Cap strategies don't always pan out

The Steelers' struggles this year prove that spending big money to retain key free agents doesn't always result in success.

Updated: November 9, 2003, 10:59 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Once among the biggest losers in free agency, during a period in which they witnessed roughly a dozen high-profile veterans defect to other franchises, the Pittsburgh Steelers three years ago opted for a new mindset.

They literally opened the bank vault wide, and figuratively bricked up the entrance to the Fort Pitt Tunnel, which leads out of the city along the Parkway West.

In part because of the opening of Heinz Field in 2001, the Steelers had an abrupt reversal of fiscal philosophy and re-signed or extended the contracts of virtually every key player on the roster. They essentially plugged the spigot which had seen a talent drain unparalleled in the early years of the free agent and salary cap system. From the start of the 2001 season, in fact, Steelers invested approximately $75 million in signing bonuses.

Bil Cowher
The Steelers' struggles have Cowher, right, doing a lot of head-scratching.
And only 2½ seasons into the new business model, designed to extend the Super Bowl portal a few additional seasons, the window of opportunity appears to have slammed shut.

Pittsburgh is 2-6, its worst record ever at the halfway point of a season under coach Bill Cowher, and the roster is just eight games shy of a dramatic makeover. The Steelers are not really in salary cap jail for the near future, with $78.9 million committed to the 2004 spending limit, but a look at next season's payroll reveals far too many overpaid and underachieving players. The grand experiment won't end in disaster, since Pittsburgh was wise enough not to mortgage the future, but neither will it conclude with the coveted fifth Vince Lombardi Trophy for which the franchise has striven for a quarter-century.

That said, don't expect Steelers owner Dan Rooney to feel sorry for himself, at having lost the salary cap gamble.

"Even with all the planning you do, all the projections on players and where their (skill level) will be a few years down the road, it's still a crap shoot," said Rooney last week in Chicago, during a luncheon break at a league meeting. "No matter how smart you think you are, how well you plan it, (handling the cap) is still a little bit of a crapshoot."

Some franchises, as history has indicated, roll a seven. Others toss snake-eyes.

There is no doubt, every owner surveyed in Chicago last week acknowledged, that the NFL salary cap has been a boon for the league. Both in terms of mandating some degree of fiscal responsibility, and in thus creating the kind of competitive balance that continues to make the league the most pre-eminent entity in the history of professional sports, it has been an unqualified success.

But the cap, and the manner in which teams connive to use all its permutations, probably has mitigated the quality of play. And no one can deny that, in attaching a now inherent financial element to every football decision -- "It's as if every player, next to his uniform number, has a dollar sign attached to him," said one general manager -- the salary cap has added another key component to a game that was once so fundamentally uncomplicated.

There is, to be sure, a trade-off element now in most roster moves. The domino effect has moved from the game board to the playing field. Achieving the optimum blend of fiscal resourcefulness and pure football talent has become a quixotic quest.

Few are the teams that have managed to successfully dovetail cap competence with deep rosters because the two, by nature, are pretty much divergent pursuits. Most successful teams on the field, certainly the majority of franchises that have earned Super Bowl berths since the introduction of the spending limit (this year set at just over $75 million), have not necessarily been cap solvent. That helps explain why, since '99, there has not been a repeat Super Bowl champion.

The Steelers, who have failed to take that one more giant step forward following their loss to New England in the 2001 conference championship game, likely will be forced to retool in 2004 because of the money spent pursuing a title. The first shoe fell this week when coach Bill Cowher benched cornerback Dewayne Washington, whose salary cap charge of $5.26 million for 2004 is too exorbitant for a player of diminished skills, and who will be one of several veterans cut free.

Joining him on the way out the door, in all likelihood, will be tailback Jerome Bettis (cap charge of $4.75 million next year), strong-side linebacker Jason Gildon ($4.95 million) and tight end Mark Bruener ($2.99 million), among others. For years, throaty Pittsburgh fans griped about how the franchise permitted too many star players to exit, but the new way to do business didn't exactly produce the anticipated results.

More often than not, several teams officials agreed, that's how things sometimes work out in the NFL. There is no working manual for cap specialists, no truly proven manner for balancing the new most essential imperatives, short of tampering with the scale.

Three seasons ago, Washington owner Daniel Snyder assembled the highest payroll in NFL history, doling out just shy of $100 million in actual player-related expenses, and his reward was a break-even season. On the flip side, three participants in the last four Super Bowl games ranked in the league's bottom quadrant in terms of salary cap payouts, for those respective years. "What's the (winning) formula?" asked Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome, rhetorically, last week. "When you find it, let me know, OK? It's kind of like the Holy Grail. You're always looking for the right mix. It's a lot of trial and error. I don't know if anyone really has it pegged. The only constant is that at some point, now or later, you're going to have to pay the piper when the bill comes due. It's a juggling act."

