|When he bumps into groups of 49ers fans, Browns president Carmen Policy, the genius of the salary cap of the 1990s, often is asked about the cap disasters left behind in San Francisco. His response is simple.
"At what point did you want me to pull the plug?" Policy said to a usually silent response. The salary cap started in 1993 when the 49ers were a four-time Super Bowl champ with an already high-priced roster. Policy and then owner Eddie DeBartolo kept borrowing cap money from the future to squeeze out six more playoff seasons, including a fifth Super Bowl. No one wanted Policy to break up the 49ers.
Now, the 49ers are in cap prison. Bill Walsh had to shave $24 million to get under this year's cap and the reduction was so stiff, the 49ers couldn't sign a player from Feb. 11 through the draft. How tight was it? He paid $280,000 cap dollars to deep-snapper Joe Zelenka, realized he could only afford players at the $193,000 minimum at the time and traded him to the Washington Redskins. Their cap was so tight they entered camp with only 20 players with more than three years of experience.
The beauty and agony of the NFL salary cap is that it can be beaten, but the more you beat it, the more it eventually beats you. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and NFLPA Executive Director Gene Upshaw agreed upon a system that allows competitive flexibility at a price. Teams close to a championship can exceed the $62.172 million cap by giving players big signing bonuses and low base salaries. They can free up cap room by replacing base salaries with signing bonuses.
The scales of competitive justice eventually catch up because the cap is soft in the short term but hard in the long term. Those $440,000, first-year base salaries eventually grow to $3 million to $4 million by the third year so the starter gets his $4 million salary. Eventually, teams cap out and can't keep their player assets.
The 49ers were just the first of many teams headed toward cap hell.
"This isn't rocket science," Panthers capologist Marty Hurney said. "With each contract, you put yourself over the edge and hope you don't fall off the cliff."
The Chiefs, Jaguars, Bills, Cowboys, Vikings, Titans and Panthers are the next closest teams headed for cap disasters similar to the 49ers. The Redskins may join them in two years. But the system gives them the freedom to redo enough contracts to keep their star players and add an impact player or two to win a championship.
At what point do you pull the plug?
The Bills have been a playoff team the past two years and are the model of simplistic cap survival. General manager John Butler, by virtue of great drafting and a shrewd signing or two, keeps knocking on the door of playoff success. In 1998, the Dolphins' final-second, goal-line stand kept the Bills from advancing into the second round of the playoffs. Last year, the Music City Miracle killed them.
Teams who get the cap
1. St. Louis. Rams president Jay Zygmunt moves to the top of the list because he's balanced the worst of all cap situations. The Rams had several drafts of top six players, which kills caps because of the market calls for voidable deals or escalators that destroy cap planning. Zygmunt has managed to balance those high draft choices plus paying off Super Bowl stars Isaac Bruce, Kurt Warner and others and leaving the team $11 million under next year's cap. That gives them room to re-sign defensive end Kevin Carter and cornerback Todd Lyght.
2. Jacksonville. Michael Huyghue has done magic for years in building Tom Coughlin's perennial Super Bowl contender. That he's kept the young stars together and found room for a key free agent signing a year is remarkable. Should he do the same being $31 million next year, he will enter the Cap Hall of Fame. If he doesn't, he drops out of the top five.
3. Denver. Because Mike Shanahan knows what he wants for talent, general manager Neal Dahlen signs players to fair deals and leaves money for good players who may be available. To think that the Broncos won two Super Bowls and are $3 million under this year's cap and $4 million under next year's is remarkable.
4. Oakland. Bruce Allen does some of his scribbling on letters and napkins, but the senior vice president has a system that players seem to like. Top players such as Tim Brown, Steve Wisniewski and others have had the contractual option to leave for several years, yet their agents work with Allen to accept fair salaries and get under the cap.
5. Detroit, San Diego and Tampa Bay. Each use clean cap systems that don't offer a lot of incentives and rarely have voidable contracts. That leaves them in a position where they don't have to take any major cap hits and can already free up room to do anything they want.
