On Monday, just 24 hours before the beginning of the new league year and the start of the 2012 free-agency period, the NFL handed down very severe penalties to the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins for alleged violations of a tacit (though unwritten) agreement among the league's 32 team owners. Under that agreement, all teams were apparently warned several times during the uncapped 2010 season they should not use a league year without a cap ceiling as an opportunity to offload a high percentage of player contracts that prove to be onerous when the new collective bargaining agreement was put into place in 2011, and the salary cap re-established.
The Redskins and Cowboys ran afoul of that agreement, and paid a steep price. The Cowboys saw $10 million of their 2012 salary cap room taken away, and the Redskins were hit with a $36 million cap charge. The Redskins were hit with the larger charge for the restructure of contracts given to defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and cornerback DeAngelo Hall, while the Cowboys were penalized for offsetting a deal given to receiver Miles Austin. In the decision made by the league, it was also announced that all other NFL teams, save for the Oakland Raiders and New Orleans Saints, would receive $1.6 million in cap space each. The Raiders and Saints were docked for similar, through smaller, nebulous cap violations.
"The Management Council Executive Committee determined that the contract practices of a small number of clubs during the 2010 league year created an unacceptable risk to future competitive balance, particularly in light of the relatively modest salary cap growth projected for the new agreement's early years," the NFL said in a Monday statement. "To remedy these effects and preserve competitive balance throughout the league, the parties to the CBA agreed to adjustments to team salary for the 2012 and 2013 seasons.
"These agreed-upon adjustments were structured in a manner that will not affect the salary cap or player spending on a league-wide basis."
The statements released by both teams, however, point out several fundamental flaws in the NFL's judicial process.
"The Dallas Cowboys were in compliance with all league salary cap rules during the uncapped year. We look forward to the start of the free agency period where our commitment to improving our team remains unchanged."
"The Washington Redskins have received no written documentation from the NFL concerning adjustments to the team salary cap in 2012 as reported in various media outlets. Every contract entered into by the club during the applicable periods complied with the 2010 and 2011 collective bargaining agreements and, in fact, were approved by the NFL commissioner's office."
The last line of the Redskins' statement should hit particularly hard -- in effect, the league approved the restructure of those contracts at the time, and decided to change the rules after the fact. The NFL's management council basically backdated a rule that was not legally binding at the time -- a watchword at best -- and is now penalizing specific teams for violations of a policy that did not technically exist.
If the NFL wanted to avoid this issue, it could have made a very simple decision -- extend the league year through the CBA negotiations. However, this would have required the owners to pay salaries and benefits to the players during a labor negotiation, and the owners benefited financially from not doing so. It is the height of hypocrisy for the league, and certain owners, to turn on other owners when everyone took a major slice of the financial upside of a lockout.
Second, if the league wanted this offset limit to be official, it would have behooved someone in the league office to draw up a document. Perhaps the NFL didn't want to do so because the appearance of collusion would not help its case during the "hearts and minds" portion of a labor battle. As SI.com's Peter King astutely pointed out on his Twitter account, "There's a reason 2010 was called 'uncapped.' That should have meant teams could allocate money how they saw fit. I don't like this."
And the timing of the cap charges is, to put it frankly, ridiculous. The Cowboys and Redskins were given 24 hours to adjust to their new realities, which cut the Redskins' $40 million in cap space in half and essentially negates the Cowboys' cap space for 2012. Last week, the Redskins traded two first-round picks and a second-round pick, plus other possible considerations, to the St. Louis Rams for the 2012 second overall pick and the right to draft Robert Griffin III. Even though both teams are allowed to split the cap hit over the 2012 and 2013 seasons, the cost is still a major hit for which neither team was allowed to prepare.
Not only will the Redskins have to seriously curtail the free-agency shopping they surely thought would offset their draft trade, but their rookie pool will increase due to the higher cap figure given to the second overall pick as opposed to the sixth overall pick. The NFL was fully aware of these factors and did not see fit to inform the Redskins of its potential findings. ESPN's Adam Schefter said on Tuesday morning that when he called the Redskins to get their reaction after the cap hit was made public, their front office was just getting the number.
Whether you like the Cowboys and Redskins, and whether or not you like the way they do business (I am generally underwhelmed in both cases), the machinations of this decision should stink to high heaven to anyone who's really interested in the "competitive balance" the NFL keeps throwing around as its catch-all statement. If the league is so fixed on competitive balance, why doesn't it punish the teams that were hoarding money during the uncapped year? Does Roger Goodell really think it helps the league for the owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to spend $40-50 million less on player costs than the average per season, and siphon off tens of millions in revenue-sharing cash to offset their English soccer debt? Won't those teams with a lower floor be in violation of the NFL's new salary floor in 2013? Will there be retroactive punishment then? Just how far down the rabbit hole does the league care to go?
No matter how you slice it, the NFL's decision in this case smacks of an ambush. The two teams affected may have a case in a court, but the problem is, unless the Cowboys and Redskins are able to gain pre-emptive injunctive relief that would allow them to regain that cap space, the damage has been done.
In a tenure full of "ready, fire, aim" decisions, this may go down as Roger Goodell's worst.
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