Would an Uncapped League Be That Bad?

It seems to have become conventional wisdom that an uncapped NFL would be ruinous for the Bengals. However, upon closer inspection, I find the case for the cap made by the likes of ESPN’s John Clayton and SI’s Peter King in today’s story in the Cincinnati Enquirer somewhat less than compelling. For example, Clayton avers that the absence of the cap:

“…would leave the smaller revenue teams such as the Bengals at a competitive disadvantage,” ESPN.com senior NFL writer John Clayton said.

“The Bengals could not make a profit by not spending, but they could be outspent by bigger-revenue teams. The salary cap gives every franchise a chance. The Bengals need it. The NFL needs it.”

I think this is exactly backwards. It is the salary cap itself that has currently put the Bengals at a competitive disadvantage, and given big-market, big-money teams an unfair leg up. How so? Because the big-market teams’ large pots of unshared revenues allow them to more efficiently manipulate the cap.

In effect, these teams already operate without a cap. When was the last time anyone saw or read that Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder couldn’t sign Big Name Free Agent X because the team lacked the cap space? It doesn’t happen, because those unshared revenues give them sufficient cash on hand to continually convert all forms of bonuses, and even player salaries, to signing bonuses, which can then be amortized over the life of players’ contracts. By contrast, small-market teams’ lack of ready cash means they have less ability to skirt the cap. This is why both player’s union head honcho Gene Upshaw and Bengals owner Mike Brown are right when they argue that the root of the problem is the owners’ revenue-sharing agreement (though obviously, Brown doesn’t like the just-axed Collective Bargaining Agreement, either).

Peter King, senior NFL writer for Sports Illustrated, said the Bengals would not be able to retain all of their top players if there is no cap.

“Let’s say Cincinnati has six valued veterans of at least six years of experience (that) are unsigned in an uncapped year,” King said. “The Bengals (would be able to keep two), but four players would be free to go to the highest bidder – and I wouldn’t like the Bengals’ chances to keep them.”

Shoot, if the Bengals had six valued free agents and managed to keep two, they’d be ahead of the game! Cincinnati already allows key role-players and even starters to walk every year. In 2008, for instance, the team had four free agents that, on balance, it would have preferred to keep: Stacy Andrews, Justin Smith, Madieu Williams and Landon Johnson. Only Andrews is still on the roster, and so far it has taken the franchise tag to keep him there. The same thing happened in 2007, when the Bengals tagged Smith and allowed Eric Steinbach, Kevin Kaesviharn and Tony Stewart to leave.

In the end, it’s revenue-sharing that’s the real issue. If all NFL revenues were shared equally between the 32 teams, no team would have the ability to circumvent the cap better than any other. In fact, a cap would be unnecessary, since no team could significantly outspend the others without losing money. But I fear that owners like Snyder and Jerry Jones — among others — will only part with their cash when you pry it from their cold, dead hands.

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