During the NFL’s year without a salary cap in 2010, the league’s 32 teams were told emphatically not to structure player contracts to gain an unfair competitive advantage when the salary cap returned. As the year unfolded, however, the Washington Redskins ignored those instructions, restructuring deals that violated the spirit — if not the letter — of the NFL’s wishes.
The team’s actions so angered others in the NFL, including a number of team owners, that some urged NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to strip draft picks from the Redskins, according to one person with direct knowledge of the league’s deliberations.
“All the clubs were warned not to do anything to create a competitive advantage when the salary cap came back, and that’s what [the Redskins] did,” said one of those familiar with the matter. “They were very obvious about it. A lot of people were very angry about it. The ramifications could have been far worse for them. They could have lost draft picks. Some people recommended that to the commissioner.”
Instead, the NFL this week reduced the Redskins’ salary cap by $36 million over the next two seasons. At least half must be subtracted this year, two people close to the situation said Tuesday, insisting on anonymity so they could speak more openly.
Redskins officials were said to be furious with the NFL’s decision and were contemplating how they should respond.
The Redskins have denied any wrongdoing, and people within the league acknowledge the team technically did not violate salary cap rules. What the Redskins did, however, was ignore what most other clubs considered to be an understanding on limiting expenditures on players in 2010 — and that decision prompted this week’s sharp rebuke.
The league took similar action against the Dallas Cowboys, who will lose $10 million off the salary cap — a league-mandated ceiling on each club’s player payroll — over the next two years, according to those familiar with the NFL’s action.
The NFL and the Redskins have said little publicly about the matter. Washington General Manager Bruce Allen issued a statement late Monday that said the team had done nothing wrong and noted that all contracts during the period had been approved by the NFL.
“We look forward to free agency, the draft and the coming football season,” Allen said.
Indeed, the dispute failed to dampen the club’s opening moves as free agency began Tuesday afternoon. The Redskins and former Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Pierre Garcon agreed to a five-year, $42.5 million contract within the first hour of free agency. They followed that by agreeing to a deal with wide receiver Josh Morgan and pursuing Eddie Royal.
Without the NFL-imposed reduction, the Redskins would have had $30.5 million in available space under the salary cap. Instead, with the release of two veterans Monday, they had about $17 million available as free agency began.
Teams generally can find ways to create salary cap room when they need it by restructuring the contracts of other players on the roster, so the impact of the league’s action on the Redskins’ ability to operate in free agency will be limited.
The longer-term repercussions of the NFL’s decision are more difficult to judge.
The 2010 season was played without a salary cap under a provision in the sport’s previous collective bargaining agreement, a measure designed to prompt the owners and players’ union to negotiate an extension of the labor deal before the uncapped year arrived. In this case, it didn’t work. The salary cap went back into effect last season when the sport’s new labor agreement was ratified.
The issue, people familiar with the league’s thinking said, is not related to how Redskins owner Daniel Snyder and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who have built their franchises into two of the sport’s wealthiest teams, are regarded by the other owners. Instead, these people said, the league was upset with the extent to which their teams refused to heed the warnings about player spending during the uncapped year.
The league did not find that the Redskins or Cowboys violated salary cap rules, people familiar with the league’s decision said. Instead, it found that they sought to gain an unfair competitive advantage once the salary cap returned.
“The league’s responsibility is to ensure . . . that every club has a fair, comparable opportunity to win, that the playing field is essentially level, and that no club starts ahead in the race to develop a competitive team,” said one person familiar with the league’s thinking. “The contracts at issue were intended to give clubs precisely such an advantage” when the salary cap system went back into effect.
According to those familiar with the case and the league’s reasoning, the Redskins and Cowboys paid money to players during the uncapped year that otherwise would have been paid to those players in subsequent seasons with a salary cap. That way, the money never counted against the salary cap and the teams would have more cap space available when the salary cap system was back in effect.
The Redskins, those people familiar with the case said, used those measures most extensively and ended up with a player payroll during the uncapped year far in excess of those of other teams.
The NFL Players Association believes the Redskins and Cowboys did nothing wrong, a person with knowledge of the union’s view said. But the union reluctantly agreed to Monday’s salary cap reductions, that person said, because the league would have lowered the salary cap for all 32 teams if it did not.
Once the union agreed, the league redistributed the $46 million in salary cap reductions given to the Redskins and Cowboys to 28 of the other 30 teams. The Oakland Raiders and New Orleans Saints, who also reportedly were found to have transgressed the 2010 understanding, are not to receive any benefit, a person with knowledge of the case said.
If the Redskins mount a challenge to the salary cap reduction, several people with knowledge of the case said, the team likely would argue that other franchises did the same thing during the uncapped year.
Those people said the Redskins also might argue that other teams were engaged in improper collusion during the uncapped year. But any such claim of collusion could be weakened by the players union’s agreement to the league’s decision in the case, and by the fact that the salary cap reductions were redistributed to other teams, meaning that the overall league-wide compensation to the players was not suppressed.