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Free-agent spending mistakes are more painful with salary cap

Love it or hate it, there can be no debate about one aspect of the NFL's controversial salary cap: It adds an intriguing dimension to the battle for free agents.

In free agency without the cap, a team that makes a mistake often only hurts an owner's wallet.

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With the cap, a mistake doesn't hurt a team's bottom line because there's a limit of what a team can spend. But when a team spends too much -- or sometimes not enough -- it can have a major impact on the team on the field. A dollar spent in one area is a dollar the team can't spend in another.

In the first 10 days of this year's free-agency signing period, there were several examples of decisions that could have far-reaching ramifications.

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The Seattle Seahawks might be a team that wouldn't spend enough. Their kicker, John Kasay, had established himself as one of the league's best and had a base salary of just $298,000 last year.

He was willing to redo his deal last year for $750,000 a season. The Seahawks offered only $650,000 and let him become a free agent.

The Carolina Panthers, who have $23 million to spend in free agency, snapped him up with a five-year, $4.3 million offer. For the difference of $100,000 a year, the Seahawks are now looking for a kicker.

On the other end of the spectrum are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They decided to sign Washington Redskins punter Reggie Roby to a three-year, $1.965 million contract. The Atlanta Falcons then signed the former Tampa punter, Dan Stryzinski, to a three-year, $1.5 million deal.

It's debatable, though, whether Roby is worth much more than Stryzinski, who doesn't have Roby's leg, but kicks high punts that aren't returned. The Bucs might have wasted $500,000.

Then there was the Washington Redskins' surprising decision to give Buffalo Bills linebacker Marvcus Patton a four-year, $6.8 million contract. Patton has a $1.4 million salary cap number this season, so he won't cost the Redskins anything against the cap because he's expected to replace Andre Collins, who has a $1.5 million cap number.

But is Patton much better than Collins? That remains to be seen. Coach Norv Turner mentioned how he was impressed with Patton when he studied the Bills' defense before the two Super Bowls they played against the Dallas Cowboys. But Patton didn't stop the Cowboys from shredding the Bills' defense in either game.

One fascinating unresolved contract battle involves New York Giants running back David Meggett, the former Towson State standout. Meggett is a vital cog in the Giants' offense, but he wants a $3 million signing bonus. The Giants won't go that high and are gambling he won't get it from another team. They could lose Meggett if they lose that gamble.

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These are just some of the decisions that will shape next season.

How the teams spend money is important because they all have to watch the cap. Except for the two expansion teams, which have a combined total of $40 million to spend, the Chicago Bears at $11.3 million and the Minnesota Vikings at $11 million have the most to spend.

Eight teams -- the Kansas City Chiefs, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle, Houston Oilers, New Orleans Saints, Miami Dolphins, Cleveland Browns and San Diego Chargers -- have $2.2 million or less to spend. San Diego started free agency with just $9,700, and Cleveland, which had to slash Vinny Testaverde's salary in half, was the second lowest with $110,000.

The cap also has created a level playing field. Remember when the Redskins were one of the highest-paying teams and the Cincinnati Bengals were one of the lowest? They both entered free agency with $8.6 million to spend.

OC The key to their success -- or failure -- is how they spend it.

The windfall

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The official word from the league office is that commissioner Paul Tagliabue has yet to make a recommendation on the Los Angeles Rams' move from Anaheim, Calif., to St. Louis.

But the Rams are being sent a signal that the owners want the club to share some of the $60 million windfall it will get from the sale of premium seat licenses in St. Louis.

ESPN quoted unidentified "high-ranking league officials and owners" last week as saying that the Rams don't have the votes to move because they "haven't proved their case" that they deserve to move. It even was said that the team hadn't been "managed properly."

Since when is being properly managed a criterion? Bill Bidwill got permission to leave St. Louis and nobody ever suggested he managed the Cardinals properly before he moved to Phoenix. His team never won or even played host to a playoff game in St. Louis.

The Rams had no official comment, but they're balking at the suggestion that they should pay any kind of relocation fee because St. Louis was rejected as an expansion site.

The question now is whether the Rams will threaten to sue at the league meetings in March next month or decide it's easier to pay a fee.

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The threat

Cleveland without the Browns?

It's hard to imagine, right?

Well, Browns owner Art Modell is trying to get the town to imagine it.

He recently told the team's publication, Browns New-Illustrated, "If I don't get either a new stadium or a refurbished stadium by the end of the contract [1998], I'm not going to move the team, but I will sell the team to someone who might move it."

There's a novel way to make a threat without saying he's going to move the team.

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Meanwhile, Modell isn't earning much goodwill lately. He recently raised prices on the 7,000 best tickets at Cleveland Stadium from $37 to $55.

It doesn't help that his coach, Bill Belichick, isn't popular with the fans and the players even though he got the team into the playoffs last season.

When Michael Dean Perry was released after being bypassed in the expansion draft, he became the latest ex-Brown to take a potshot at the coach.

"I can't see into the future. But I know you can't treat players the way Belichick does and get any reward," Perry said. "I think he had more respect for me than he did for some of the others. But he belittles people. He tried very hard to get rid of the players who could think for themselves."

Belichick's reply: "I'm not going to get into a mudslinging contest."

Ticket prices

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Despite the cap on player salaries, the league doesn't have a cap on ticket prices.

The Dolphins raised their prices $3 a ticket to an average of $32.57, 11th highest in the NFL.

"If you didn't have a salary cap, you'd be talking much, much larger increases," said owner H. Wayne Huizenga.

He still has a way to go to catch the top four next year. They are Dallas at $42.50, Carolina at $40, San Francisco at $38.75 and the Jacksonville Jaguars at $37.


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