The news of a 10 million dollar cap penalty being levied by the NFL against the Cowboys has created a firestorm of debate. A common theme among the community is the idea that the NFL committed collusion if they established “unwritten rules” for player contracts during the 2010 year when there was no salary cap in place. But what if Dallas is punished by rules written in the new CBA that retroactively reallocate cap space based on how contracts were structured in earlier years? One theory is that the new CBA reallocated to 2011 and beyond bonus money that was avoided by contracts that were “creatively” structured in 2010 to avoid a cap hit during the uncapped year, thus creating additional cap space in the following years. Back in 2010, Gregg Rosenthal of NBC ProFootball Talk warned that teams could be punished in future years for contracts written in 2010 that creatively created cap space in future years when he wrote:
A new agreement could, in theory, reallocate to 2011 and beyond bonus money that was avoided by contracts terminated or traded in 2010. Whether and to what extent this occurs depends on the terms of the new CBA. Still, it seems unlikely that the new deal would reach back to 2010 and impose cap charges against teams that took advantage of the absence of a cap to clean the slate.
ESPN is reporting that 28 teams felt Dallas, Washington, New Orleans, and Oakland created an unfair advantage by creatively structuring contracts during the 2010 year. Here is what I think happened. The NFL did not have the authority to prevent Dallas from restructuring Miles Austin’s contract and converting his signing bonus into a base salary. However, the league had an understanding that other teams would not look favorably on this type of creative cap engineering, and that when a new CBA was negotiated, the other teams could retroactively reallocate cap money that was avoided in 2010. This was the warning!
I don’t think it was a mystery that the other teams in the league did not like how much money Dallas and Washington were spending on salaries. After all, the whole point of renegotiating the CBA was to get spending under control. So Dallas and Washington were in the crosshairs back in 2010. Dallas and Washington had a history of huge team salaries. In 2010 Washington’s team salary was 178 million and Dallas was 167 million. The NFL and the other teams could not prevent Dallas or Washington from structuring salaries creatively to avoid future cap hits. The other teams in league who agreed to play by the unwritten rules, it appears, decided that they would come after the big spenders at a later date once the new CBA was ratified.
Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com wrote in his most recent article about the cap reallocation that the other teams planned on future revenge against teams who didn't tow the company line. Florio writes:
"The league approved the contracts when submitted because the union would have cried foul if the NFL had tried to apply limits to the uncapped year that didn’t exist in the CBA. All along, the league planned to serve up a cold plate of salary-cap revenge against the Cowboys and Redskins at a later date, at a time when the union would be inclined to agree to an after-the-fact effort to punish anyone who opted not to limit the players’ supply of cash in the months before the lockout."
If this is what happened there was no collusion by the NFL. Everyone knew the rules, even if the NFL could not hold teams accountable to those rules at that time. Jerry Jones and Daniel Snyder elected to ignore the warning of future consequences, or took a calculated risk that the consequences would not be crippling.