Dave's Sports Views

Analysis, humor and opinion on the sports world

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Location: Dallas, Texas, United States

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Why fear an uncapped year?

Today the NFL postponed the perceived Armageddon of not having a labor contract extension, by giving management and the players union three more days to negotiate.

What I'm wondering is: What's the big deal?

Yes, I realize that, absent an extension, 2007 will be an "uncapped year" for salaries, meaning teams can spend as much as they want and a handful of rich clubs will have a perceived competitive advantage. And yes, I realize that if a salary cap goes away for one year, it very likely might be gone for good.

I'm still not believing that's a bad thing.

Chris Mortensen was on ESPN Radio the other day talking about how the league has declined in quality because of the salary cap, because teams constantly have to turn over their rosters to meet the demands of the cap. And he's right.

The current contract includes not only a salary cap, but also a salary floor that teams must exceed. What often happens in that scenario is a team that needs to meet the minimum overpays for a player, or puts a franchise tag on a player, who really isn't worth the money. That, in turn, boosts the market for all players and drives other teams toward the cap.

Football is not a sport that lends itself to big contracts. Its players are more prone to injury than any sport, and that produces careers that average just more than three years. That same magic that turned the Rams and Ravens into Super Bowl champs in short order also blew up in the faces of teams who suffered major injuries. With the obnoxious signing bonuses that teams pay out to stay under the cap, players are getting a lot of money up front with little or no guarantee that they'll earn that money over the life of the contract.

Furthermore, as part of the deal to get the salary cap, the owners conceded a key element: free agency after four years. So just about the time a player has learned the league and become a key contributor to his team (if he stays healthy), he's free to go somewhere else. So much for developing your own talent.

I know it's a warm and fuzzy story that the Green Bay Packers can compete in the NFL in such a small community, where the fans literally own the team. But their success really doesn't have much to do with the salary cap. The NFL rakes in enough money that, with revenue sharing, there's plenty to go around. And beyond that, the Packers became a good team when Ron Wolf and Mike Holmgren remade the club that had been one of the worst in football for more than 20 years. They drafted or traded for nearly all of the key players, Reggie White being the most notable exception. And we all know that God told him to forsake more money elsewhere and sign with the Pack.

Look at some of the teams that are under the salary cap going into this year (this is as of today, if the cap doesn't move above the $94.5 million). Sure, there are some duds -- Arizona, Green Bay, Cleveland and San Francisco were four of the worst teams this year. But Jacksonville, which went 12-4, is nearly $17 million under the cap. Philadelphia, which struggled this year but had gone to four straight NFC title games, is also nearly $17 million under. San Diego, which has an impressive collection of talent, is nearly $20 million under. Seattle, a Super Bowl participant, is $12 million under.

And New England, which seems to have done pretty well for itself in recent years, is $4 million under and almost never seems to have cap issues. Pittsburgh, the Super Bowl champion, is over the cap, but only by $4.5 million. Carolina, the NFC runner-up, is $5.6 million over.

The team that's in the most trouble? Oakland, at $23.5 million over. That juggernaut is an imposing 13-35 over the past three years. Just wince, baby. The top six teams above the cap include five non-playoff teams and the one-dimensional Redskins.

Want parity? Tell me how a salary cap has helped the NBA, which has had a grand total of FIVE franchises win a title in the past 19 seasons. That's the same number that baseball, which is supposed to be the example of big-market franchises running amuck, has had in the past five seasons.

The Yankees have so much money that they can buy half of the remaining major league teams, but they haven't managed to win a World Series since 2000. It's becoming more and more clear that the reason New York won four titles in the previous five seasons was because they spent their money on the right players, not the most expensive players. Those Yankees teams were the New England Patriots of baseball on the field.

And while Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee don't have a lot to show for their small-market status, they can look at examples of teams like Minnesota and Oakland, who have succeeded without breaking the bank, by drafting and developing consistently good talent. Part of the reason is that baseball players need six years of major league service to become free agents, not the measly four years that football players need (it will become six if the current contract isn't extended). So a player can be a key contributor before other teams are able to court him.

