|Tuesday, July 9
Teams hurt by carrying 'dead money'
By Len Pasquarelli
Even though the Carolina Panthers released Doug Evans and Jimmy Hitchcock months ago, the club will still be charged $6.1 million against its 2002 salary cap for the departed starting cornerbacks, or about $2.5 million more than it will pay in total compensation to the seven cornerbacks on its current training camp roster.
Deion Sanders hasn't played in a game for the Washington Redskins since the end of the 2000 season, but counts nearly $6 million against the team's cap this year, or roughly five times what CBS is paying for his pregame studio gig. The New England Patriots, who used to write paychecks for quarterback Drew Bledsoe, have a higher cap number for him in 2002 than does his current employer, the Buffalo Bills. In Baltimore, Elvis Grbac has left the building, but the retired quarterback also left behind a $4 million cap charge.
In all the Ravens are being charged $22.8 million, or nearly one-third of the 2002 salary cap limit of $71.101 million, for players no longer with the team. According to the same NFL Players Association figures, four other franchises will invest more than 20 percent each of their cap room for 2002 on departed veterans.
It is called "dead money" -- the term commonly applied to salary-cap charges for players no longer on the roster -- and the moniker is apropos since it is killing teams leaguewide. While "dead money" isn't the lone element in the cap crunch squeezing more than half the teams in the NFL, it is a major component in the spending woes of many franchises.
"Basically it's the payback for all the mistakes you've made in free agency or, to a lesser extent, in the draft," said an official who manages the cap for an AFC franchise. "In fact, in our offices, we even call it 'mistake money' sometimes. You know how you might buy a couch because it looks good on the showroom floor and then, when you get it home, the thing is an abomination in the living room? And a year later, you're out buying another couch, because you can't look at the first one any longer? Well, 'dead money' is the same principle as that ugly couch. It's gone, but you're making payments on it. You still owe for that mistake you made."
Even at a time when teams seem to be making fewer errors of judgement in signing free agents, with clubs less enamored of the quick-fix veteran in this 10th springtime of player movement, the transgressions of the past continue to haunt many franchises. Baltimore and Jacksonville certainly mortgaged future rewards in seeking instant gratification, and while cap excesses helped the Ravens claim a Super Bowl title, the Jaguars are rebuilding without a Vince Lombardi Trophy to provide solace.
Two years of salary-cap purges have earned the Jaguars an early exit from salary cap jail in 2003, but the price in loss of human resources has extracted a toll on the roster, and the team still is somewhat hamstrung by nearly $13 million in "dead money" for this year. In the case of the Ravens, coach Brian Billick has vowed a speedy return to respectability, but Baltimore fans still must sit through a 2002 campaign in which the roster will be only a shadow of what it was only a year ago.
Vice president of personnel Ozzie Newsome acknowledged Ravens management knew there would be a day of reckoning attached to keeping intact the Super Bowl roster for a run at a second championship. The decision to maintain the status quo for 2001, and to swallow hard during the ensuing offseason, has meant the departure of 14 starters.
"Could we have avoided what's taken place now? Yes, certainly, we could have," said Newsome. "But we felt we owed it to our fans to take another shot (at a Super Bowl). It wasn't a gut thing, not something spontaneous, because we discussed it a lot."
Having failed to secure a second title, however, the Ravens have been gutted. And with so much of the 2002 salary cap tied up in "dead money," the franchise is in a perilous state of inertia, unable to replenish its losses.
But there are also cases where some "dead money" charges could not be avoided. No one could have predicted, for instance, that Minnesota Vikings tailback Robert Smith would retire in his prime after the 2000 season. The Vikings were charged $3.17 million in 2001 for Smith and face a similar cap hit this season for the retired running back.
Despite thrifty cap management and a terrific job of whittling away at the pool of "dead money" he inherited, Buffalo Bills general manager Tom Donahoe is still working this year with a hole of nearly $15 million in his salary cap. Over $5 million of that is tied up in former starting quarterback Rob Johnson, released early in the spring.
Fact is, there are 41 players who will count more than $2 million apiece against the 2002 salary caps of teams by whom they are no longer employed. Teams will be charged more than $3 million each for 27 players no longer on their rosters. There are a dozen veterans who will cost their former franchises more than $4 million in '02 cap charges.
Of the teams which have managed their caps sagely, and that carry less than $3 million in "dead money" charges for the year, none has been more judicious than the Philadelphia Eagles. According to the NFLPA figures, the Eagles have only about $400,000 in "dead money," less even than the expansion Houston Texans. Little wonder Philadelphia still has a league-high $9.8 million in available salary-cap space.
It is a figure, allowed Eagles president and chief operating officer Joe Banner that is "the envy of the league and the challenge of the Philadelphia media," a group often critical of the team's cap windfall because it wonders why the club hasn't invested that money. But the Eagles, clearly a young team with a wide window of Super Bowl opportunity, have hit on a formula that works for them.
Philadelphia has signed several veterans to early contract extensions, sometimes two or three years before their current contracts were set to lapse, and none of those deals have blown up in Banner's face. The club has done a remarkable job of identifying players it must retain for its core group, and then aggressively pursued extensions with them, part of why the Eagles should be a title contender for several more seasons.
"It's part luck, part long-term planning and part good decision making," Banner said. "If you look at our player costs, they're about the same as those of every team in the league. But the difference is that we don't have the miscellaneous costs (part of which is "dead money") some other teams have."
Indeed, if the Eagles were carrying the league average in "dead money" -- approximately $8.14 million per club -- they would be one of the franchises snug against the cap.
There are 14 teams with less than $5 million in "dead money" for 2002, and only a half-dozen franchises with less than $3 million. Nearly 12 percent of the aggregate cap funds leaguewide for 2002 already are devoted to "dead money" and the figure probably will increase a bit before the start of the season.
"It's the price you pay," said one cap manager, "and it's a steep one."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.