Salary rise puts cap on free-agent frenzy Money: The NFL's new TV contract not only boosted the salary cap by $11 million this year, it also has promoted continuity in the league by allowing more teams to retain their potential free agents.

September 04, 1998|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

A year ago, the New England Patriots, facing a salary-cap squeeze, decided not to give running back Curtis Martin a long-term contract.

They let him play his third season for $247,900 and he became a restricted free agent at the end of the year.

The New York Jets then enticed him with a six-year, $36 million deal that the Patriots decided not to match.

The Patriots received first- and third-round draft picks for Martin, but scrambled to find a running game during this preseason.

Facing a similar situation this year with linebacker Ted Johnson, they took the opposite tack.

They decided not to let Johnson play the fourth and final season of his contract for $529,000, which would have enabled him to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 1998 season.

The Patriots decided not to risk losing Johnson after this season, locking him up for the future with one of those five-year, $25 million deals that have become so popular this year.

The difference in the Patriots' strategy wasn't simply that they learned a lesson from losing Martin.

They also had a lot more money to work with.

In 1997, the salary cap went up less than $1 million, from $40.75 million to $41.45 million, so the Patriots and the other playoff teams with a lot of high-priced players were in a salary-cap squeeze.

By contrast, the new $17.6 billion TV contract pushed the salary cap up almost $11 million this year to $52.388 million, and teams can expect steady increases every year.

The difference in the Patriots' strategy in dealing with Martin and Johnson is one example of how the salary-cap boost has changed the game.

Since the 30 teams had $330 million more to spend, it was obvious that salaries would go up.

But the teams didn't spend the money only chasing free agents. A total of 117 free agents changed teams during the signing period that ended July 15. That was an increase over last year's figure of 89, but a far cry from the 179 players who changed teams in 1995.

Instead of trying to lure free agents, many teams were more interested in locking up their own players to long-term deals.

"I think this makes a clear statement about what we're trying to do," Patriots coach Pete Carroll said of the Johnson signing. "We're going to make our investments in people of this caliber. For the immediate future and long range, this is the kind of guy we want on our team."

Teams are going to identify those players and try to keep them rather than go out and sign free agents who then have to learn a new system.

When the players were trying to get free agency in the early 1990s, they stressed that they should be able to pick where they want to play. But now most players seem happy to stay with the same teams rather than move, as long as they get their money.

As Johnson said, "I'm glad things have worked out this way because I really didn't want to leave my teammates or the fans who've embraced me."

While 113 free agents re-signed with their own teams, many players agreed to long-term deals before becoming free agents.

If this trend continues, there may be fewer players available on the free-agent market because teams will be using extra money to keep their own players.

And it may actually help the caliber of play in the league because teams will be able to enjoy more continuity.

One team the extra money is helping is the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have kept a winning core together despite losing a number key players over the years.

The Steelers have managed to lock up linebackers Levon Kirkland, Jason Gildon and Earl Holmes, nose tackle Joel Steed and guard Brenden Stai to new contracts and are negotiating with safety Carnell Lake.

"It just looks like more teams are doing what we've tried to do, determine the core players and sign them to long-term deals," said Tom Donahoe, the Steelers' director of football operations.

In past years, the Steelers lost so many players that there was speculation the team would fall apart, but it has remained a Super Bowl contender.

"It's always amusing to me to see who the winners were in the free-agent derby and you look at the end of the year and those teams are still losing," Donahoe said. "I'm not really concerned about winning in March and April. We want to win in September.

"Football is a team game and a lot of it is camaraderie that exists on your team and the chemistry. There's no guarantee that when you bring in a new player he's going to help you in those areas."

The Minnesota Vikings were one team that paid a big price to keep their team together, retaining defensive end John Randle (five years, $32.5 million), running back Robert Smith (five years, $25 million), offensive tackle Todd Steussie (five years, $22 million) and wide receivers Cris Carter (four years, $23.5 million) and Jake Reed (four years, $13.6 million).

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have followed a similar strategy, shelling out $130 million in contracts to lock up nine key players, including defensive tackle Warren Sapp and fullback Mike Alstott.

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