In the wake of the breaking news that the Redskins and Cowboys did not win their appeal to common sense, my first reaction was not senseless frustration at an unjust world. The Redskins franchise didn’t come out ahead or behind on this. The real losers here are the current front office, who did something that was both legal according to the letter of the law and was approved by the league offices, and then got screwed over by the next CBA. From the perspective of the current Redskins front office, it wasn’t their mistakes that put the Redskins in poor financial position, and the methodology they used to reposition themselves wasn’t illegal and the league approved it, so it shouldn’t be any different than any contract written by the Tampa Bay Bucs or Green Bay Packers in 2008 that called for big money in the 2010 league year.
I do think Bruce Allen et al screwed up a bit here though, and that his administration isn’t completely innocent. When Vinny Cerrato wrote the Albert Haynesworth contract, Cerrato already planned to leverage the uncapped year to a pretty extreme level with a fully guaranteed $20 million dollar option bonus (which really was a deferred signing bonus that only operated as an option bonus for cap purposes) in 2010. In theory, this isn’t any more of a competitive advantage than what the Redskins were actually punished for, but a number of other teams set precident that there WOULD be a lot of base salary written into the uncapped year because they could easily restucture it had the league and union agreed to terms back in 2009. Cerrato’s contract with Haynesworth was pretty extreme, but was ultimately within the confines of what the league owners decided was a legit use of the uncapped year.
(What) did the Redskins do wrong?
What Bruce Allen and Eric Shaffer, et al actually did hasn’t received enough publicity, because teams rarely do it. There is a little known loophole in part of the CBA (one that was still there in the 2011 CBA, by the way) that talks about the salary cap and how to do the accounting. I shouldn’t call it a loophole, because it’s really not. It’s more of a deterrent than anything. I’m going to paraphrase it rather than link to it or look up the exact wording, but it has to do with player options and guaranteed money. It states that if a player is given the option *at any point in the contract* to GIVE BACK a portion of his signing bonus in order to buy himself out of the contract and elect free agency, you obviously have an issue with the salary cap.
Typically, guaranteed bonus money can be spread over the life of the contract (up to five years in the new CBA). But if the player has an option to give back money that hasn’t yet been accounted for on the books, then you run into a problem where there’s no way to actually account for money on the books without crediting money back to the team. Well, that’s why the league and union wrote in the player option loophole in the first place. If a team gives a player a contract option to terminate the contract, they MUST now take all of that ‘option’ money on the cap in the current year. Bruce, meet loophole.
Albert Haynesworth and DeAngelo Hall were both given player options for the 2011 season in the late spring of 2010 (Also: a couple days after the cap penalties were announced, the Redskins gave Adam Carriker a player option for 2013, meaning that they had to keep his entire bonus on their books in 2012). That means that either could have opted out of their contract in 2011 to elect free agency, and gave the deferred bonus money back to the Redskins in the hopes of a bigger payday elsewhere. Without getting all philosophical on y’all, the illusion of the deal is that Haynesworth and Hall were receiving freedom of choice. Is free choice still free if you are receiving a really bad option to choose from along with the status quo? The total amount of money that Haynesworth and Hall would have left on the table to opt out and go start their own NFL team together (hey, work with me here) would have been close to $36 million (though they would have gotten to keep their share of the money paid to them for work done in 2010). Hey! That’s what the Redskins were penalized by the league in cap space!
So the poor, helpless Redskins were “forced” to take $36 million in additional cap charges on their 2010 team payroll, which put their team payroll for 2010 in the $173 Million range according to JI Halsell in a radio interview from 2010. The cap has never been higher than the $136 ish million it was at in 2009. And they were forced into this by being generous souls and giving Haynesworth and Hall the option to give back bonus money to buy their freedom. Or maybe that’s just what the Redskins tried to make it look like.
Here’s where Bruce Allen screwed up, in my estimation. $36 million is the total amount of player option money that went to Haynesworth and Hall in 2010. Now, when the Redskins rewrote those two contracts, they just assumed that they would be in the clear once the league office approved the deals, so that there was no risk, even though at the time, I believed there was some reason to fear retribution of some sort (though I was thinking more “lost draft picks” than “you’re out $36 million — you know, union compliance was hardly to be assumed). But with at least the $20 million OB in Haynesworth’s contract when written by Cerrato, the Redskins were going to get that in the uncapped year team salary with no penalty had Allen not even touched it. The Redskins restructured that bonus in as well with the player option simply because it was easier to make it all one mechanism, and because it was legal. It was also a bit careless.
