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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

Which explains why the Redskins can't do a lot of bidding for high-priced players. They're going to have enough trouble keeping their own players. As one of the four playoff teams that did not advance to conference finals, they can sign only one new player for more than $1.5 million until the cap kicks in, but they couldn't afford more than one under the cap.

If they go after White, who'll probably want more than $2.5 million, that salary would be the equivalent of three other players at about $800,000 each or four at about $600,000. It becomes a question of quality or quantity.

It also will cut down on the Redskins' use of the injured reserve squad to stockpile players. For example, when they picked up Todd Bowles from the San Francisco 49ers on waivers this year, they put Terry Hoage and his $450,000 salary on the IR list. They would be forced to cut Hoage to keep the team under the cap.

The Redskins also may be forced to lose some players who get better offers because they won't be able to match the offers and stay under the cap.

For example, defensive lineman Tim Johnson said he expects to get a substantial raise over the $425,000 he made last year.

If he gets it, the Redskins may be forced to let him go. The marketplace will set the salary level.

But there is one consolation for the Redskins. Though they won't be able to spend freely under the salary cap, they still have scouts skilled at finding bargain-basement players such as Brad Edwards, Danny Copeland, Martin Mayhew, Fred Stokes and Ron Middleton -- all found by the Redskins under Plan B.

The teams that will have the money to spend on big contracts are the teams at the bottom of the salary scale, including the Pittsburgh Steelers ($17.6 million), the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ($21.2 million) and the New England Patriots ($21.9 million).

The Steelers made the playoffs this year, so their payroll probably is going to rise, but teams such as the Bucs and Pats could improve themselves in a hurry.

Down the road, the system could be good for Baltimore fans if the city gets an expansion team. An expansion team would have money to spend and probably could become competitive in a hurry.

Although this system will guarantee the players somewhere between 67 and 62 percent of the designated gross revenues (the cap goes down once it's triggered), it might cut down on movement because the good teams won't have that much money to spend.

Tony Agnone, a Baltimore agent, even calls the unsigned players the "non-free free agents," because their options may be limited under the system.

But Bill Polian, general manager of the Buffalo Bills, said, "Freedom of choice, not movement, was the issue."

Polian said: "I think the good operators will adjust. It'll be unsettling at first, but as time goes on, people will adjust. It's safe to assume the teams with good ownership, good management and good coaching will win under any system. The ones that don't, won't."

If those are the criteria, the good teams will continue to be successful.

At first glance, though, this system gives the best opportunities for the bad teams with low payrolls.

Under your cap

When the NFL salary cap kicks in -- at an estimated $35 million per team -- clubs will have to juggle expenses when keeping players and seeking new ones. For example, here's how it might work for the Redskins in 1993:

Total cap .. .. .. .. ... .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ... $35 million

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Anticipated costs

Benefits .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. $4.6 million

Rookies .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ... $2 million

Signing bonuses .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. . $1.5 million

Injured reserve .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. . $1.5 million

Practice squad .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ... $500,000

Remaining cap .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. $24.9 million

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Selected veteran payroll

Mark Rypien .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. . $3 million

Darrell Green .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ... $1.5 million

Jim Lachey .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. $1.35 million

Ricky Sanders .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. $1 million

Earnest Byner .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. $1 million

Remaining cap .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. . .. $17.05 million

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Estimated new contracts

Gary Clark .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. $2 million

Wilber Marshall .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ... $2 million

Remaining cap .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. . $13.05 million

With about 40 players left to sign, approximately $350,000 per player remains, making it difficult to add high-priced free agents.

-- Vito Stellino

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