|Thursday, March 8
Updated: March 9, 3:47 PM ET
Learning from 49ers', Cowboys' salary cap lessons
By Glenn Dickey
Pro Football Weekly
The Cowboys and 49ers pioneered salary-cap woes. Both teams crashed at the end of the 1990s, and both teams are still mired in the mud of past excesses.
But the Cowboys and 49ers got a lot of bang for their bucks. The Cowboys won three Super Bowls in a four-year period. The 49ers won their fifth Super Bowl in January of '95 and remained in championship contention until Steve Young's career ended abruptly early in the '99 season.
Other teams haven't fared so well. The Jaguars, at approximately $35 million over the cap this year, were in the most trouble. The Jaguars played twice in the AFC championship game, losing both times. Not much of a run. The Redskins will be the next team in serious trouble. Loading up on veteran stars, Redskins owner Dan Snyder spent about $92 million last year. By deferring salary-cap obligations with various schemes, Snyder got under the $62 million ceiling, but the Redskins soon will face cap problems that will level them for several years. And what did Snyder get? A team that finished 8-8, out of the playoffs.
It seems that the teams following the Cowboys and 49ers into salary-cap hell learned only how to commit the excesses, not how to turn them into the ultimate success of winning the Super Bowl.
The rest of us, separated from the emotion of trying to build a winner in the NFL, can see the lessons other teams should have learned.
The first: When you commit to big salaries, which usually dictates extending contracts beyond the playing years of the athletes, make sure the player is worth it.
The 49ers, for instance, are paying in excess of $10 million to Young, but they got tremendous value from him. Even as the team was declining around him, Young continued to play at a very high level; his '98 season might have been his best.
Similarly, the Cowboys have heavy cap obligations with Troy Aikman, whom they waived on Wednesday, but they could not have gotten to the Super Bowl, let alone win it three times, without him.
The 49ers also are committed to a $3.1 million cap figure this year for Gabe Wilkins, a defensive lineman they picked up as a free agent who never produced for them. Wilkins was injured a good part of the time he was with the 49ers and didn't play well when he was healthy.
They also twice put themselves in a bind with wide receiver J.J. Stokes. First, they overvalued Stokes when he came out of college, trading a first-round pick for the next year so they could move up in the draft and take Stokes in '95. Then, when his contract was up, they overpaid him on a new one. Stokes is little better than average as an NFL receiver, lacking the speed to be a deep threat and dropping too many balls. But because of his contract, the 49ers can't trade him.
The Cowboys also made a fatal mistake with a receiver, Joey Galloway, trading first-round picks for 2000 and 2001. Even if Galloway had not suffered an early season-ending injury in his first year with the Cowboys, the trade would have been a mistake. Wide receivers are the most abundant commodity in football, and only a rare one like Jerry Rice truly makes a difference.
Galloway was never in Rice's class. Despite his great speed, Galloway's history was that of a receiver who made an occasional spectacular play but lacked consistency, as well as a winning attitude. This trade will haunt the Cowboys for years because of the salary-cap problems it will cause and because it puts a serious dent in the Cowboys' ability to rebuild through the draft.
Which brings us to the second point: The draft is more important than ever. When free agency first began, teams salivated at the thought of the quick fix a free agent can bring. There are certainly examples of that happening.
The Packers shored up their defense for years by signing Reggie White. The 49ers fueled their '94 championship drive with Deion Sanders, Tim McDonald and Ken Norton, among others, and when the Cowboys grabbed Sanders the next year, he helped make their last Super Bowl possible.
But too often, teams have learned that it's not that easy to just plug in free agents. Football is a game of systems, and a player can look good in one system and bad in another. Again, an example from the 49ers. Winfred Tubbs was an outstanding linebacker in New Orleans because the Saints allowed him to roam on the outside and use his natural athletic ability to make plays. When he came to the 49ers, he played inside and was not the impact player the 49ers had expected.
The other problem with free agency is that players often have played their best football before they became free agents. What a team sees in a player before he becomes a free agent is not necessarily what it gets from that player.
None of those problems occur with drafted players. Teams can put rookies into their system and determine very quickly if they fit. And the rookies have young bodies. Even if they've been injured in college, as many have, they're young enough to recover and still help a team.
Most of all, when teams draft players, they usually come with a low price tag, especially if they're drafted after the first round. If the players are good, the team will have them for four years at below the market price for their ability. If they can't play, the team can get rid of them without facing the salary-cap penalty a free-agent mistake would bring.
The 49ers have been forced to go young. They started seven different first-year players on defense last season, and that forced development will pay dividends. The Cowboys should have gone young, as they'll discover in the years to come, but owner Jerry Jones couldn't come to grips with the fact that his team was no longer a contender. For all NFL teams, their future success will depend on whether they've learned the proper lessons from the problems of the Cowboys and 49ers.
Glenn Dickey is a columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle and has covered pro football since 1967. E-mail him at Gdickey@sfchronicle.com.
Material from Pro Football Weekly.