[editor's note, by Skin Patrol] Last week I wrote a post about Redskins cap guru Eric Schaffer being swooned over by the Saints (we retained him). I received more than one email about that post -- I don't think that's ever happened before -- suggesting that Eric Schaffer was a good bit better at his job than I was giving him credit for. I was trying, unsuccessfully, to suggest that indeed he was better than the team's financial reputation and the fact that the Saints sough him (action is greater than) spoke more highly of him than anything the likes of me or others have written about the team's financial situation (mere words).
More importantly, though, is that I keep pounding this podium called Hogs Haven swearing the same tired cap rubric about how restructures are wrong, dead cap hits are wrong, etc. etc. when in fact there are more than a few ways to skin a salary cap and I certainly don't have a monopoly on cap methodology. In fact I'm not a cap expert at all. I know very little about it. I received a very well put together email from "a reader in the midwest" who suggested a few reasons why prolonging salary cap payments can often times be a good idea. And the worst part about the email, which runs contrary to my entire personal cap philosophy, is that the writer was absolutely correct; salary caps increase over time and thus dollars spent in future caps are worth less than dollars spent in current caps. He makes the point far more elegantly than I can, so I'll defer now to him and hope you all enjoy. Thanks again to reader from the midwest, and reader(s) are all on notice that I love talking Redskins, love receiving emails, and encourage you guys to spam me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Take it away "reader from the midwest":
As a salary cap nut and Redskins fan, I would call Schaffer the most valuable member of our front office. Cerrato and Snyder and their inner circle have their guys they get fixated on and the big numbers they want to throw at them, and then there are guys that make their way into the doghouse and need to be moved (Coles, Arrington, Archuletta, Lloyd) - Schaffer always finds a way to make the numbers work. Can't be an easy job, but he just makes it work. I don't believe he makes decisions to trade draft picks for guys like Trung Canidate or Mark Brunell (who more than likely would've hit the open market that June had they waited) or to give up a second rounder in the Portis-Bailey deal, or make the T.J. Duckett acquisition, nor is he the guy that decided Ryan Clark should be allowed to walk away without matching a reasonable deal... he's the numbers guy who puts things together to make it all possible. It's a blessing to have a guy like that (when we're able to keep Collins and Brunell on the roster last year, rather than having to cut one - and we have a good idea who Gibbs might've chosen if he had to pick just one in late August), but also a curse (because it allows mistakes to be swept under the rug and be "out of sight, out of mind", rather than forcing a painful learning experience that in the long-run may be a positive).
Ultimately, Schaffer would be dangerous on a team whose player evaluation process is more successful than the recent track record has been for the Redskins. Not sure the Saints are an example of that, but on the right team, a numbers guy like that could lead to big things.
The thing I find really interesting in the dead cap discussion is that the conventional wisdom holds that dead cap is absolutely a bad thing every time, but I don't believe that to necessarily be true. Washington's approach has been to take advantage of the time-value of cap money. A dollar on the cap today is a higher percentage of the cap than it will be next year and the year after, etc. Having a minimum base salary with the majority of money in the form of bonuses that are prorated across multiple years is a sound approach if you can afford the bonuses and are willing to take that kind of risk. You can structure deals (like Todd Collins' "six year" extension), to spread out the impact of a hit into future years when that money will represent a lower percentage of the cap. So the cap this year is around $118 million, whereas a few years ago it was in the ballpark of $80 million. The Redskins have really embraced that philosophy and maximized it to their benefit.
Beyond that, they reserve space in the future years, so that cutting a guy and accelerating the bonus makes it so that the cut doesn't take up more than keeping him. That's generally not true in the first 2-3 years of a contract (or renegotiation), but as you reach the later years, there are either non-guaranteed roster bonuses or workout bonuses, or a high base salary reserving space for either cutting him and accelerating his future prorated money or restructuring money into a guarantee that is prorated across more years, while reducing his base to minimum.
Example, Todd Wade's scheduled cap hit for 2008 is 3.046. If cut before June 1, his dead cap hit is 2.332, meaning that we open up 0.714 by cutting him. If designated a "post-June 1" cut, he'd count as 1.166 dead space in each of 2008 & 2009, but would be savings of 1.880 in 2008 and 2.050 in 2009 (scheduled 2009 salary cap number of 3.216). Clearly, I think it'd be a good idea to cut him after June 1 rather than devote 2 million more than we have to to our #4 OT, who has been proven unable to play guard. But because of Schaffer's work, structuring the deal properly, we have that option (and don't have to cut him before final cuts to realize those savings - if we make it through preseason with Samuels, Jansen, Heyer and Fabini all healthy and maybe another guy emerges, we can part ways with Wade - but if we have to before then to accomodate a costly trade, we can do that also).
The problem with their cap management is when they swing for the fences and miss big on an Archuletta or Lloyd. They structure the deal so that the player really has to be there three years to make it work, but then when they have to move him in one or two, they have to take a painful hit. But that's not the fault of the salary cap guy - it's the fault of the scouts and coaches and player personnel and Cerrato and Snyder for their miscalculation on the guy. Beyond that, what is so regrettable about the Lloyd situation was that 1) he was a restricted free agent, so we had to part with picks to acquire him via trade, 2) his former team wasn't too disappointed to part with him, so that should be a red flag (if the deal looks too good to be true, it probably is), 3) we could have kept him for a one-year tender before signing him to an extension, but instead we immediately gave him a long-term deal for big money.
Combine a couple big misses like that with a franchise that undervalues draft picks (trades them too willingly without getting adequate value in return) and does not build cheap depth in the middle and later rounds of the draft and it becomes a problem that gets in the way of long-term stability and consistent success - especially when playing in the most competitive division in the NFL.