Teams must monitor cap issues very closely

The Associated Press

When the Packers gave Brett Favre the NFL’s first $100 million contract in 2001 — well, first “$100 million contract,” because, like so many deals in the league, it wasn’t ultimately worth the advertised amount — the team structured it to create extra space under the salary cap for other signings.

So other players’ signings were put on hold by the Packers until Favre’s could be finalized.

Easier said than done.

“He was tough to reach. When he’s off in the woods, hunting or fishing, it’s hard to find him,” recalled Andrew Brandt, who managed Green Bay’s cap then as a team VP. “And we had all these other guys lined up, and I couldn’t do their deals until we found him. So that was a very stressful time.”

Such behind-the-scenes machinations take place all the time in the NFL, where the salary cap, which grew to $167 million per club for the coming season, factors into every roster-shaping decision. As free agents search for deals, the amount of money they’re able to obtain is dependent on several variables, of course. None is as crucial as how the cap would be affected.

Here is a look at how cap management works:

What are you?: “Are you a playoff team? Then maybe you just have to make a few tweaks,” former Broncos GM Ted Sundquist said. “If you missed the playoffs, you have to decide: Are we too young or too old? Do I have some young guys that we can wait on and hope they develop? Or are we on the other side of the hill and we have to make hard decisions with some aging veterans?”

WHAT DO YOU HAVE?: As teams assess rosters, former NFL GM Dennis Hickey said, “The starting point is your quarterback situation: Do you have a franchise guy? An OK veteran? An unproven youngster?”

Teams look at the full roster, applying a calculus of contributions versus contract.

“You listen to your scouts and your coaches, independently of each other,” Sundquist said. “But you also have to cover your ears and block out noise, people in the organization — it can be the owner, but I didn’t have that problem in Denver — saying, ‘Well, so-and-so, who’s a Hall of Famer, said this on ESPN the other day.'”

WHAT DO YOU SPEND?: It’s not just about having room under the cap. It’s also about having cash available. “Fans don’t necessarily get this one — and I don’t think the media always does, either. You have rich teams and poor teams. Everybody’s playing with ‘Monopoly money,’ so to speak, but it matters when the cash arrives,” Sundquist said. “Maybe we offer $20 million in the first year, but it’s a $10 million payment right away, $5 million in November, another $5 million in February, when there are season-ticket renewals and money is coming from other sources. And then the agent says, ‘This other team will give us $20 million right now in March.'”

ARE YOU  WATCHING?: Re-searching how other teams spend cap money, Brandt noticed better clubs tended to spend evenly on offense and defense. Sundquist picked up on trends, too.

“I’m paying attention to the Steelers, Giants, Patriots, Packers — teams consistently competing for a Super Bowl,” he said. “Should we spend more at defensive end than at safety, for example, based on other teams’ success? And I would say, ‘Coach, we’re not spending enough on the offensive line.’ Or ‘Coach, I got to tell you, we’re not spending enough at wide receiver.'”

The Steelers generally are less interested in other teams’ veterans, preferring what GM Kevin Colbert described as a “draft, develop, keep-our-own” approach.

As clubs follow that model, Colbert said, “you’re seeing less and less quality free agents. There’s an inherent danger in that, because some of the players who are hitting the market, with the number of dollars that are available, might not be quite worth what they’re going to get paid because of the supply and demand.”

WHAT DO YOU DO WITH VETERANS?: Some veterans are asked to give up money to keep a job. Others are let go.

“Is a player producing at the level you anticipated? Is he going to maintain or improve upon that? Do you see value in that player but you think you need to renegotiate? Is it a player you can approach about changing his deal? Is it an agent you can approach?” Sundquist said. “It’s a big thing to ask: ‘We’re in the fourth year of a five-year deal and we can’t carry that. Would you be willing to renegotiate to help the club?’ There’s a pride factor there.”

Brandt remembers being told by Packers GM Ron Wolf to shave millions because they were up against the cap. Brandt needed to “go to a lot of Packer Hall of Fame players, whether it was LeRoy Butler, Dorsey Levens, Gilbert Brown or Santana Dotson and either restructure or let them go.