Trust me, I'm not wishing that a bunch of haves wrestle control of the NFL away from the have-nots. I'm a fan of the Steelers, not a big-market team by any stretch, and many of my close friends are diehard fans of the aforementioned Packers. I love seeing the little guy win in everything. I'm just not convinced that eradicating a salary cap will prevent that from happening.

It would seem that a labor deal that reduces reliance on a cap and a floor, lets the market decide who should earn the most money, increases the length of service for free agency, reduces profligate spending on signing bonuses, and gives the players some kind of security for their broken down bodies to heal once they retire, would be something everyone could appreciate -- whether you're a fan in New York or Washington or just a humble stockholder in Green Bay.

DJ

2 Comments:

Blogger erocking said...

DJ,

Good post. But the difference between baseball and football is that in football (with the cap) your team at least has a fighting chance to get better in two or three years. If your football team sucks it's the owner and/or GM that sucks. Not because they don't have the funds to compete.

In baseball, we just know for sure the Royals are going to suck every year, mostly because their payroll is 1/10th that of the Bostons and New Yorks. Yes, the Royals or Brewers GM may suck. But even if they didn't, it's such an uphill battle for the small market teams to keep their homegrown players when these the Bostons and New Yorks are throwing tons of cash at them.

1:47 PM  
Blogger Nye! said...

Don't forget that the lack of a CBA doesn't just mean an uncapped year -- it also means things like the elimination of the NFL draft. Rookies will be free to sign with the big-market teams (don't forget, not all revenue is shared, so there are haves and have-nots) while the Steelers and Packers will be forced to hunt for value. So not only will teams not be able to sign free agents, but cultivating talent will become impossible as well. The big-market teams will be your Big-10s and SECs, and the small-market teams will be your MACs and Mountain Wests. Sounds great to me.

Also, I'm not buying the argument that the salary floor is what's driving up player costs. No team in the NFL has been near the salary floor for quite some time. The lowest payroll in the league last year, for example, was SF at about $62.5 million, which is well above the floor of $44 million.

Your analogy to the NBA also doesn't wash, for two reasons. First, it has a soft cap and the NFL has a hard cap. There are no ramifications for exceeding the NBA cap other than paying a luxury tax. The result is some disincentive for the haves, but no prohibition. Second, the NBA is fundamentally different in that there are far fewer roster spots and a large number of players to fill them. That creates a market in which supply is high and demand is low. The result is lower prices for the majority of players (which is also exacerbated by the fact that there are a lot of unemployed NBA-quality players out there -- the end-of-the-bench guys on most teams could be replaced by any number of players who have been on 10-day contracts or playing in Europe). While the NBA superstars will always be expensive, the other players have little leverage and will come cheaply. Conversely, in the NFL there are three and a half times as many roster spots to fill, and (arguably) a lower number of players qualified to fill them. That creates a market in which supply is limited and demand is high. Prices will go up, up, up.

Your baseball comparison, meanwhile, illustrates the point quite nicely. While more teams have claimed the ultimate prize in MLB than in the NBA, there are also more teams that have no shot at competing. Teams like the Royals, Devil Rays, Twins, Pirates, and Brewers will never be able to consistently compete with teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, and Braves. Remember when Selig was talking about contracting the Twins last year and then they made their post-season run? At the time Selig defended the move by calling it "an aberration." And he's absolutely right -- it was. A few small-market teams pop up now and then, but for the most part the MLB landscape has been consistently dominated by the high-payroll teams. And so it will be in the NFL without a salary cap.

I'm not sure that the proposals at the end of your post would improve the situation. You want to reduce 'profligate spending on signing bonuses,' but give the players more security for their broken-down bodies. Isn't that exactly what a signing bonus does? Moving to guaranteed contracts isn't the answer -- we've all seen the "contract year" phenomenon in the NBA (see, e.g., Mark Blount) and MLB (Kevin Millwood). And the problem with 'letting the market dictate who should earn the most money' is misplaced as well. The salary cap still lets the market dictate prices, it just constrains them at a reasonable level -- in other words, it defines the market more narrowly. Expanding the market to reflect the US economy (the practical effect of removing the salary cap) would be disastrous -- that's basically what happened to the NHL. They handed out monster contracts and nearly went bankrupt. Nobody wants that for the NFL.

The slope is very slippery, and losing the salary cap will kill the golden goose.

2:59 PM  

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