Garcia, Owens still costing Niners
The 49ers were not big players during free agency in large part because they have $27 million tied up in "dead money."
For those few curious minds out there who have actually e-mailed to inquire about its origins, and whom we strongly urge to please get a life, the term "dead money" is borrowed from poker and refers to cash in the pot that was wagered by players who are no longer eligible to win it.
But whether it is in poker or in the NFL, where "dead money" has now become a part of salary cap lexicon, the term still means the same thing.
You're holding a lousy hand.
"Well, it's certainly something you want to avoid, isn't it?" said Houston Texans general manager Charley Casserly. "It can definitely strangle a team."
|The dead (money) zone|
|There are 17 players who count more than $4 million apiece in "dead money" against their former teams' 2004 salary caps:|
|QB Jeff Garcia||49ers||$10,339,284|
|DE Marcellus Wiley||Chargers||$8,655,000|
|WR Keyshawn Johnson||Bucs||$7,251,426|
|DE Tony Brackens(a)||Jaguars||$7,051,665|
|QB Brian Griese||Broncos||$6,945,000|
|DE Michael McCrary||Ravens||$5,874,403|
|WR David Boston||Chargers||$5,550,000|
|DT Luther Elliss||Lions||$5,456,020|
|WR Joey Galloway||Cowboys||$5,357,142|
|WR Terrell Owens||49ers||$4,812,271|
|DE Chad Bratzke||Colts||$4,782,000|
|QB Kurt Warner||Rams||$4,717,457|
|OT Todd Steussie||Panthers||$4,624,998|
|LB Mo Lewis||Jets||$4,482,475|
|RB Corey Dillon||Bengals||$4,200,000|
|SS Lawyer Milloy||Patriots||$4,053,623|
|OG Ruben Brown||Bills||$4,008,000|
|Note: (a) Brackens was released in March, and subsequently re-signed by the Jaguars last week, but the team is still on the hook for his previous contract.|
Unfortunately, while "dead money" levels leaguewide seem reduced over previous years, some franchises remain overburdened by the lost funds.
"Dead money," as regular visitors to this site probably know by now, is salary cap room assigned to players no longer with a team. It is, in the most pragmatic terms, the financial residue of poor judgements, either in the draft or perhaps in free agency, and too much "dead money" can render a team all but inert. Recent case in point: The San Francisco 49ers who, in paying for past cap excesses, have a current league-high count of nearly $27 million in "dead money," according to unofficial figures compiled by ESPN.com.
Wonder why the 49ers have essentially hibernated during the free-agency period, why the franchise has embarked on a blueprint to rebuild with younger players, and why success in the 2004 draft was so critical? Just sneak a peek at the "dead money" number which, according to ESPN.com figures, is more than three times the NFL average. Consider this: San Francisco is investing one-third of its 2004 cap in players no longer with the team.
The 49ers' salary cap includes six players no longer on the San Francisco roster but who count for more than $2 million each against the 49ers' spending limit. Topping the list is former starting quarterback Jeff Garcia, released in March, but who still counts $10.34 million against the 49ers' cap this year. By comparison, Garcia's cap number for 2004 with his new team, the Cleveland Browns, is a mere $1.78 million.
There are, in fact, 17 players who represent more than $4 million each in "dead money" against their former teams' cap for this season. Eight of those players have "dead money" charges in excess of $5 million and there is a group of four veterans who count more than $7 million each against the spending limits of their onetime employers.
"You have one of those guys (on your cap)," said a high-ranking executive from a club that, indeed, is counting more than $6 million for a player it no longer has, "and it's really a killer. You can't function. The standard rule of thumb is that you're going to have about 10 to 12 percent of your cap tied up in 'dead money.' But to have 10 percent of your cap going to just one guy who isn't around anymore, well, it's like cap suicide, you know?"
At this juncture of the offseason, the average "dead money" leaguewide is approximately $7.6 million, or roughly 9.5 percent of the $80.6 million cap limit. Given some numbers from recent years, that isn't bad, and it reflects the improved cap management evident in many precincts as the NFL enters its 12th season with a spending ceiling. There is about $245 million leaguewide in "dead money" but nearly 50 percent of that is accounted for by eight teams which each have over $10 million in wasted funds.
Those teams, according to the unofficial figures: San Francisco ($26.96 million), San Diego ($22.5 million), New York Giants ($12.72 million), Denver ($12.65 million), Indianapolis ($11.96 million), Jacksonville ($11.26 million), New York Jets ($11.01 million) and Cincinnati ($10.42 million).
At the other end of the spectrum, there are seven teams with less than $4 million each in "dead money" and five of those franchises have less than $2 million on their ledgers. Despite the release this week of free agent bust Joe Johnson, a defensive end who will count $1.08 million against the cap this season and $3.24 million in 2005, Green Bay remains one of the franchises that perennially features a low "dead money" number.
Part of that is due to the cap management skills of vice president of finance Andy Brandt. But as Brandt noted, echoing the sentiments of Casserly, having a modest "dead money" total is characteristically reflective of a franchise that features good synergy among the personnel, coaching and front office staffs. The "dead money" roller coaster tends to be cyclical, but the teams that typically aren't forced to carry the dead weight against their caps are those that have enjoyed a considerable degree of stability.
"The lifeblood of good cap management is having everyone and every department on the same page," said Brandt, whose team has only about $1.6 million in "dead money" funds. "I'm sure there are places where that is a challenge. Fortunately, we're not one of them."
Indeed, reducing "dead money" totals begins not at the negotiating table, but rather with the personnel and coaching staffs. In the era of the salary cap, every miscalculation on a player, or the inability of the coaches to elicit peak performance, eventually becomes a "dead money" issue. And as Casserly noted, coaches can be victimized by helping create a disadvantageous cap scenario, or by walking into an already bad situation.
"I do think it contributes to (instability) at the coaching level," Casserly said. "Not many people consider it, but how many coaches have been fired because of what boils down to 'dead money' or cap issues? How many (coaches) have their chances for success ruined by going into a situation where the team is hampered by 'dead money' issues? I really do believe it gets some guys fired."
For sure, just as in poker, "dead money" raises the stakes. And just as often, at least until the situation is rectified, as the 49ers are attempting to do with their latest paradigm, it forces franchises into "fold" situations.
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Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.