There seems to be this assumption out there that the salary cap is only going to be gone for a year. I understand why people might be quick to assume that. After all...we are talking about the jewel of all professional sports leagues worldwide. Assuming that people would want to get the ship "righted" as quickly as possible and back to business as usual, it would make sense that the salary cap would be back in tow by 2011.
What has the NFL drummed into our brains over the last decade and a half? Oh yeah..."Parity." Or "competitive balance." The notion that on "any given Sunday", any team can beat any other team is a cornerstone of the league. Add to that the ability for teams to turn bad seasons around and make Super Bowl runs the following year and you have a veritable factory that manufactures compelling story lines by the bucket load.
The salary cap has been largely credited with accomplishing all this and evening the playing field, but what people consistently forget is that probably more important than the cap was the floor that went along with it. For example, in 2009, the salary cap was $128 million. By rule in 2009, the salary floor was 87.6% of the salary cap, or $112 million. That means teams were required to spend that much per year on their roster. Seems like a lot of money until you realize that every team is clearing roughly $114 million per year through 2011 under the current TV deals. Add on to that the average operating income per team of about $26.4 million over the last five years and it is obvious without going too much further why the league has seemed to be printing money. The annual share per team of TV revenue and the average operating income numbers per team were pulled from a State of the Game piece put out by the NFL Players Association.
I like using the NFLPA' sperspective here because I am simply stunned that armed with the knowledge they seem to have, they find themselves in this new world of no salary cap. Who was their lead negotiator...Master P? Listen, I get you have to draw a hard line in the sand in these disputes, but the pain inflicted on their ranks this year is immense. Over 200 players were prevented from hitting the market. Franchises became compelled to dump higher-priced, older talent. The feeding frenzy that occurs at the outset of free agency was muted this year, with only a few teams ponying up for the handful of guys who were lucky enough to cash in this offseason. The players are getting slaughtered. And the mandated minimum amount teams were required to spend on players is gone. Even the Washington Redskins, famous for their free-wheeling spending, are currently at roughly a $70 million player payroll...over $40 million less than what they would have been required to spend on their roster just one year ago. Sure, that number will go up, but the mega-contracts that could eat up that difference are gone. Larry Foote and Wilie Parker are not going to put the Skins anywhere close to $100 million.
The NFLPA always threatened that if the salary cap went away, they would never agree to another one. And without a salary cap, there will be no salary floor either, I suspect. Smart move.
At this point, we should recognize that the pain the players are dealing with now will subside. The elimination of the salary cap really screwed the 4th and 5th year guys, creating a two-year window that will serve to restrict who does and does not get to enjoy the fruits of unrestricted free agency. That will work itself out...over two years. In the coming years, guys who stay healthy and make it to their 6th year are going to start hitting the market more and more. And when that happens, we will start to see a great divide widen in the league. The rich teams will wield their financial power and the poorer teams will take the scraps. The players will benefit from this. The kinds of contracts that will get doled out by Dan Snyder, Jerry Jones, and Robert Kraft will make the players union very happy.
I think that while a few small market owners may find this arrangement to be bothersome, just as many if not more middle class owners will be happy to field the best $50-75 million team they can and pocket the rest of the dough. And some of those teams will compete in the postseason. In baseball, we see plenty of owners who field competitive teams on a fraction of the payroll that the big market teams employ. The beauty of the NFL is that the playoffs are more inclusive than the MLB, and each round is one-and-done.
So right about when the players would be otherwise "okay" with the absence of the salary cap, the owners will find themselves possibly at odds over whether or not to bring it back. The more I look at this situation, the less I believe we will see the salary cap back any time soon.
Which leads me to...
Are we on the brink of a Golden Age in Washington? Have the stars finally aligned to create the perfect scenario for this franchise to be dominant over a long period of time? Consider:
- We have a bona fide General Manager in place that has ostensibly seized all control of the entire organization
- We have a coach in his first year (here) that is hungry to prove that he can re-establish a dynasty in this town on the field.
- We have an owner who may have finally arrived at a place in time where his wallet can wield a true advantage in the NFL. By that, I mean as teams get comfortable living under the old salary floor, he will have fewer competitors for the high-priced free agents coming in the next few years.
As I watch the team operate in these early days of free agency, I find myself wagering my best guess at their strategy, and it sounds tantalizingly good. This is what I envision Bruce Allen telling his reports about what they are doing:
"We are going to get younger, immediately. We need to get rid of the older vets who are preventing our younger players from developing on the field. Instead of adding the high-priced free agents in this year's free agent class, we'll focus on bringing in our draft picks and putting them on the field in those spots. If we miss the playoffs this upcoming year, we actually find ourselves in an advantageous spot for next year's free agent crop, free of the restrictions that handcuff winning teams in this new system. Armed with the knowledge of who we have and what they can do on the field, we can then seek to add bigger names to complement our team - and we can do so with Dan Snyder's wallet."
I also fully expect the Skins to do everything in their power to trade some of these guys that they tendered. I think the additional 3rd and 4th rounders they would be willing to take fit perfectly into the strategy, and I am dying to see how Allen and Shanahan would use those picks. Everyone thinks that Dan Snyder is okay with standing pat this offseason, but I think it is even better than that. I think he is okay with taking a step BACKWARD this upcoming season. I think Bruce Allen and Mike Shanahan have convinced him that the best thing this franchise can do is start over. What better time to do that than now...when we are essentially rewarded for waiting on upcoming drafts and free agent classes?
I don't think the salary cap is coming back any time soon...and I think this is the best news Redskins fans could hope to hear.