Salary cap often gets blame, but bad decisions hurt most

On The NFL

February 13, 2000|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

The NFL's salary cap gets blamed for everything these days but global warming.

When a team wants to get rid of an aging veteran (Dan Marino, for example), it blames the salary cap. When the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys collapsed, the salary cap got the blame. When five teams that didn't make the playoffs a year ago won division championships in 1999, it was another example of how the salary cap changed pro football.

When only two teams (Jacksonville and Minnesota) have had winning records for four straight years -- Dallas once had 20 straight winning seasons and Oakland and San Francisco did it for 16 -- the salary cap is cited as the reason.

When three of the 1998 conference finalists failed to make the playoffs, the salary cap got the blame.

When salaries escalate, free agency -- the twin of the salary cap -- is cited.

Yes, free agency and the salary cap have changed pro football, but not in the ways you might think.

Free agency hasn't raised salaries; it changed how the money is distributed. Salaries have gone up because the TV contracts continue to escalate. The players historically wind up with most of the TV revenue and the owners get the stadium revenue, which is why teams want new stadiums.

According to the NFL Players Association, salaries have gone up 129 percent in the seven years since the players won free agency. In the seven years from 1985 to 1992, they went up 126 percent.

But the salary cap has eliminated the middle class. Now the players command big money or get the minimum. Aging veterans aren't kept around for leadership -- unless they take pay cuts.

The collapse of San Francisco and Dallas was more because the teams drafted poorly for several years than free agency.

The Denver Broncos, New York Jets and Atlanta Falcons failed to make it back to the playoffs mainly because they made poor decisions on their backup quarterbacks. When John Elway retired, the Broncos had Bubby Brister and Brian Griese. When Vinny Testaverde was injured, the Jets had Rick Mirer. When Chris Chandler was injured, the Falcons had Tony Graziani.

By contrast, when Steve McNair got hurt, the Tennessee Titans had Neil O'Donnell, and he kept the team winning until McNair returned and took them to the Super Bowl.

What the new system does is put a premium on making good decisions. There's less margin for error now because teams don't have the depth they used to have. Personnel decisions and coaching are more important than ever.

Now that the teams have gotten under this year's cap and are starting this year's signing period, the key is to find free agents who fit in with a team. For example, St. Louis' signing of guard Adam Timmerman from Green Bay last year got little notice. Yet Timmerman solidified the Rams' line.

There'll be another big quarterback shuffle, and teams have to sign the right ones. The New Orleans Saints made the first big move Friday by signing Cincinnati's Jeff Blake to a four-year, $17.4 million deal. Is he consistent enough to make a difference for the Saints? He didn't look like he was in a late-season loss to the Ravens last year.

The Titans need to persuade O'Donnell to stick around or find a capable backup if he leaves.

Staying home?

The Titans' chance of keeping O'Donnell may be helped because he left a winning situation in Pittsburgh after a Super Bowl season in 1995, then spent three years losing with the Jets and Cincinnati.

His agent, Leigh Steinberg, suggests he'd pass up a chance to start for a losing team to stay as a backup with the Titans.

"Neil is extremely happy in Tennessee except for the obvious -- he doesn't start," Steinberg said. "Every athlete has aspirations to start, but if there was ever going to be a place where Neil's happy to be even if it didn't involve being a starter, it would be Tennessee. You have to remember, his last two outposts were Cincinnati and the New York Jets at a time when that wasn't a very happy organization."

Police blotter

Not a week seems to go by these days without an NFL player winding up on the police blotter.

In last week's most serious allegation, Cincinnati linebacker Steve Foley was charged with domestic violence in Monroe, La., his third arrest in the past year. Police say he kicked open the door to the apartment where his son and the child's mother live, then grabbed the woman by the neck because she didn't want Foley to take the boy for pizza.

Foley denied the charges and said the door had been broken for a year. His agent, Todd Newman, said the woman slammed the door on Foley.

All these arrests have become an image nightmare for the league, which is being called the National Felons League. It's become fodder for Jay Leno jokes about the players, and cartoonists have been drawing the players in police lineups.

Yet there is no sign that all the negative attention is having any effect on the popularity of the league.

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