Owner Ralph Wilson gave Butler the go-ahead to "Go for it again," but the cap made this year's transition more painful. They purged long-time fixtures Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, Kurt Schultz, Sam Gash, Thomas Smith and 11 others, redid virtually every veteran contract to free up cap room and kept a thin-but-dangerous playoff contender.
Redoing all those contracts added roughly $5 million onto next year's cap in signing bonus proration. The low base salaries of this year swell another $5 million. With the cap only expected to go up $5 million to around $67 million in 2001, the Bills find themselves $16 million over next year's cap. A year ago at this time, they were $12 million over.
The Bills keep edging closer to the cap cliff.
Most around the NFL agree that the Jaguars will be in free fall after this season. To keep their defending AFC Central championship team together and add middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson, Jaguars senior vice president Michael Huyghue soared $31 milllion over next year's cap, a number that will grow once Tony Bracken's next contract is registered in a day or two.
Huyghue swears he can redo enough contracts to not only keep the entire roster together and get extensions for Mark Brunell, Kevin Hardy and others, but he says he can add one veteran free agent to a four-year, $17 million deal. Those who have studied his cap, though, believe redoing every contract and releasing wide receiver Keenan McCardell and tackle Leon Searcy after the season will still leave him $6 million to $7 million over next year's cap.
"The cap gives you a window of a few years to get things done," Lions capologist Tom Lewand said. "Once that window starts to close, it's tough. The Vikings spent a lot of money a couple years ago to make their run to 15-1. Since then, they've found it tough to revert back to that type of season."
Redskins owner Daniel Snyder has the league abuzz by his $100-plus million spending spree this season. Capwise, they are in great shape for now. They have a $1 million cushion in this year's cap and are roughly only $700,000 over next season.
While most consider the cap window for a top team to be five years, the Redskins' window may only be three or four years because Snyder eventually faces tough cap consequences. Quarterback Brad Johnson, wide receiver Albert Connell and linebacker Greg Jones are free agents next year. Guard Tre Johnson, defensive end Kenard Lang and wide receiver Michael Westbrook are up after next year.
Where the Redskins will run into cap trouble if Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith and Mark Carrier can't go longer than two seasons. The cap hits coupled with the high-priced re-signings could cause major cap problems for Snyder in 2002.
"Charley Casserly set the Redskins up well by leaving them three first-round draft choices and plenty of room to sign them," Raiders senior vice president Bruce Allen said. "The problem is that it's tough to count on players being there for five or six years."
That's why it's tough for teams to laugh at the tough state of the 49ers. The more they try to emulate their success, the closer they come to joining them in cap prison.
John Clayton is the senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
Teams who don't get it
1. San Francisco. Bill Walsh inherited an impossible cap situation because the 49ers exceeded the cap window of success by three years. Where he gets himself in trouble is giving escalators and voidable deals that make the cap a rising target each season. But instead of being $20 million over as they were a year ago, the 49ers are $14 million over for next year. That's progress.
2. Cincinnati. The problem is not managing the cap, it's spending to the cap. Usually, the Bengals waste $3 million of cap room a year by not spending it. They made progress in getting a long-term deal with right tackle Willie Anderson, but they need more long-term deals and talent.
3. Arizona. Owner Bill Bidwell doesn't have one person work the cap and make decisions, so major decisions are inconsistent. Jake Plummer's four-year contract was too much too soon and not long enough. The Cards claimed cap poverty in releasing five players Thursday because they have a fourth of their cap tied up on injured players.
4. Minnesota. The Vikings gave Randall Cunningham $1 million to keep him on the roster so that they could release him. They've left their defense strapped to the bare bones for talent.
5. Buffalo. At least they care. The Bills don't do fancy contracts. They pare more than fairly but their benevolence has them in a tight cap situation that grows worse each year. But at least they are trying.
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