Why the salary cap hurts football
Why the salary cap hurts football
Should the NFL adopt a system similar to that of Major League Baseball? Leigh Steinberg
Since 1993, the salary cap system has negatively impacted the NFL in a variety of ways. Its main benefit has been the fact that it has provided a structure that the NFL and players agreed upon, facilitating uninterrupted play since 1987.
Labor peace has greatly accelerated the dominance in this country of the NFL over other sports, with fans favoring the NFL over the next most popular sport by a two to one margin. That branding advantage allowed players and owners to engage in a united effort to creatively develop new revenue sources, creating unprecedented financial success.
The cap operates like a progressive income tax, redistributing the roster depth of a championship team to allow "parity.” Cap limitations mean that a team can no longer have Pro Bowl and star players at every starting position, even if it has drafted and coached them in a superior way. Financial limitations prevent a team from being able to afford the cap hit from five star offensive linemen.
The concept of "team" is undercut.
Contracts that extend over multiple years are reviewed every year and cuts need to be made. That means that a team and player who have a long history—which benefits team continuity, player security & stability, and fan's long term familiarity with players—may be forced to part ways. Happy team-player marriages are broken up.
This creates unnecessary turnover and destroys the fan's relationship with players. Free agency has led to less player movement than veterans pushed to find new teams due to cap considerations.
The redistribution of talent is designed to prevent the maintenance of long-term dynasties. Even though the cap can't completely overcome the advantages of stable and wise ownership, astute management, and superior coaching, it rewards mediocrity.
Excellence in administration and coaching should be rewarded, not penalized. Dominant franchises—from the Green Bay Packers of the sixties, Pittsburgh Steelers of the seventies and San Francisco 49ers of the eighties and nineties—did not hurt the NFL. If anything, they enhanced its popularity. Those franchises achieved national fame with fans all over the country. Bart Starr, Terry Bradshaw, Mean Joe Greene, Joe Montana, Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin became national superstars and symbols of excellence. Superstars capture the public imagination and create long-term interest.
Cap limitations destroy depth at all positions. Paying a group of stars at premium levels means that the backups are largely rookies or veterans at the minimum. This produces a rapid drop-off in player talent when injuries occur. The entire course of a team's Super Bowl drive will be altered by a backup lineman or quarterback assuming that critical position.
The days when Joe Montana was backed-up by Steve Young (who was backed-up by Steve Bono) are over. This creates ragged play and amplifies the effect of injuries. It makes it much less likely for a team to repeat a Super Bowl win.
Highly drafted rookies with huge guarantees in their contracts are forced into service too early in their careers. Because a team can't afford an aging starting quarterback and his heavily compensated backup, the most beneficial developmental process for that rookie is altered. Young players who would benefit from a year or two of backing-up and learning their craft are rushed and may have their confidence and learning process destroyed.
Virtually none of the top quarterbacks from the 1999 draft are still in the league. Think of how Tim Couch, Akili Smith, Dante Culpepper and Cade McNown might have beeen stars in their primes if they had been given more tutelage time.
Keep in mind, the salaries in most veteran packages are not guaranteed. Twenty years ago, a player signing a three-year contract for between $800,000 and $1.2 million might underperform the first year. But teams would generally allow that player to continue with the team for the second year, betting he would improve and not risking losing his services to another team.
But the cap undermines many fundamental football principles and has short and long term destructive effects on the play of the game. It is a classic case of the unintended consequences that occur from a system based on financial rather than football considerations.
Today each year of salary is heavily scrutinized prior to each season and players are often asked to drastically reduce their existing compensation or they are cut. This creates a belief among players that contracts have no security and that a good year of performance should immediately lead to a renegotiation. Much player-team conflict has resulted.
The rookie salary cap never worked to limit rookie salaries. It merely created a disproportionate amount of guaranteed money for those players taken at the top of the first round. Many of those players received massive guarantees. The draft has never been an exact science, busts and booms abound. Teams were forced to keep high draft picks who clearly were underperforming to avoid the instant acceleration of pro-rated guaranteed money. And players who were more productive, but drafted later, were forced to sign long-term contracts which they quickly outperformed.
This resulted in dysfunction in the relationship of productivity to compensation. The first contract negotiated under the rookie cap—Drew Bledsoe back in 1993—took up roughly 55% of the pool for the first player picked, leaving the remaining rookies to fight over what was left.
Because of rules which accelerate pro-rated signing bonuses for veterans who are traded, are cut or retire because of injury, teams which make a poor decision or two regarding long-term contracts for veterans face large amounts of "dead" or unavailable current cap resources. A system promoting parity would not see certain teams excluded from free agency and signings in a rebuilding process because of "dead" money.
Since the primary benefit of the cap was the fact that it insured labor peace, the current negotiations could remedy its obvious defects.