The Philadelphia Eagles spent lavishly to get to Jacksonville, Fla.
The New England Patriots got there on a budget.
The 2004 season proved, once again, that there's more than one way to win in the NFL. It's not necessarily how much you spend on players. It's how well you spend.
The Eagles, at $105.1 million, had the second-highest player payroll of any team in the league this season, according to the computation method used by the NFL Players Association. Only the Washington Redskins' payroll, at a league-record $117.9 million, was higher (see chart). The Eagles made a Super Bowl-or-bust push last offseason with the high-priced acquisitions of wide receiver Terrell Owens and defensive end Jevon Kearse. And it has paid off, as they finally have reached a Super Bowl after losing in the NFC title game in each of the previous three seasons.
The team that the Eagles will face in Jacksonville in nine days, the Patriots, ranked 24th among the 32 NFL clubs with a payroll of just less than $77 million. The Patriots, who are playing in their third Super Bowl in four seasons, have been known for their wise spending under the direction of Coach Bill Belichick and front-office chief Scott Pioli. They do have some high-priced players, like quarterback Tom Brady and injured cornerback Ty Law. But they have become the league's model franchise because Belichick and Pioli have navigated the salary cap and free agency better than anyone else in recent seasons. They draft well. They sign the right free agents. They make the tough decisions when necessary, as when Belichick released safety Lawyer Milloy just before the 2003 season because of a contract dispute. And once a season starts, Belichick is able to get his players to put contract issues aside and function as a cohesive unit with a professional, team-first approach.
The Eagles and Redskins were the only two clubs to have payrolls in excess of $100 million this season. Seven other teams -- Houston, Detroit, Seattle, Miami, the New York Jets, Minnesota and Indianapolis -- topped $90 million.
The San Francisco 49ers, who had a league-worst record of 2-14, had the NFL's lowest payroll, at $62.6 million. The Dallas Cowboys, who had a 6-10 record, had the next-lowest payroll, at $65.4 million. The Cincinnati Bengals, who went 8-8, were the only other team under $70 million.
But once again, there was no clear correlation this season between spending and winning. The Redskins were the league's freest spenders again, as owner Daniel Snyder gave Coach Joe Gibbs everything he wanted, and went 6-10. Four of the league's six highest-spending clubs missed the playoffs. Half of the 12 playoff teams ranked in the bottom half of the league in spending. The Pittsburgh Steelers, who went 15-1 during the regular season before losing to the Patriots in the AFC title game, had the league's 23rd-highest payroll, at $78.1 million. The AFC West champion San Diego Chargers ranked 26th, at $76.2 million, and the Denver Broncos reached the playoffs with the NFL's 28th-highest payroll.
More than half of the league -- 17 teams -- spent more than the $80.6 million salary cap. The NFL has a soft cap that allows clubs to structure players' contracts so that they can spend more than the cap and still remain in compliance.
The method utilized by the players' union for computing teams' payrolls allows for comparisons of the clubs' spending habits, but does not necessarily reflect how much cash a team actually spent on players in a year.
All signing bonus money in those players' contracts that began in the 2004 season count toward the teams' 2004 payrolls under the union's accounting method, even though many of those signing bonuses actually are structured to be paid in installments over several years. For example, the entire $34.5 million signing bonus in the contract that quarterback Peyton Manning signed with the Colts last offseason counted toward Indianapolis's 2004 payroll of $92.1 million, even though the deal called for Manning to receive only $16 million of the signing bonus last year; he is to be paid the remainder of the bonus this year (by March 5) under the terms of the contract. Attempting to track such deferred payments would make payroll calculations significantly more complex, however.
By the union's calculations, the teams had an average payroll of $83.8 million this season. Players league-wide received nearly $2.7 billion in compensation. The average salary of $1.33 million per player this season was up 6 percent from the $1.26 million average during the 2003 season.
T.O. Confident He'll Play
Owens continued to test his surgically repaired ankle with a running program Thursday in the Eagles' indoor practice facility, supervised by Eagles head trainer Rick Burkholder. Owens continues to act as if he's planning to play in the Super Bowl over the objection of the orthopedist, Mark Myerson, who performed surgery on the wide receiver's severely sprained ankle last month. Owens might attempt to practice with the Eagles on Monday in Jacksonville . . . .
The Eagles are leaving open the possibility of using tailback Brian Westbrook on some punt returns during the Super Bowl. He was the club's primary punt returner last season -- when he had two touchdowns on punt returns -- but was regarded as too valuable to perform the duties on a regular basis this season . . . .
The Patriots are having a normal practice workload this week, just one day behind the regular schedule. They're having their heavy practices of the week Thursday and today and plan to have a lighter practice Saturday. Usually, an NFL team has its heavy practices Wednesday and Thursday and then has a lighter practice Friday and a walk-through Saturday . . . .
Terry Robiskie, Cleveland's interim head coach late this season, has passed up opportunities to interview for assistant-coaching jobs with other teams, including New Orleans and Minnesota. He apparently is in line to remain the Browns' offensive coordinator if the team hires Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel as its head coach, as expected, following the Super Bowl . . . .
The Chargers hired veteran coach Carl Mauck, who was out of the league this season, as their offensive line coach to replace Hudson Houck, who joined Miami's coaching staff for a contract worth nearly $1 million per season. Mauck played for the Chargers in the 1970s and was their offensive line coach in the early '90s . . . .
Oakland hired former Purdue head coach Jim Colletto as its offensive line coach . . . . The Cowboys hired former Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni for an unspecified assistant-coaching job . . . . The Jets reportedly hired Jeremy Bates as their quarterbacks coach. He was Tampa Bay's assistant quarterbacks coach and is the son of Jim Bates, the Dolphins' interim head coach in the second half of this season who just became Green Bay's defensive coordinator . . . . Jacksonville hired wide receivers coach Steve Walters away from Tennessee. He becomes the latest assistant coach with an expiring contract to rebuff the efforts of Titans Coach Jeff Fisher to retain him. Walters met with Fisher twice Thursday but reportedly picked the Jaguars . . . .
Scot McCloughan, Seattle's college scouting director, is scheduled to interview with the 49ers today for the vacant position of San Francisco's front-office chief. The 49ers are to interview their own national scout, Brian Gardner, for the job Saturday.