Monday, July 19, 2004

The Redskins, the cap & the future

There's a good story in Sunday's Washington Post about how the Redskins have basically mortgaged their future for the chance to win a Super Bowl in the next two or three seasons.

And while the Redskins front office will concede that have have a lot of money tied up in contracts, signing bonuses and roster bonuses, they dispute the idea that they were myopic in their planning for the future. What's interesting is that their the only people in the NFL who feel that way.

"Every move we make is done looking three years down the road," said Vinny Cerrato, Washington's vice president of football operations. "When we sign a free agent we know exactly how it's going to affect us and how it will count against the salary cap, and we're not going to do something that will put us in salary-cap jail or salary-cap hell."
Appropriately, Cerrato is spinning from the most political city in the nation. Nonetheless, he's still not convicing his counterparts across the league.

"To me what they're saying is they are banking on really winning in the next two years," said an executive who manages the salary cap for one NFL club, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "They just aren't going to be able to keep all those guys, they really aren't. There's nothing wrong with building for a run to the Super Bowl, but you're only kidding yourself to say you're not going to suffer the consequences of overextending in the free agent market. It's mathematically impossible."
And these sentiments have been echoed since the free agent spending spree started in February (I even had a post about it -- here and here).

The article does a really good job of explaining the structure of the salary cap and how teams can manipulate it in such a way to minimize how much of a hit they take in a given year. Either way, the real question is trying to win it all in the next two or three years worth the risk associated with being awful for the following five?

And what many people forget when talking about the Redskins is that in addition to signing a lot of high-priced free agents, in the process they have also given up future draft considerations. If Bill Belichick has taught the league anything, it's that you build a team through the draft and use moderately priced free agents to plug the holes. The thinking is that draft picks and middle-tier free agents are relatively affordable.

It's seldom the case that a high-priced free agent signing ends up being worth the price. And the problem with the salary cap is that a lot of contracts are back-loaded -- that is, yearly salaries are relatively small, but signing bonuses are pro-rated over the life of the contract.

Early in his tenure as Redskins owner, Snyder signed many veterans like Sanders, Jeff George and Mark Carrier whose best playing days were behind them. Many were not around long -- Sanders lasted one season -- but their large signing bonuses still counted against Washington's salary cap for years, eating up valuable room.
So despite what Cerrato and owner Daniel Synder contend, it looks like the Redskins will have to pay the proverbial piper in the very near future. And considering that they're going into the season with a washed-up quarterback, an oft-injured cornerback, a disgruntled linebacker, no defensive tackle to speak of and only one real downfield threat, the chances of the Redskins even making the playoffs in 2004 is debatable.

And don't believe me (I wouldn't); the Sporting News made the following prediction in their preseason publication:

The team made a big upgrade at running back, has a veteran quarterback and has a chance to win more games than it loses under Gibbs. But Gibbs will have a period of adjustment after being absent for so long, which translates to a sluggish start for the team. But one trademark of Gibbs' teams is they get better as the season goes on, and that shouldn't change.
And while predictions are sometimes not even worthy of being called educated guesses, the fact still remains that even if the Redskins make it to the playoffs in 2004, they will be handcuffed this offseason in terms of acquiring talent, and given their propensity to give up draft picks for free agents, they'll be at a distinct disadvantage going into the 2005 draft as well.

I'm sure Redskins fans were euphoric when Joe Gibbs returned, but I'll be interested to see if that dynamic changes as the salary cap problems become more real. Of course, these are the same fans who had to sit through two awful seasons with Steve Spurrier at the helm -- so they probably have a pretty high tolerance for losing.

Even still, if I were a Redskins fan, I'd be a little nervous hearing Joe Gibbs explain that he only has a rudimentary understanding of the salary cap.

"I understand the basics of" the cap, Gibbs said. "I think I understand how to get more cap room, and I kind of see, 'Hey, we sign this guy now, and it impacts you down the road.' But like I've said, most of our stuff is a three-year plan, and I think I understand the general workings of it."
And the reason I'd be nervous is because if Joe Gibbs thinks that the Redskins are on a three-year plan that means that he'll be just as surprised as everyone else in Washington (but nowhere else in the league) when they have to jettison part or all of their core players solely due to salary cap implications, and then start over. And the difference between Gibbs and the average Redskins fan is that if things get bad, he can re-retire.