The Redskins are being penalized at least $10 million in 2012 and another $10 million in 2013 because of Allen’s carelessness in 2010. It is not fair. But the Redskins were convinced, probably against better wisdom, that they were in the clear after these deals were approved. But as Special Master Burbank’s ruling put into writing, the Union and the League can ammend the new CBA at any time, and two teams are not enough of a collective body to represent the league as a whole. From the perspective of the league, it’s decisions are ruled by a 3/4 majority. And while we’re careful here at Redskins Hog Heaven to always point out that what the majority believes is not always (if hardly ever) right or just, Allen needs to take responsibility for knowing he was up against a majority in 2010 that wasn’t concerned with “fairness” or “justice” and frankly: viewed collusionary activity as a method justified by the ideal of competitive balance. Bruce Allen is one of this fraternity, and ignorance is no defense for the carelessness of the way the Hall and Haynesworth’s contracts were re-written.
I will defend to the end Allen’s intentions and right to do what he did. He was correct and the NFL was wrong. But the Redskins are out a total in $20 million in penalty money that simply wouldn’t have been contested had he left Cerrato’s bad contract alone the way it was written. And not that it matters because they got the money back anyway through year to year cap rollovers, but the other $16 million would have been paid off when the Redskins traded Haynesworth. The Redskins would have been in a much better financial situation without those restructures, and the only point of writing those contracts was to improve the team’s cap situation. So in the end, it isn’t fair, but it backfired, and not without considerable warning.
How different does the 2013 season look now, from the perspective of the financials? The Redskins are not going to be in an advantageous financial position until 2014, when the Hall and Haynesworth contracts from 2009 will officially be in the Redskins’ past. It would be easy to say that this is a penalty that crippled the Redskins front office and prevented it from rebuilding the team “the right way.” But before the Redskins cry poor, it’s worth pointing out that since Mike Shanahan took over, the Redskins have written more than $350 million in new player salary (this includes the not yet written LeRibeus, Cousins, and Griffin contracts), which is in the top five of the league over the timeframe, and only the Carolina Panthers have spent as much without a $60+ million committment to a quarterback at somepoint in the last three years (although four years ago, the Jake Delhomme contract became the gift that kept on giving).
So while the Redskins wanted to spend that much AND enjoy good financial position, they won’t have that good position in 2013 thanks to the cap penalty. However, the Redskins cannot characterize their failures as a simple inability to spend money. No team has spent considerably more than the Redskins have in the last four years, and has less to show for it.
A bigger problem for the Redskins and only the Redskins is that the NFL salary cap is expected to decline a bit in 2013. When combined with the cap penalty, the Redskins might be dealing with a team salary limit of under $100 million. The Redskins haven’t been under $100 million in team salary since salary cap was $96 million in 2005. Right now, after they sign their rookies, the Redskins will be projected at $104 million in team salary for 2013. That number doesn’t even include London Fletcher’s $6.2 million cap number, which can be restructured if he returns next year (and likely will be, into the $2.1 million range). And it doesn’t include the 2013 rookie class, although it does include some longer-term contracts to younger players who will be terminated in training camp this year.
Let’s ballpark the Redskins player salary in 2013 at $109 million, and their NFL mandated team cap at $98 million. The players who will likely have to restructure or get out include: Santana Moss ($6.3 million cap number), Chris Cooley ($5.8 million cap number), DeAngelo Hall ($8.3 million cap number), Barry Cofield ($6.45 million cap number), Jammal Brown ($5.0 million cap number), Stephen Bowen ($5.5 million cap number), Chris Chester ($4.3 million cap number).
And here is the percentage of money from those cap numbers that would become deadcap if each player were to be released on March 1st: Moss (34.3%), Cooley (31.7%), Hall (3.6%), Cofield (117%), Brown (90%), Bowen (87.3%), Chester (90.7%). Releasing Moss, Cooley, and Hall on March 1 would save the Redskins $16.1 million on the salary cap. Let’s say the Redskins spend just over a million to bring back Cooley for depth after releasing him. That’s $15 million off the team books, giving them $4 million to work with. $4 million of cap room is about what teams take into the season just in case, so if the Redskins decide they need to make wholesale improvements to the team, then it will take more than simple releases of salary. Plus, the Redskins have to decide if they want to extend any of the following Brian Orakpo (last year of deal), Fred Davis, or Kory Lictensteiger (unrestricted free agents). $4 million in salary isn’t quite enough to give out those three long term deals.
