The Bengals ended 2008 $10.8 million under the salary cap, (h/t WDR) which is actually a bit surprising, since Cincinnati typically spends up to the limit, or close to it. They actually exceeded the cap a couple years back, thanks to several players hitting various contract incentives, and normally use up any significant excess space in-season to extend current players — as they did in December of 2006 with Carson Palmer, absorbing about $5 million of his $100 million deal in ’06.
Would spending up to the cap have helped last season? Probably not. The Detroit Lions ended the their 0-16 season less than $1 million under the cap. By contrast, Tampa Bay was also $10.8 million under last season, and missed the playoffs only due to an epic late-season collapse. Atlanta was more than $5 million under and made the postseason. Which only goes to show, once again, that it isn’t how much you spend, but how you spend it that really matters. And the Bengals rarely make wise spending decisions.
Still, while you can’t carry over cap space from year to year, you can carry over cash, and that unspent money ought to mean that the Bengals have more ready cash available this time around. As I’ve written before, cash on hand is actually more important than the cap. With sufficient available funds, any team can circumvent the cap to their hearts’ content, though the five-year limit on bonus proration due to the looming uncapped year will hamper that somewhat this year.
The Bengals have a number of needs that could be filled in free agency for, individually speaking, not a lot. These include fullback, safety (Chris Crocker?), and center. They also want to re-sign Cedric Benson and Shayne Graham. None of these players or positions are top-dollar ones. Benson’s deal would be the most expensive ($6 million a year?). Even with a sixth-round pick who will command a deal worth more than $50 million, the Bengals seem to be in good shape money-wise to accomplish their offseason goals. The problem, of course, is that the people who have been making the same bad decisions about how to spend the Bengals’ money for nearly two decades are still going to be making those calls this year. Oh well, maybe we’ll get lucky. Heaven knows we’re due.