NFL Tells Teams: Don't Expect Increased Salary Cap Anytime Soon

When the new CBA was signed, little did we know that the salary cap would be flat for quite a while.

When the NFL and the Union officially signed the new CBA in August last year, NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith had this to say about the deal: "But today, we can celebrate something that's great for the fans and great for the game of football."

Smith is a lawyer and he probably weighed each of his words carefully, so you've got to wonder why he didn't include his constituency, the players, in that sentence. To make things even more confusing, Daniel Kaplan from the Sports Business Journal released a series of tweets on Monday suggesting that the NFL is telling teams to project flat salary caps for the next three years.

NFL tells teams to project flat salary caps thru 2015: 2013 ($121 mln); 2014 (122 mln) 2015 (125 mln), and then in 2016 $130 mln.

Benefits will rise sharply though, but media deals will not spike the cap, not even a bit. Offsets from artificially higher caps in 11-13 ...

... and staggering of media deals leads to almost no cap increase projection in 1st year of mega new TV deals.

If NFL projections correct, won't be until the 6th yr of new 10-yr CBA that cap exceeds level in last yr (2009) of capped year in old deal.

At first glance, this doesn't look good for the players. The salary cap in 2009 was $128 million. It looks like the cap won't reach that level again until 2016. That doesn't look good at all. But as always, things are not necessarily what they appear like at first glance.

While the salary cap is the most visible and most talked about part of the CBA, it's also important to keep in mind that the salary cap is just funny money invented for league accounting purposes.

What counts for the players is the amount of cash they get. And that cash went up. In 2011, players were paid more than $160 million per team in cash and benefits, which is a lot higher than the $142.4 million Player Cost Amount ($120.4 million salary cap plus $22 million benefits) generally reported as the 'total salary cap' for 2011. The players also increased the percentage of guaranteed money in their contracts from 50% in 2010 to 57% on 2011. Plus they got the league to agree to a hard cash spending floor for each team.

In exchange, the owners got a rookie wage scale, a 16-game Thursday night package starting in 2014, the union's okay to a staggered media deal, the union to forfeit all collusion claims and, important especially to the small market teams and penny-pinching owners, a salary cap that looks to remain flat for about half the duration of the CBA.

So while it looks like both sides came out on top in the negotiations, there is a significant side effect to this deal that is only now becoming apparent. The problem is that for the last 20 years, player contracts contracts have know only one direction: up.

Each year's free agent class is expecting contracts that surpass the previous year's class. Yet suddenly, teams find that they have a salary cap in place where their budget for player salaries will stay basically flat for the next four years - at least in salary cap terms.

Such a stagnant salary cap could cause "carnage" in the NFL next season, according to NFL.com's Sam Wyche:

Several team management officials said [the salary cap] is not projected to jump much in 2013, prompting one general manager to say there could be "carnage" for some big-contract players -- Nnamdi Asomugha, for example -- after next season. It will also impact the market for impending free agents like Matt Schaub and Jake Long.

That's why the haggling to get deals done with Brees in New Orleans, Bowe in Kansas City, Forte in Chicago and Wallace in Pittsburgh hasn't been settled easily. Their respective teams know they are vital pieces, but the notion of individual value vs. the ability to build and maintain a competitive roster in future years might be more delicate than it's been since the cap has somewhat flat-lined.

For teams like the Cowboys, who have traditionally tried to use every last dollar of the cap to their advantage, things could get dicey over the next few years as well. No longer can they hand out back-heavy contracts in the hopes that a steadily increasing salary cap will take care of the rising costs down the road. Instead, they have to focus on getting a core nucleus of players of players together at a price that will leave them enough long-term flexibility.


Related: Have The Cowboys Learned From Past Contract Blunders?

Perhaps this is why the Cowboys extended Orlando Scandrick (six-year extension), Jason Witten (five-year extension) and Jay Ratliff (seven-year extension) last year, but that is obviously pure speculation on my part. What is not speculation is that Tony Romo will be a free agent after the 2013 season.

If the Cowboys want to retain Romo - and not retaining him is not even an option at this point - they'll not get him for the six-year, $67.4 million contract he signed back in 2007. These days $11 million per year may get you a good corner, but not a quarterback. By the time the Cowboys get around to re-signing Romo, his price tag will be a lot closer to $20 million per year than where he was in his old contract.

With a stagnant salary cap, and with the QB (or any other position for that matter) taking a bigger chunk of the available salary cap pie, that leaves less room to pay the other potential free agents on the roster or on the market. This dynamic probably means that 2012 will be the last season for Anthony Spencer and Mike Jenkins in Dallas. Even if the Cowboys wanted to retain them, the stagnant cap and the need to pay and retain a core nucleus of players may not allow that.

Then again, perhaps we shouldn't underestimate the lengths Stephen and Jerry Jones will go to if they want to get things done. They have repeatedly shown to be very resourceful when push came to shove, and there may yet be more wiggle room under the new CBA than most observers today realize.

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