Let’s take a quick look at the projected 2013 roster. It will be set at quarterback, outside linebacker, and with any luck whatsoever, at wide receiver. It will be adequate if uninspiring at the positions of defensive line and running back, and the right guy would have to come available for the Redskins to make upgrades there. The roster already weak at safety and offensive tackle, although if Trent Williams can have a great season, that offensive tackle position will look a lot better than it does right now. It will have a hole at cornerback if Hall is released, with no reasonable in-house options under contract to take his place (CBs under contract for 2013: Hall, Josh Wilson, Richard Crawford, Travon Bellamy, Brandyn Thompson, and Chase Minnifield). And at inside linebacker, tight end, and offensive guard, the Redskins have holes created by contractual issues.
So the team needs for 2013 in order will be: safety, cornerback, right tackle (or maybe both tackles), middle linebacker, left guard, defensive end, tight end, and running back/slot receiver. The Redskins will not have a first round pick. Let’s say they address middle linebacker in the second round and then trade up to the top of the third for a zone based right tackle they really like. And that’s all the help they get through the draft. Then, given any struggles the secondary might have had in 2012, they’ll need to add at those positions in the draft.
I think the Redskins are hoping that the safeties greatly overachieve, and they enter 2013 just needing to find an adequate replacement for DeAngelo Hall such as Mike Jenkins or someone who can be acquired for $3 million or less of cap space. But beyond the hope, here’s the reality of the situation and what the cap ruling means for the current front office: it means that the 2012 season — if things go great under Griffin — will hopefully lead to an offseason where very minor changes are necessary. If so, then sure, the Redskins can get a corner on the free agent market, and make the most important moves of the 2013 offseason to be big money extensions to Brian Orakpo and Fred Davis coming off of career years.
The big problem comes if things don’t go according to plan. If the Redskins don’t win a lot in 2012, and enter the 2013 offseason with just as many holes as solutions, then the position of the Redskins just needing minor tweaks to the roster to compete in 2013 won’t hold a lot of water. The Redskins have spent more money from 2010-2012 than just about any team in football. If that results in a third consecutive disappointing season with no real room to manuever the roster in 2013 behind the cap penalties and a ton of bad contracts signed under Allen/Shanahan (and let us allow wins and losses to be the ultimate judge of how well their resources have been spent), then the Redskins are looking at 2014 as the earlist the Redskins can compete with Robert Griffin behind center. And that means that a new approach will not be ideal, but rather necessary.
So the upholding of the cap penalties will have fairly significant ramifications for the long term direction of the Redskins. If the Redskins are a good team in 2012, then the cap penalties essentially do not matter. They’ll only have enough cap space to make minor, largely incosequential (with respect to the long-term) moves, but the Redskins will already have their foundation, and Mike Shanahan will at the very least get to see his contract out, and probably will get to entertain talks of an extension. Look at the Panthers, who have spent a ton of money likewise: you don’t need wholesale changes if you win games with a rookie quarterback. Carolina’s draft picks this offseason: MLB and offensive line, exactly what I project the Redskins to draft above. Carolina’s signings this offseason: Mike Tolbert, Geoff Hangartner, Mike Pollak, Antwaan Applewhite, Jordan Senn, Kenny Onotalu, Reggie Smith, Haruki Nakamura, Nick Harris. Mike Tolbert was the “marquee” offseason acquisition. A whole lot of league minimum deals next year. And outside of maybe some extensions to current Redskins if things go well, that’s what the Redskins 2013 offseason is going to look like no matter who is in charge.
If Cam Newton had struggled though and the Panthers went an ugly 4-12, the Panthers aren’t loading up a lot of league min guys under Marty Hurney. They’re tearing down salaries under a different GM. So the takeaway is that the Redskins HAVE to win immediately in order to stay the course. They don’t have to win the super bowl, but must win considerably more often than the have the last two seasons. And then the 2013 offseason will likely be boring and unproductive for the sake of itself, and we’ll look back at the cap penalties as a defining moment when spending was curbed and the Redskins started winning. Or, everyone will get fired, and 2013 will be the first year of a rebuilding project that will shape and define the Griffin era. Either way, the direction of the franchise is much more related to how they play with their existing parts than to how limited they will be in 2013 thanks to the upholding of the cap penalties.