Nobody knows better than St. Louis Rams president John Shaw how the economics of the NFL have changed.
Fifteen years ago, when the team was in Los Angeles, he got into several contract squabbles with Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson, who was unhappy with his $350,000 salary in 1985 and his $400,000 contract in 1986.
Now, Shaw is throwing money around as if it were confetti while trying to keep his players under the salary cap - and keep his team together to defend its Super Bowl title.
In the last month, the Rams have signed quarterback Kurt Warner to a seven-year, $46.5 million deal with an $11.5 million signing bonus and wide receiver Isaac Bruce to a seven-year, $42 million deal with an $11.5 million signing bonus.
Last year, they signed running Marshall Faulk to a seven-year, $45.5 million deal with a $7 million signing bonus.
They also offered defensive lineman Kevin Carter, who's entering the final year of his contract, a $45 million deal, only to have him turn it down.
In 1987, the Rams traded Dickerson to the Colts for three first-round picks, three second-round choices and two players.
The Colts promptly gave Dickerson a deal for more than $1 million a year.
"The [difference in the] numbers we were arguing about was something you might give your fourth-round draft pick now. That's how crazy this business has become," Shaw said.
As it turned out, the trade wasn't good for Dickerson or the Rams. He was never the same back, and although the Rams made the NFC title game two years after he left, they didn't get much value for the draft picks and became a losing team in the 1990s.
But the Rams rebuilt the team into a Super Bowl champion last season in St. Louis.
Shaw said they went into the off-season with Warner, Bruce and Carter as their three top priorities. They figured if they could get two of them signed, they could protect the other one next year.
They also failed to get a long-term deal done with cornerback Todd Lyght, who decided to play for the $4.02 million transition tag.
Although the Rams were able to keep 19 of 22 starters from last season's team - enough to make a run at another title - he knows it will get more difficult in future years.
"I'm happy we won. The problems of winning are unique. It's also a lot more fulfilling to deal with those problems knowing we've won a Super Bowl. We hadn't won in a long time and it was a unique experience," Shaw said.
The Rams face not only a salary cap crunch, but a cash crunch. Owner Georgia Frontiere, who inherited the team from her husband, the late former Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom, doesn't have another business to use for cash flow, so she must pay for the big contracts from club revenue.
Although the Rams have a lucrative stadium lease in St. Louis that provides the club with $20 million to $25 million a year in revenue, it only takes a couple of big signing bonuses to eat that up. Shaw said they deferred some of the signing bonus money of both Warner and Bruce to ease the cash flow problems.
He said they'll probably be on the books for about $10 million to $15 million over the cap this year - money that will be counted in future years because signing bonuses are prorated against the cap.
Shaw said that over the last five years, they have been near the bottom of the pack in spending because they were a losing team.
He said they spent only $8 million over the cap last year and in the three previous years, spent a combined total of only $5.9 million over the cap.
Shaw said the fact the Rams aren't operating in a vacuum complicates the situation.
He noted that Carter wants a deal similar to the $8 million a year the Giants gave defensive end Michael Strahan.
He pointed out the Giants could justify that salary because he's their best player.
"I understand the point of view of both sides. One team is going to pay a player as their No. 1 player. But a similiar player might not be the best player on another club," he said.
The Rams probably face a similar situation when Orlando Pace's contract expires after the 2002 season.
The Ravens appear ready to give offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden a huge contract.
They can justify it because he's their best offensive player.
But Pace is no better than the Rams' fourth-best offensive player, so it will be difficult for them to match Ogden's numbers.
"There is a limited amount of dollars and it's hard for us to pay these gigantic signing bonuses. I don't want to lose any players, but the reality of this system is that good teams lose players," Shaw said.