In the 24 hours leading up to the kickoff of NFL free agency last Friday, the league's 31 teams went into a slashing frenzy reminiscent of the most vivid scenes in Gladiator. According to financial documents obtained by SI, in one decisive day teams whacked a collective $97.3 million from their salary rolls, cutting to the bone to get to the 2001 salary-cap limit of $67.4 million per team. Of the league's 1,782 players, 52 were let go and 57 had their contracts restructured. Says Andrew Brandt, director of player finance and football operations for the Packers, "The bloodletting to get down to the cap this year is unlike anything I've seen."
Just how does a team like the Chiefs trim $12.6 million in a single day? Or the Redskins lop off $72 million? By releasing players and restructuring veterans' contracts, converting the bulk of their current-year salaries into signing bonuses. Washington, for instance, helped get itself $82,000 under the cap by lowering 37-year-old defensive end Bruce Smith's 2001 base salary from $3.75 million to the veteran minimum of $477,000. The $3.27 million difference became a guaranteed bonus, which Smith will receive this year but which under cap accounting rules will be spread over the remaining three years of his contract.
That kind of sleight of hand has consequences. Even if, as expected, Smith is released next winter, he'll count for $5 million against the Redskins' cap in 2002 because of his prorated signing bonuses. Underachieving defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield, whom Washington cut last week, will still count for $78 million against the team's 2001 cap; in other words, 11.8% of the Skins' cap allotment will be taken up by a player who was released six months before opening day. Similarly, the Chiefs will use up a debilitating 19% of their 2001 cap on waived players.
In the late 1990s Kansas City and Washington signal a passel of veterans for win-now title inns. Now they join the Cowboys, 49ers, Jaguars and Jets as victims of Super Bowl greed. "The problem when you get so far in debt in our system is that the only way out is to make more problems for yourself," says Brandt. "You get into a vicious cycle."
The lesson: Stop paying ransoms for aging free agents and stick to the middle-class market. Last Saturday Tampa Bay G.M. Rich McKay had a five-year, $25 million offer on the table for Brad Johnson when he learned that Baltimore had intensified its efforts to sign the free-agent quarterback. While allowing for wiggle room, he vowed, "We're setting a price, and we'll walk away if it's not good enough for him." Two days later he got the deal done for an extra $3 million, avoiding the kind of bidding war that in past years might have cost him three times as much. Lesson learned.