at this time.
Q: What influence, if any, does the Carson Palmer trade have on the price for Alex Smith? On the surface, it would seem to offer a benchmark, but given that the Palmer trade has been reviled, does it actually drive down the cost for Smith?
Josh in Wellington, Fla.
A: I don't see any comparison. Smith has been a very good quarterback, but it can be argued that Palmer was better in his Bengals days. I'd have to think Smith would go for a third- or a fourth-round choice. I don't know whether the 49ers can hold out and get a first-rounder. That would seem to be unreasonable. But the Niners need to be fair to him. They took away his starting job when he was playing his best and didn't give him a chance to regain the job after missing a game with a concussion.
Q: Everyone talks about Miami going after a free-agent wide receiver, but none of the options seem like clear fits. Greg Jennings may be too old and injury prone, and Dwayne Bowe and Mike Wallace have questionable attitudes. I think I would rather see my Fins go after Jared Cook and Paul Kruger and use the draft to find a receiver or two.
Dave in Conover, N.C.
A: Your point is valid, but the Dolphins need immediate impact at wide receiver and I don't know whether they can get that out of the draft. They got rid of Brandon Marshall. Having nothing there to immediately replace him hurt the offense. Whether it's Jennings, Bowe or Wallace, the Dolphins need to do something. They also need to improve the pass-catching ability at tight end. Fortunately, they have plenty of cap room and plenty of draft choices to address those needs. It's safe to say their efforts this offseason need to be on offense. We agree on that.
Q: Is Dan Rooney going to take a more active ownership role in the Steelers again? It is apparent that the Steelers' struggles the past three seasons coincided with his political endeavor. Do you see the Steelers slashing and burning like the Giants just did?
Glenn in Ferry, W.Va.
A: Rooney will take more of an active role, but there won't be a lot of slashing and burning. Pittsburgh has to make tough cap decisions, and Rooney will work with everyone in the organization to make sure things turn out right. As with all teams, there are going to be struggles. The Steelers had an older roster when Rooney went over to Ireland to be the U.S. ambassador. Now the roster is that much older. Still, they have Ben Roethlisberger. They have a strong coaching staff. They still have a playoff-caliber team.
Miguel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
A: There might be a little bit of a drop-off but not that much. Newton suffered a little bit of a sophomore slump, but it really wasn't that bad. He went from 4,051 passing yards to 3,869. He went from 21 touchdown passes to 19. His completion percentage dropped from 60 to 57.7, but the team didn't upgrade its receiving corps for him. The 49ers have a star-studded coaching staff and won't let that happen to Kaep. He'll be fine.