$10 Million In Cowboys Cap Room Up In Smoke - and This Time, Terence Newman's Not Involved

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On the eve of free agency, all 32 teams assumed their stances in the blocks and prepared for the madcap sprint that always defines the first 72 hours of unfettered player movement. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, just before the race started Commissioner Goodell pistol-whipped them with the starters’ gun.

Now, it could have been worse – Goodell then proceeded to take a page from Jesus Quintana’s playbook by jamming the pistol up the Redskins’ hindparts and pulling the trigger ‘til it went click. And the race’s other 30 contestants – the architects and beneficiaries of this action – sported grins a mile wide.

I refer, of course, to the massive salary cap penalties ($10 million for the Cowboys and a whopping $36 million for the ‘Skins) handed down by the League late Monday in relation to the teams’ player signings during the 2010 uncapped season. The contracts that drew the League’s ire – or, for the purposes of the rest of this story, let’s just say it straight out and call it the other owners’ ire – were the ones the Cowboys gave WR Miles Austin and that the Redskins bestowed upon Albert Haynesworth and DeAngelo Hall. Specifically at issue was the ‘front loading’ of contracts with massive 2010 dollars that would not be pro-rated across the life of the deals for salary cap purposes as would a standard signing bonus. In Austin’s case, he was paid a hefty $17.1 million base salary in 2010, all of which was guaranteed. The structure of the deal has him sitting at an extremely cap-friendly $1.15 million in 2012, however.

On the one hand, the league office handing down penalties for franchises’ malfeasance is nothing new. The Niners were fined and docked draft picks for circumventing the salary cap with contracts for players like Steve Young, Brent Jones and Jim Druckenmiller – and hopefully smacked with additional penalties for drafting Jim Druckenmiller in the first place. The Lions and Niners (again!) have been penalized draft picks for tampering with potential free agents. On the other hand, this latest punishment stands on comparatively shaky ground – the teams mentioned above were caught in direct violation of NFL rules that were written in black and white. The Cowboys and Redskins did nothing – and I repeat, NOTHING – that was in violation of a written rule.

Not only does it stink to holy hell, but it sheds light on some very interesting dynamics within the NFL power structure.

Dynamic 1 – Commissioner as Lackey

The Cowboys and Redskins apparently violated a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ among owners as to how to treat player compensation under the cap. Now, most ‘gentlemen’s agreements’ tend to involve practices that the parties involved would as soon not discuss in the light of day and that apply to situations with ongoing relevance – take, for example, the SEC’s wink-and-a-nod approach to ‘standard’ player compensation. It doesn’t make sense, however, that this could have been any sort of long-standing agreement – under both the old and new CBA, you can pay a player however much you want in any given season so long as you end up under the cap for that season. It had relevance only to the unique, uncapped situation in 2010. There was obviously some explicit discussion by the owners around not dropping mad cash in 2010, but it was not codified under any rule.

Now this sort of thing, in theory, is why a league has a commissioner. A good commissioner obviously looks out for the owners’ interests in aggregate, but should have a firm enough hand to make rulings on what is or is not good policy for the league as a whole. If Goodell thought this kind of front-loading was not in the league’s best interest, fine – make an explicit rule or direct statement in that regard. And gee – since every SINGLE contract is approved by the commissioners’ office, if there’s something in a contract that ain’t kosher, DON’T APPROVE IT! If, on the other hand, Goodell thought this practice to be acceptable – which had to be the case if he wasn’t just entirely asleep at the wheel, since those contracts went through his office – going back two years later and whacking the teams involved just reeks. If the NFL owners want a straight lackey who will accede to after-the-fact, penury-driven demands then that’s their prerogative, but it’s a far cry from the type of dynamic leadership that Rozelle and even Tagliabue (for most of his tenure, anyway) brought to the role.

Dynamic 2 – Penurious Power Play

Now this is where things really get interesting. Per salary cap consultant J.I. Halsell by way of Anthony Brown on the This Given Sunday blog, the NFL originally calculated the 2012 cap figure to be about $5 million LOWER than the 2011 number. As you can imagine, the Players’ Association was none to jazzed about this idea. The league then decided to rob from the rich and give to the poor by whacking the Cowboys and Redskins – coincidentally, Forbes’ two most valuable NFL franchises – and funneling the money to the players by small and palatable increases to each team’s salary cap to help bring the figure up to parity with 2011. The issue of the 2010 contracts were used as air cover to rationalize this move – taking a swipe at teams with the financial wherewithal (or should I say financial will – I’ll get to that in a second) to spend big up-front dollars and avoid an embarassing labor fiasco in one fell swoop.

This bears repeating – what has happened to the Cowboys and Redskins is in no way legitimate. If this ‘gentleman’s agreement’ had sufficient sanctity, those contracts should never have gone through in 2010. If their perfidy had been that extreme, immediate sanction in 2011 would have made sense. Instead, we hear reports that ‘verbal warnings’ about potential future penalties were issued – a claim that the Cowboys’ and Redskins’ front offices seem at odds with. These ‘warnings’ were used as justification to remedy an absurd situation – a DECREASE in the 2012 cap in a time of plenty and after the announcement of fantastically lucrative new TV deals – brought about by the penury of the NFL’s Billionaire Boys’ Club.

NFL teams don’t lose money – they print it. Hand over fist. The TV deals are absurd, the luxury suite revenue would make Croesus blush and the stadiums receive a sickening degree of public financing from fan bases held hostage by the threat of relocation. But that’s not enough – the owners threatened to fracture relationships with their players and fans in order to grab an even bigger slice of the pie, and now are determined to ensure that river of cash is never interrupted by the few who are willing to make larger outlays to set their teams up for advantage WITHIN THE PUBLISHED RULES.

Dynamic 3 – Jerry Takes the Fall

If you asked the average NFL fan to name the league’s most powerful owners, Jerry Jones’ name would almost certainly be a among the first to be uttered. I’m not so sure that’s the case anymore. Call me crazy, but I find it hard to believe that the league would have handed Jerry this kind of a smackdown when he and the ‘Boys were riding high in the ‘90’s. Jerry has had his clashes with his fellow owners – mainly around revenue-sharing issues relating to merchandise sales – but he’s been at the forefront of the NFL scene almost sense his arrival in Dallas in 1989. To me, it feels like that power has eroded to a degree – no longer does he serve on the prestigious Competition Committee, and Jerry ceded scene control to the Giants’ Wellington Mara and the Pats’ Robert Kraft as the NFL lockout negotiations came to a close.

Now again, I’m operating on perception here – maybe Jones is still the cock of the walk behind closed doors – but taking this kind of hit on such specious grounds makes me think that’s not the case. If Jerry’s power base among ownership has eroded, what was the cause?

As a frustrated Cowboys fan, it’s tempting to pin the blame on a decade and a half of losing. Is it just the fact that the shine of Jerry’s three Lombardi trophies has long since worn off? Or does the NFL’s new power structure revolve solely around maximized net cash flow at all times, with Jerry’s free-spending ways on player contracts and shiny stadiums making him a pariah to those who would prefer to spend less and rake in more?

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