HOUSTON -- If it wouldn't have been regarded as such an outrageous advantage for the New England Patriots, NFL officials just might have considered moving Super Bowl XXXVIII out of Reliant Stadium and into Filene's, the famous Boston department store whose basement level has become a Mecca for bargain-hunters everywhere.
OK, so maybe spending a combined $142 million-plus on player payrolls, as the Patriots and Carolina Panthers did in 2003, isn't quite the equivalent of stumbling onto a designer evening gown marked down to a couple hundred bucks. But often in the NFL, as Patriots owner Bob Kraft and Panthers counterpart Jerry Richardson will attest, you really don't get commensurate bang for the buck.
This year, though, the two franchises made sage financial decisions. And while any team that advances to a Super Bowl does so by its deeds on the field and not necessarily at the negotiating table, this season's championship finalists arrived here Sunday at least in part because of a shared sense of fiscal responsibility.
"There is a way to be fair [to the players] and still be prudent," said Kraft, whose team is in the Super Bowl for the second time in three seasons and third time in eight years. "We feel like we have a pretty good formula."
Pretty good? Consider this: If the Patriots open Sunday evening with the same offensive line quintet that started the AFC championship game, it will be the lowest-paid blocking corps in at least the last 10 title games, with an aggregate 2003 salary of only $2.134 million. By comparison, Carolina right offensive tackle Jordan Gross, the Panthers' first-round pick in last year's draft, earned 2½ times that much in his rookie season.
According to salary figures obtained by ESPN.com, the Patriots had a 2003 payroll of about $74.77 million, while the Panthers checked in at roughly $67.71 million. The Pats ranked 10th in the league, of which the average payroll was $71.77 million, and Carolina was 24th. Payroll totals, it should be noted, differ dramatically from salary cap.
One might suggest that, with an overall No. 10 payroll slot, New England ranks among the league's most generous franchises. But the top six teams in terms of payroll each paid out more than $80 million in player-related expenses in 2003. Of the six, only the Seattle Seahawks qualified for the postseason. In fact, only three of the top 10 payroll teams made it to the Super Bowl derby.
Among the eight franchises with '03 payrolls lower than that of the Panthers, only Denver reached the playoffs.
Said one league executive here Saturday evening: "By now, everyone should know that it's not how much you spend, but how well you spend it. You don't buy championships in this league. Both these teams are good examples of wise spending."
Fact: There were 86 players in the NFL this season who earned more than $5 million each in total compensation. Super Bowl XXXVIII includes only three of those players. A fourth, New England linebacker Rosevelt Colvin, one of the most coveted prizes in last spring's unrestricted free agent market, missed almost the entire season with a hip injury.
Part of the effectiveness of the Super Bowl teams is that they were able to keep their so-called "dead money," cap charges for players no longer on the roster, under control. The Patriots had only $5.8 million in dead money, well below the league average. Carolina posted $8.28 million, but more than half of that went toward the final installment of the ill-advised Sean Gilbert deal, an acquisition that transpired when Richardson and the Panthers were making bad investments in a number of veteran defensive linemen in decline.
The still-rehabilitating Colvin, at $6.554 million, is the highest-paid player for 2003, on the payrolls of the Super Bowl combatants. He is followed by Patriots cornerback Ty Law ($6.105 million), Gross ($5.89 million) and Panthers left defensive end Julius Peppers ($5.3 million). There are only 14 players, seven on each team, with compensation of more than $3 million for this season.
The starting Super Bowl XXXVIII quarterbacks, Tom Brady ($3.12 million) and Jake Delhomme ($2.53 million), combined to make less than half of what Peyton Manning was paid this season. In fact, Delhomme, whose two-year, $4 million contract certainly will be reworked in the offseason, isn't even the highest-paid quarterback on the Carolina roster. Third-stringer Chris Weinke, whose $3.4 million in earnings is boosted by a $2.5 guaranteed roster bonus essentially triggered two years ago when he was the starter, is the highest-paid quarterback on either roster.
None of this is to suggest that New England and Carolina ownership is tight with a buck. But in a notable coincidence, bargains abound on the two teams' rosters.
Of the 44 starters in this Super Bowl, excluding the kickers and punters, 19 had '03 compensation of less than $1 million. There are 11 starters who earned $700,000 or less and, remarkably, eight at less than $500,000.
Carolina's most scintillating playmaker over the second half of the season, wide receiver Steve Smith, made $392,600. Will Witherspoon, the weak-side linebacker emerging as one of the league's best players at that position, pocketed $304,800. Among the several bottom-feeders on the Patriots' payroll, beyond offensive linemen, are burgeoning wide receivers Deion Branch ($304,500) and David Givens ($304,700).
Many of the lower-paid players, Steve Smith primary among them, will cash in nicely on their successes. The explosive Smith, who also returns punts and kickoffs, was approached by Carolina management during the season about an extension. But in a rant that is representative of his hair-trigger temper, Smith publicly ripped the team's proposal as "a slap in the face."
But with the monster extension signed during the season by Cincinnati wide receiver Chad Johnson, a player of similar experience and with numbers only slightly better than those posted by Smith, the Panthers wideout should be handsomely rewarded. For now, like many players on Sunday, the primary reward will have to be a Super Bowl ring.
Which isn't all that bad.
"The last thing on anyone's mind Sunday," said Delhomme, "is how much money you're making. I mean, it's the Super Bowl, and you can't put a price tag on that."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.