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Creative enterprise

Vikings, Eagles rule roost of salary-cap manipulation

Posted: Saturday March 1, 2008 2:09AM; Updated: Saturday March 1, 2008 11:48PM
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Thanks to some savvy accounting, the Eagles had no trouble fitting All-Pro cornerback Asante Samuel into their adjusted salary cap.
Thanks to some savvy accounting, the Eagles had no trouble fitting All-Pro cornerback Asante Samuel into their adjusted salary cap.
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

It's a regulation buried deep in the NFL's Collective Bargaining Agreement, a regulation so obscure it doesn't even have a name.

Other than Article XXIV, Section 7, section ii, paragraph c, part (iii).

Here's what it says:

At the end of a season, if performance bonuses previously included in a Team's Team Salary but not actually earned exceed performance bonuses actually earned but not previously included in Team Salary, an amount shall be added to the Team's Salary Cap for the next League Year equaling the amount, if any, by which such overage exceeds the Team's Room under the Salary Cap at the end of a season.

This dizzylingy obtuse regulation is unwittingly having a profound effect on the NFL's economic landscape.

The level playing field the NFL's salary cap supposedly created?

It's a myth.

Because of a variety of complicated tricks that savvy NFL team officials have figured out, teams can manipulate their salary cap to the point where their cap figure winds up millions of dollars higher than the teams they're competing with.

The Vikings and Lions are both in the NFC North. Both have unadjusted cap figures of $116,729,000, like all 32 NFL teams.

Yet the Vikings' 2008 cap figure exceeds $135 million, and the Lions' adjusted figure is more than $111 million.

So the Vikings this offseason will have $20 million more than one of their division rivals to pay free agents and re-sign their own players. That's an 18 percent difference, and it demonstrates just how much of a difference shrewd cap management can make.

The NFL salary cap is a fluid number. Although the unadjusted cap number for all 32 teams is identical, the real numbers actually vary greatly.

Here's why.

Teams need room to make room. The way the NFL's Collective Bargaining Agreement works, the more flexibility a team has, the easier it is to gain future flexibility. So teams that find themselves in cap trouble are often stuck there for years. And teams that stay out of cap trouble can tweak contracts in certain ways that generate huge cap advantages in later years.

That's where the above CBA trick comes into play.

Teams with significant cap space late in a season can manipulate the following year's cap by writing likely-to-be-earned incentive bonuses into contracts that, in reality, have zero chance of being earned.

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