Flattened Salary Cap Catches NFL Teams Off Guard

Rob Carr

With the salary cap set at $123 million for 2013, many teams expected a larger increase and were caught off guard. Mike Brown and the Bengals, however, are swimming in cap space, giving them a significant advantage for retaining their elite players under a flatter-than-expected salary cap.

When it comes to the salary cap, I like to refer to a quote from good ol' Bill Shakespeare: "It's all Greek to me." Sure, he probably stole the quote from Thomas Dekker, who in turn probably lifted it from the works of a bunch of monk scribes, but the sentiment still rings true. And it turns out I might not be the only one feeling that way. Despite it being their job to understand and work with the salary cap, it seems as though even NFL general managers can occasionally find themselves at a loss for understanding.

Or at least that's what USA TODAY's Mike Garafolo contends in his latest article about the rampant practice of restructuring player deals during this year's offseason. According to Garafolo, "With clubs like the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers having to restructure the deals for as many as ten players, it's an indication that much of the league was caught off guard by how flat the cap has been under the new collective bargaining agreement." In other words, some teams falsely believed the salary cap would keep expanding as it had in years past, so they in turn kept escalating player contracts in order to "keep pace." Or in even more words, they acted like the Mighty Ducks in D2: The Mighty Ducks, who brashly thought their same old shenanigans would continue to work, until their trademark flying-v was summarily demolished by Team Iceland in the Junior Goodwill Games.

To make matters worse, even before the sudden flattening of the salary cap caught teams off guard, the correlation between the cap ceiling and the size of player contracts was getting increasingly out of proportion. NFL.com's Albert Breer breaks it down.

Consider that in 2007, the salary cap was $109 million. Since it hasn't been set yet for 2013, let's say it's $123 million, which would represent a 14 percent hike from 2012. Now, digest these numbers -- the top 5 quarterback cap numbers for 2007 [Average: $10.73 million] and '13 [Average: $19.13 million], as they went into franchise tag calculations, respectively. The average of the latter list is almost double the average of the former. The standard for the franchise quarterback used to be that he take up 10-13 percent of a team's cap; now both Stafford and Eli Manning (whose cap number is actually $20.85 million with workout bonuses worked in) account for between 17 and 18 percent on their team's books.


Clearly, this is not a sustainable trend, and several NFL teams found that out the hard way this year. Unfortunately, the practice of awarding ever-increasing contracts to top players is here to stay, regardless of the salary cap situation.

"You thought the cap would go up more than it has. That's been a little bit of a surprise," said former player agent Joel Corry, now a salary-cap and contract analyst for NationalFootballPost.com. "The big-name guys are going to get paid regardless of whether it's a flat cap or not. What you're going to see is the elimination of the middle class. You're going to have more top-heavy rosters like Pittsburgh where the top-heavy guys take up more of a significant part of the cap. You're going to see more draft picks and minimum guys on the team if this continues."

This all sounds like bad news for NFL teams. The cap isn't expected to rise significantly in the coming years but player contracts will continue to bloat. And like a balloon with too much air in it, NFL rosters will finally reach a breaking point. If only teams had the foresight to avoid such a clearly avoidable situation by saving up their cap space in order to offset the effects of a CBA that they themselves voted for. Cut to the Cincinnati Bengals, sitting on roughly $60 million in salary cap savings. Perhaps there was a method to their madness after all. While a large contingency of the fanbase was raking the front office over the coals for their apparent frugality, Mike Brown was simply preparing for an eventuality that was unmistakably spelled out in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Moreover, with the previously mentioned escalation of player contracts, Brown also put the team in an excellent position to pay market value for their young stars without jeopardizing the rest of the roster.

Say what you will about his tenure as GM, but in this instance, Mike Brown has been undeniably vindicated. While a majority of the league will struggle fitting their roster under the cap this year, Mike Brown and the Bengals can breathe much easier. Perhaps it's time we all started giving him a little more credit. Between this and the fleecing of the Raiders during the Carson Palmer trade, I'd say he's on quite a roll lately.

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