NFL salary limit may cap free-agent enthusiasm Redskins, for example, may have to cut payroll

January 24, 1993|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,Staff Writer

Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs can't wait for the NFL's new free agency plan to kick in. The possibilities are enticing: Imagine being able to add Reggie White to the defensive line, Tim McDonald to the secondary or Sean Landeta as a punter.

"It's something different, and we've got to take this and somehow make this a better deal for the Redskins," Gibbs said. "We've got to make this a better deal for the Redskins than it is for anybody else."

With the help of owner Jack Kent Cooke's open-checkbook policy, the Redskins have been able to operate that way in the past. But times are changing. Soon, NFL clubs will be facing a salary cap.

Gibbs knows it's there, and league officials say they will strictly enforce it.

"It's been stated very specifically, there's no deferred nothing, no oil wells, no nothing under the table," Gibbs said. "At least the way I figured it, somebody's going to jail if you're not reporting money."

The NFL can't send anybody to jail, but it can impose fines or take away draft picks if a team tries to circumvent the cap.

That means that once Gibbs starts to do the arithmetic, he may not be so enthusiastic about the new plan.

When the league went to court to try to save Plan B free agency, it argued the system was necessary for competitive balance.

A federal court jury was unimpressed. Under Plan B, each team could protect 37 players. They were never given a shot at free agency, so the jury said the league violated antitrust laws.

That's why the owners agreed to a new deal with the players this month in which unsigned players -- except for a franchise player and three exempted ones -- will get free agency after five years. Once the salary cap kicks in at 67 percent of designated gross revenues, unsigned players will be free after four years.

It might turn out that this free agency plan is much better for competitive balance than Plan B was. Under Plan B, the best teams could sign as many players as they wanted to. They weren't the best players, but the Redskins found productive players on the list.

Under the salary cap, which could limit teams to approximately $35 million in play er costs, the Redskins and other top teams will have to curtail their bidding when they bump into the cap.

According to NFL Players Association figures, the Redskins were sixth in the league in player payroll last year at $31.2 million.

The four teams in the conference championship games -- the San Francisco 49ers ($34.4 million), the Dallas Cowboys ($25.2 million), the Buffalo Bills ($29.9 million) and the Miami Dolphins ($33.9 million) -- have one thing in common with the Redskins: Their first concern will be controlling their payrolls, not adding to them.

Although the cap won't start in 1993, they can't load up their rosters. Once the cap does kick in, they would have to start lopping off salaries to squeeze under the limit.

Of those four teams, Dallas is the only one with some maneuvering room. But when the contracts of Emmitt Smith (this year), Troy Aikman (1994) and Michael Irvin (1994) expire, those players are going to want huge increases. They're being paid a total of a little more than $3 million a year. To keep all three will cost more than double that figure.

General manager Charley Casserly has said the Redskins are already over the proposed cap -- though he wouldn't discuss specifics.

But the preliminary numbers aren't comforting for the Redskins and the other top teams.

Once the cap kicks in, each team is expected to be allowed to spend $35 million on player costs. But each team will have to subtract $4.6 million in benefits, which will take salaries to about $30 million. Each team also will have to subtract $2 million for rookie salaries, $500,000 for practice squad players, about $1.5 million for pro-rated signing bonuses (the Redskins will be charged $900,000 for last year's rookies) and about $1.5 million -- if not more -- for injured reserve players.

That takes it down to about $25 million to spend on veteran players, including free agents.

Once the Redskins subtract $3 million for Mark Rypien and $4.85 million for the next four highest-paid players combined (Jim Lachey, Darrell Green, Ricky Sanders and Earnest Byner), they're left with $17.15 million to pay everyone else.

If they re-sign Gary Clark and Wilber Marshall for about $2 million each -- and both may want more -- they'll be down to $13.15 million.

With close to 40 more players players to be counted, that's an average of less than $350,000 for the remaining players.

That doesn't count Art Monk, who made $1.1 million last year and probably expects a raise. At 35, he likely won't command $1 million on the open market. But it would be awkward to cut his salary.

Then there's offensive lineman Joe Jacoby, who has a year left in a contract estimated at $1 million (his salary wasn't included in this year's survey) and hasn't decided if he'll come back. If he returns as a backup, the Redskins may have to suggest that he take a cut.

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