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Peter King
September 06, 1993
Who knows what dangers lurk in the realm of the salary cap
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September 06, 1993

Perils Of A New Era

Who knows what dangers lurk in the realm of the salary cap

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"The people in football don't know how good they have it," says Minnesota Twin general manager Andy MacPhail, who knows something about coping with free agency; the Twins are the only team to win two World Series in the last 10 years. "They've got a partnership with their players for the rest of the decade, unlike us. They already share all their TV revenue, unlike us. They've got fixed costs, unlike us."

Each NFL team can also designate a franchise player (who cannot move but must be paid a minimum of the average salary of the five best-paid players at his position) and, in '93 and '94, three transitional players (who can sign better deals with other teams, but only if their original team does not match the offer). The amount of the salary cap depends on the revenue coming into the league. The TV revenue is now about $39.5 million per team; but the figure may go down to around the $34 million mark after the league's new contract with the networks is signed in 1994.

What does it all mean? It means that teams like the Redskins, Giants and 49ers, all of which are now nearly $10 million over the cap, are in big trouble next season. They will have to dump good players just to stay upright, which is why Carmen Policy can't sleep nights. Teams like the Steelers, the Cincinnati Bengals and the New England Patriots, however, might benefit, because each is well under the cap and will have room to wheel and deal. The new arrangement should be good for the two new expansion teams, as well, when they enter the league in 1995. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Seattle Seahawks, the last two expansion teams, went a combined 2-26 in '76, their first NFL season; but the talent that will be available to, say, the St. Louis Beer Bottles and Baltimore Crabcakes two years from now should be considerably better than what was offered to the Bucs and the Seahawks. Most teams will be forced to expose a lot of high-priced players in the expansion draft—as baseball teams did in the major league expansion draft last year—and the Bottles and the Cakes, with decent coaching, should win some games early.

The new system will also help produce instant stars. There are a lot of rookies and backup players league-wide who simply need a chance to show their worth. Free agency and entry-level wages will give them that chance. Mike Sherrard would have been the third receiver in San Francisco; now he'll be the go-to guy with the Giants. Running back Rod Bernstine goes from backing up Marion Butts with the Chargers to starting with the Denver Broncos, jacking up his $685,000 salary by more than a million bucks en route.

Does this seem crazy, or fair? Don't ever forget that the average NFL career is now a mere 3.6 years, and that just when a player is feeling flush with power, he may get Hushed due to injury or salary. What was once a casual game of Go Fish is now a high-stakes game of stud poker, with everybody trying to bluff everybody else.

"It's nerve-racking," admits big winner Fralic, "but worth it. I never thought I'd make money like this in football." So stars will shine and marginal players will make marginal money. "Hey, that's how society is," shrugs new 49er safety Tim McDonald. "You've got to be elite to make elite money, just like in the business world."

And team chemistry? Forget it! Every July, camp will be like a get-acquainted party at the local steakhouse: "Hi, my name's Roger, and I'll be your center this year." Coach Mike Holmgren of the Packers, who were an ascendant 9-7 last year, thinks wistfully of the halcyon days of...1992. "I remember coming home from a game last season and thinking, What a great group of guys we have," he says. "There was such a great feeling in the locker room, a feeling of togetherness as much as on any team I'd ever been associated with. I didn't want to disrupt it." But he did, "to improve in certain areas." He adds, "Now we're a better team than we were last year, but will we still have that same unselfish together feeling?"

Doubtful. But that's only one of the new problems confronting team executives in the new era. Houston Oiler linebacker Wilber Marshall, ever the grasping, no-nonsense capitalist, describes the Oilers' worst nightmare if the cap forces the team into a fire sale: "What are they going to do, play Warren Moon at quarterback and cornerback?"

Right back atcha, huffs Packer G.M. Ron Wolf: "This is virgin territory for us old football guys. But my feeling is that this league is going to be in absolute turmoil next year. I don't think the players grasp what's going to happen. There are going to be players making $700,000 this year, and if they want a job next year, they're going to have to take $150,000." What goes around comes around.

Without the distraction of labor strife, will this be a kinder, gentler NFL? No. A dog-eat-dog NFL? Yes. Savvy, limited-skills players might even show up at camp next season wearing billboards stating NICE FELLA, WILL WORK CHEAP. It's all about finances now, and reading the market; just like a fantasy league wherein each owner has the same amount of bidding cash. "I want to believe the new system won't be as hard on the high-salaried teams as it seems," says quarterback Steve Young, who signed a contract during the off-season that will pay him $26.5 million over the next five years. "But it doesn't look that way I'd hate to see the league neuter the most progressive '90s organization in sports, the 49ers."

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