Redskins still dealing with tight salary cap

Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post - “They said they wanted to free up some money, some cap space,” said Stephen Bowen, left. “They were against the wall on the cap. So I mean, really, whatever we can do to help.”

The Washington Redskins have, in effect, survived the salary cap reduction imposed on them last year by the NFL. The team won the NFC East title last season in the first year of the two-year, $36 million penalty, and Redskins officials managed to keep the club’s roster basically intact for this season.

But the penalty continues to impact the Redskins’ operations. The team’s salary cap situation remains tight and the Redskins have reworked the contracts of defensive linemen Barry Cofield, Stephen Bowen and Adam Carriker in recent days to remain beneath the cap for the regular season.

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“They just approached me and Barry about it,” Bowen said Wednesday at Redskins Park. “They said they wanted to free up some money, some cap space. They were against the wall on the cap. So I mean, really, whatever we can do to help.”

The three contract reworkings saved the Redskins an estimated $3.7 million in salary cap space. According to people familiar with the deals, Cofield’s restructuring cleared approximately $2.4 million in cap room and Bowen’s saved the Redskins about $1.02 million. A person with knowledge of salary cap records said the exact amount of cap room saved by Carriker’s reworked deal was not immediately clear but it appears to be about $300,000. Carriker is on the physically unable to perform list after undergoing a third surgery for the torn quadriceps tendon he suffered last season.

General Manager Bruce Allen said in training camp the Redskins would have to rework some players’ contracts to remain under the cap for the season. NFL teams this week must begin counting all their players against the salary cap after being required by cap rules to count only the top 51 players during the offseason.

“Any time you have seven people that would have been part of your 46[-man active roster] on game day — you’ve got two suspensions and you’ve got five guys either on PUP or on IR [injured reserve] — that’s one of the reasons why we had to restructure a couple contracts, or at least one contract,” Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan said Wednesday. “So I feel good where we’re at. We have a lot more depth. And we’ll be able to get three of those players back for sure. So hopefully we take advantage of it.”

The penalty was imposed on the Redskins last year by the league, with the consent of the players’ union, for the manner in which the team structured players’ contracts during the sport’s season without a salary cap in 2010. The NFL found that the Redskins technically violated no salary cap rules but attempted to gain an unfair competitive advantage. The Dallas Cowboys were found guilty of similar tactics and had their cap reduced by $10 million over two years. The teams denied wrongdoing and challenged the penalties in arbitration but had their case dismissed.

Allen said during training camp that the cap penalty “will hurt us for a number of years. It’s just not those two years because the repercussions of it down the road.”

The latest restructurings by the Redskins will cost them some future salary cap space. The team had avoided doing that during this past offseason, when it re-did several deals by getting players to accept pay cuts (although in some cases the players can earn back the lost salary through incentives, which potentially can have future cap ramifications).

The cap penalty did not render the Redskins uncompetitive. They went 10-6 last season, winning their final seven games to secure the division crown. They lost one significant free agent during this past offseason— reserve linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, a locker-room leader and Pro Bowl selection on special teams. But they re-signed a group of players eligible for free agency that included tight end Fred Davis, right tackle Tyler Polumbus and guard Kory Lichtensteiger. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall was re-signed after being released just before the free agent market opened.

“I think everyone was aware,” Cofield said Wednesday of the cap penalty. “I was very aware, upset, felt like it was wrong and all those things, and collusion and all those words that we try to get past. But, I mean, it’s all true, but what can you do? We won last year, won the division, able to keep the team together. I feel like our future is bright.”

Bowen said as he stood in the locker room: “Nobody really talks about it in here. You’re aware of it. You know that we got hit with like the $18 million [annual reduction]. It just shows how good our staff is, the organization, getting quality players in here. We had a winning squad last year, even with injuries. Next year — we’re not worried about that right now — but next year we’ve got to sign a couple guys and probably get a couple free agents to make our team even better.”

Shanahan said Wednesday that the salary cap penalty had no effect on the decisions the Redskins made last weekend when they trimmed their roster to 53 players for the regular season. Earlier this week, Shanahan declined to comment on the broader impact of the cap penalty on the team’s roster, calling the issue “water under the bridge.” Allen, who has been sharply critical in the past of the penalty, did not respond to a request to comment.

The Redskins’ decision-makers clearly had a smaller margin for error over the past two offseasons than other NFL teams did in their roster-building efforts. Agents and others who have dealt with the team say the Redskins believe their roster would be significantly stronger now if the penalty hadn’t been imposed.

Those people speculate that the Redskins would have re-signed Alexander and, at some point over the past two offseasons, probably would have signed an established right tackle to bolster their offensive line and perhaps would have added a cornerback, a safety and another wide receiver in free agency. When the Redskins signed wideouts Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan as free agents prior to last season, they also tried but failed to sign a third wide receiver, Eddie Royal. This past offseason, they showed interest in free agent cornerback Aqib Talib, but he re-signed with the New England Patriots for a relatively modest deal.

The counter-balance to all of that is that spending more money rarely, if ever, has guaranteed greater on-field success for the Redskins or anyone else in the NFL. Free agent moves can fail to work out for a variety of reasons, including injuries. The Redskins, even after signing Garcon and Morgan, lacked a 700-yard receiver last season. Wide receiver Santana Moss, entering his 13th season, was valuable to the team last year as a third wideout after it was speculated that he might have been released if the team had signed Royal. Safety Brandon Meriweather played only one game last season after signing with the Redskins as a free agent.

What can’t be debated is that the Redskins and many of their fans have used the salary cap case for inspiration. The usual targets of their ire have been the league and New York Giants owner John Mara, the head of an owners’ committee that was involved in the NFL’s deliberations on the matter.

“We use that as motivation,” said Cofield, who formerly played for the Giants. “You have to use those me-against-the-world-type of tactics, especially when a team in the division is like spearheading the effort to get your penalties, a team that I played for. That gives me even more desire to do good despite those penalties. We know that keeping our core was important to us. We were able to almost do it 100 percent. And we feel like that continuity from year to year will hopefully help us early in the season.”

 
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