Climbing the Salary-Capped Mountains

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The gilded age of the salary-cap era that the NFL has enjoyed for the past 14 years, is expected to come to a close after this season. Reading about the death of the cap fills me with the same sense of doom as do ecological statistics about water shortages and endless heat waves we’re primed to suffer through someday.

When the owner of your favorite team is a notorious miser and a generally frowned-upon guy, the idea of allowing him to pay less on players is a scary one. The worry with Mike Brown in an uncapped environment is the absence of a salary floor. Under the current labor agreement, teams cannot pay players more the than the cap; conversely, owners cannot go below a certain amount of player payroll.

This year’s salary cap is near $128 million per team, but it’s floor is about $112 million. Without a floor, Mr. Brown can spend as little as he chooses. With that in mind, the Bengals’ fan turns its worrisome gaze to Marvin Lewis, and, feeling as if it has no other choice, hands him its faith and its hope for the future.

I remember standing on the top row of Paul Brown Stadium on a grey November Sunday in 2003, feeling mesmerized by how slowly individual seconds actually pass when you watch it on a clock. This clock was on a giant scoreboard and was ticking backwards but now it was stopped. There were three minutes left to tick away. Rudi Johnson was handed the ball. He broke free and ran 54 yards, the clock started again and everyone there clapped one another on the back and agreed that Marvin Lewis was a genius indeed. He could have run for president back then and won; the myth had swallowed the man.

As fans filed out after witnessing that legendary conquest over unbeaten Kansas City, they gaped at the scoreboard that showed the Bengals atop the division at a modest 4-4. Is it true? can it be? First place. Even the scoreboard seemed confused and embarrassed to display such a ludicrous scenario. Hadn’t this franchise been mired in the cellar of the AFC North, and before it, the AFC Central, for seemingly eons? Even the scoreboard had to agree that Marvin seemed to be some kind of a miracle worker. And so it began: Marvin’s Miracle – 2003.

We know the rest. Success continued, crescendoed in ‘05, and has ebbed back into disaster last year. Fans have hardened on Marvin, and the more impatient of those have hastily called for his head. Some optimism has been restored with a favorable off-season, but the long-term picture, with the absence of a salary cap and a salary floor, remains worrisome.

The new rules that will come into effect with the removal of the current labor agreement, will be that teams can now franchise-tag up to two players and that players won’t be eligible for unrestricted free agency until their sixth year instead of the four years of the current agreement. Neither of these rules are player-friendly and could become the sticking point that leads to a work-stoppage after the 2010 season. If the players union agrees to these terms – which they won’t do without a serious fight – the emphasis on the draft will become even more magnified.

Assuming Mr. Brown decides to run his team in the most economic way and scrimp on every purchasable facet of the franchise, than he will not pay much on free-agents and would likely rather replace these older, more expensive veterans with players who are still collecting from their rookie contracts.

That puts the onus back on Miraculous Marvin and his genius to constantly draft and cultivate talent that will serve the team in the short-term only. In that event, the roster will experience more turnover and will be perpetually young. There will be no more quick-fixes through free-agency like that of a Laveranues Coles or Antoine Odom. The starters will be marginally better than the back-ups, and players will always be “brought along” by mixing them into the rotation, perhaps sooner than the team is entirely comfortable in doing.

This glum outlook of the future business-plan the Bengals may employ once the salary cap vanishes, is based solely from Mike Brown’s shrewd business maneuvering of the past. Perhaps Marvin’s sharp reasoning and thorough organizational skills, will get through to Mr. Brown the idea that one cannot always build an enterprise to merely stay in existence. That sometimes, opportunities must be seized upon to climb upward and win! Do it, Marvin. Show him how to win!


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