How is it, you ask, that the Redskins can give six players contracts totaling $193 million last week and still get under the NFL's $80.6 million salary cap?
The short answer: It's like making sausage. You don't want to know.
The long answer, greatly simplified: The Redskins are borrowing from tomorrow in an attempt to live well today. Washington entered the free-agent signing period about $11 million under the cap, then erased an additional $6.8 million cap charge by trading cornerback Champ Bailey, designated as the team's franchise player, to the Broncos. The half-dozen key acquisitions—four free agents ( defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin, cornerback Shawn Springs, linebacker Marcus Washington and defensive end Phillip Daniels) plus quarterback Mark Brunell and running back Clinton Portis, both of whom arrived in trades—will cost the Redskins a reasonable total of $13.2 million against the cap in 2004.
The cap number for those six players grows to only $13.6 million in 2005. But the team's cap obligations will increase dramatically in the following year. At week's end Washington had 25 players under contract for 2006 at a cap value of $92.9 million. That's likely to be slightly more than the cap limit for the entire '06 roster, which means that the Redskins will have to restructure a lot of contracts. (They were active in the free-agent market last off-season too, doling out contracts totaling $85 million to sign wideout Laveranues Coles, guard Randy Thomas, running back Chad Morton, defensive tackle Brandon Noble and kicker John Hall.)
To see why the Redskins will run into a cap crunch down the road, check out the seven-year, $30.7 million contract of Griffin, a pedestrian player during his four seasons with the Giants. Washington blew away the competition for Griffin in the opening hours of free agency with an $8.3 million signing bonus and annual salaries of $535,000, $540,000, $1 million, $4.2 million, $4.2 million, $4.2 million and $5.25 million. In addition he is due a $2.5 million roster bonus in early 2006. Though Griffin receives the signing bonus in one lump payment, for cap purposes Washington can prorate it over the first six years of the contract (the longest period a signing bonus can be prorated). Add the prorated bonus amount ($1.38 million) to each year's salary, and you come up with Griffin's cap number: $1.92 million in '04 and '05. That's when it gets tricky. In 2006 Griffin's cap number would be $4.88 million, including the roster bonus. But to get additional cap relief the Redskins could convert the roster bonus into a second signing bonus and prorate the $2.5 million over the last five years of the deal ($500,000 per season).
Let's say Washington does that, a common practice in the NFL, but then cuts Griffin after the 2006 season. They wouldn't owe him a dime more because NFL contracts aren't guaranteed. Nevertheless, Griffin's cap figure for '07 would be $6.15 million ($4.15 million for the remaining prorated signing bonus, plus $2 million for the remaining prorated roster turned signing bonus).
Just ask the 49ers and the Cowboys of the mid-to late '90s what it was like to live with huge contracts that later became anchors. The Redskins had better make the most of their opportunity while they can.