Home > NFL > The Salary Cap still doesn’t act as a limiting factor on NFL teams

The Salary Cap still doesn’t act as a limiting factor on NFL teams

A thought exercise that I have been having with myself today: How would the NFL world be different if the 2011 CBA had not contained a salary cap.  We just had, in the character-limited words of Evan Silva:

2011 FA class was deepest, most talented in NFL history. 2012 class not far off. It’s loaded. Will post comprehensive list on Friday.

So with perhaps the deepest free agent class in memory, NFL teams went nuts in terms of adding contracts to their ledger.  Except, they didn’t really.   Two years after Albert Haynesworth landed a $100 total value contract, and one year after Julius Peppers signed a contract with total value in excess of $90 million, Nnamdi Asomugha (a player who might have had a better reputation than Haynesworth and Peppers) ended up going to the Philadelphia Eagles for…$60 million over five years.  Which is an annual value that exceeded teammate CB Asante Samuel’s 2008 contract with the Eagles by about $2 million a year.  And about $5 million less per year than Asomugha was getting from the Raiders.

The additional supply of players at need positions certainly affected the size of contracts: the Texans dropped out of the Asomugha sweepstakes to focus on a younger target: CB Johnathan Joseph (who signed for Samuel money).  But it came down to the Jets, Cowboys, and Eagles.  And before we credit the salary cap for doing it’s job, it’s worth pointing out that the Jets and Cowboys both had decisions to make on Antonio Cromartie and Terence Newman respectively.  The Jets opted to get out of the bidding and the Cowboys opted for Newman.  Asomugha became an Eagle.

The salary cap did its job to force teams to choose rather than opting to add Asomugha to an already existing roster.  Except, that is, once we look closer.  The Eagles got the dream team moniker in part because they took the 2010 Philadelphia Eagles secondary, and added Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to that group (while admittedly losing Quentin Mikell in free agency).  The functional purpose of the NFL’s salary cap is not to cap total spending on players (although the NFL Owners enjoy the security that it provides), but instead to foster player movement through termination of veteran contracts.  In context, the Cowboys’ decision to keep Newman was highly suspect even independent of the potential for an Asomugha deal.  At the time, an argument that the Cowboys would have been better off with Newman instead of Asomugha would have been laughed out of the room.  The Cowboys framed the events of the pursuit of Asomugha as a false premise.  It’s not that they couldn’t have used him.  It’s that he got paid more than the Cowboys estimated he was worth.

Fundamentally, the mechanics of free agency have nothing to do with a salary cap, and the NFL is great evidence of this.  The salary cap functions to limit teams that do not manage it very well, but does nothing to limit a team that knows how to manage a cap.  There are all sorts of cap exceptions in the NFL, and player salaries are non-guaranteed.  That is very significant because until contracts become fully guaranteed upon signing, the salary cap will never be a limiting factor in a sport which allows you to roster 53 players during the season and 80 during the offseason.  In fact, even teams that spend recklessly will never be limited by the salary cap so long as they don’t also recklessly guarantee a larger portion of the contracts they write than the rest of the market dictates.

And even should a team get into trouble, it has an endless supply of future years for which it can push cap dollars into if it needs to free up space.  To repeat, only through terrible, negligent management of the salary cap can a team reach a point at which they will be limited in what they can do in the future by what is currently on their books.  There have been a few of examples of this, such as the 2004 Titans, the 2004-2009 Redskins, and the Raiders twice, in 2003 and again right now.  But the reason that the salary cap is not a limiting factor on a team, in general, is because it is so gosh darn high.

On average, a team can put $10 million dollars to every position on the field under the salary cap, and they will not reach it.  It’s true that a lot of teams will exceed $10 million cap dollars at one position, most teams at least will do so at two or three positions.  But we can’t ignore the fact that a lot of really good teams have a high percentage of their roster well below it’s market value because it came through the draft.

The draft obscures everything here because very much like baseball, a vast majority of NFL players won’t even qualify for free agency until their athletic peaks.  So the teams that get their best years (and have things like the franchise tag to retain rights to those players’ best years if they manage the cap particularly well) will never, ever have to write a market value contract to a player to compete unless said player is a cornerstone of the franchise.  Teams like the Colts and Packers have been rather extreme about it, but for the most part, free agency doesn’t make a lot of sense for those teams.

In a sport where the best organizations have 75-85% of their roster under market value, what the heck is the point of a salary cap?  Well, it fosters player movement, and it protects small market owners against the Cowboys deciding to operate like the Yankees.  But for the 26 teams in the middle of the spectrum, it wouldn’t change a thing if the salary cap never existed.

Back to the thought exercise: what would have happened to the NFL over the last six months or so if the players and owners had agreed not to have a salary cap.  Would it have helped Nnamdi Asomugha?  Well, he probably would have grabbed a longer contract, but there would have been a lot of empty years on the back end.  If it helped him, it only would have been because the Raiders (who had capped themselves out of the Asomugha sweepstakes) could have given the Eagles a run for their money, but if the player wanted to leave, he would have left.  Would the Eagles have made it to the playoffs if there was no salary cap?  That’s really unlikely.  Would the Giants be any different?  Probably not.  Would the Bengals have ponied up the cash to keep Johnathan Joseph?  Unlikely.  Could Atlanta have been more aggressive?  Maybe, but this still would have been a transitional year for them, at least offensively.  The Lions?  They didn’t even spend up to the cap.  Chicago and Indianapolis are notoriously picky when it comes to player evaluation.  The Arizona Cardinals pinch pennies anyway.  The Rams opted for fiscal conservative policy, as did the Bucs.

Outside of the desperation of the Dallas Cowboys, it’s unlikely that the NFL would be any different if the salary cap didn’t exist.  There would not be as much player movement, and as a result, I think veteran players would get paid more under a non-salary cap system, but teams have much more flexibility under the current system of non-guaranteed contracts.  The cap sounds nice in theory, but has no actual practical application with regards to the majority of the teams in the NFL.

  1. atlkams
    January 14, 2012 at 7:57 pm

    Good points. What did each team spend this year?

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