Newsome can speak from the perspective of empiricism on the last point since, after the 2001 season, he was forced to gut the Ravens roster because of cap excesses. Following the franchise's Super Bowl XXXV victory in 2000, management opted to hold together the championship team for one more season, in hopes of a title repeat. But Baltimore was knocked out of the playoffs in the second round in 2001 and, with a cap debt of nearly $30 million, the team was forced to jettison two-thirds of its starting lineup.

One of the truly underplayed stories of the past two seasons is the manner in which the Ravens, thanks in large part to adroit draft decisions and the sudden maturity of a roster that has ranked among the NFL's three youngest assemblages, have rebounded from the rubble of that salary cap purge. Baltimore has benefited from its membership in the woeful AFC North, for sure, but the team is now constructed for the long haul and not the instant gratification of just a few seasons ago.

A high-ranking official from an NFC franchise acknowledged last week that, while most owners espouse the need for monetary restraint, it is lip service only.

Even with all the planning you do, all the projections on players and where their (skill level) will be a few years down the road, it's still a crap shoot. No matter how smart you think you are, how well you plan it, (handling the cap) is still a little bit of a crapshoot.
Steelers owner Dan Rooney

"Every owner wants bragging rights in there," said the official, nodding toward a hotel ballroom, where league owners were huddling over some innocuous issue. "And the only one who really has it is the guy with the latest (Super Bowl) ring on his finger. So, on the one hand, (owners) are saying, 'Keep costs down.' And from out of the other side of their mouths it's like, 'But I want to win now.' What they don't always understand is just how hard it is to reconcile those two things. It's really a fine line. And there are always going to be sacrifices."

Arguably the most conscientious and creative cap manager in the league, Philadelphia Eagles team president Joe Banner, has managed to strike an impressive marriage of cap health and on-field success. The Eagles, who have been to the NFC championship game each of the last two seasons and are currently rebounding from a dismal beginning to the 2003 campaign, have 14 present starters under contract through at least 2007. The club retains more than $3 million in cap room for 2003, which could be used to extend a few veterans toward the end of the year, and has just $60.1 million committed to the '04 limit.

Despite this year's early-season stumble, Philadelphia remains well-positioned for the long-term to be a Super Bowl contender, at least on paper. Banner is fastidious, and well-studied, and has stuck to his blueprint of not extending players perceived to be headed into decline. The franchise, over the last several seasons, has made wily moves in keeping "core" players around, extending some deals two years before they were set to lapse.

"We've looked at (the cap) from a lot of different ways," Banner said, "and we think we have done a pretty good job of controlling things and not putting ourselves at risk."

True enough. But what the Eagles have not looked at yet, despite their brilliant record in the last three seasons, is a Super Bowl trophy. It is great to be the regarded as the league's model of fiscal responsibility but, truth be told, fans want to see a championship and not listen to the cha-ching of spare monies in the salary cap vault. And when players glance around the Philadelphia locker room, what they don't see are former leaders, such as Hugh Douglas, Jeremiah Trotter and Brian Mitchell.

Some of the Eagles more veteran players have suggested that the team's actuarial tables are too stringent, don't allow flexibility, don't account for intangibles. When the point was made to one Philadelphia veteran that Douglas has just one sack for his new team, Jacksonville, and that he appears used-up, the player argued about how the defensive end meant much in the Eagles locker room because he was "the conscience" for teammates.

Noted the veteran defender: "Yeah, we've eaten the cake around here. But, at the end, you want to wash it down with champagne, not milk, and that hasn't happened."

The player in question conceded that it is difficult, given salary demands, to promulgate the balance between good on the field and healthy at the pay window. Certainly, as the Ravens and Newsome have demonstrated, drafting well, coaching well, and getting the most out of young starters is as close as anyone will come to the definitive formula.

The Ravens could well claim the division championship this season -- a full year ahead of internal projections, some officials concede, rather grudgingly -- and that could well be a jumping off point for future successes as well. After all, the Ravens have the least money in the league, about $53.5 million, committed to their 2004 salary cap, and that should allow them to keep most of their own key free agents and import a few more pieces of the championship puzzle.

"If you can get your (player costs) fixed over a period of a few years, bring in good young guys and have them contribute, then you're at least moving toward a workable formula," Newsome said. "But that is easier said than done. There are just so many variables when you're talking about being good on the field, having your cap under control and having the kind of chemistry every team wants."

Indeed, the league spending limit has been a dunce cap for some clubs, and resulted in a crown for others. But no matter the choice of headwear, teams seem forever in search of a viable formula that allows the cap, and all its ramifications, to be in concert with all of the football decisions that must be made. In the end, at least for this era of NFL play, one is inextricably linked to the other.

"Having the best of all worlds," said New England owner Bob Kraft, "is never easy."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

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