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For Bucs, is it banking on the future or bust?

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 13, 2003


Perhaps the rent will not come due after all.

Go through life quickly, and perhaps it will not catch up to you. Move often, and perhaps the bill will get lost in the mail.

Hey, it could happen. Just because you eat bacon and ignore your cholesterol doesn't mean you'll end up with a heart attack. Not absolutely.

So don't think about it. Keep the payroll coming, keep the players happy. Live for today.

And if the check comes due in, oh, 2005 or so, well, you can worry about it then.

Such is the new way of the world at One Buc Place, where Rich McKay has been transformed into ATM. One day he's a frugal, careful money handler. The next he's the guy who gives Wimpy the money for his hamburger today instead of Tuesday.

For a Bucs fan, of course, this is terrific stuff. It doesn't necessarily mean the Bucs will repeat as Super Bowl champs, but it does mean they have bought themselves a chance.

The price of chance, it turns out, is much like the price of gasoline. It doesn't come cheaply.

So far, the Bucs have converted roughly $30-million of salary into bonus money. You know another word for bonus money? It's right-now money. It's cash-in-hand money. It's the cha-ching on top of the bling-bling.

Nothing wrong with that. No one would suggest the Bucs spare a penny in their pursuit of another Super Bowl title. Frankly, it's delightful to watch champions get a money shower.

Millions to Ronde Barber? Done.

Millions to Derrick Brooks? Fine.

Mega-millions to Simeon Rice? Cool.

Any minute now, you expect McKay to rise from behind the counter and announce: "Now serving No. 19."

Understand this, though. This game the Bucs are playing has danger involved. There is a minefield, and there are hand grenades, and juggling is involved.

For years, McKay refused to restructure contracts. He simply wouldn't do it. That was his way of staying away from salary cap problems. Philosophically, he would say, you don't borrow from your own future. In other words, if you do, the cap goons may show up one day and threaten to break your team's kneecaps.

These days, however, restructuring is a weekly occurrence. Heck, I restructured this column, if you want to know the truth.

As for the Bucs, they don't have a lot of choice. When a team pays all the salary the league will allow, and then it wins a title and seven guys go to the Pro Bowl and everyone wants a raise, the money has to come from somewhere. In the NFL, that means playing footsie with the cap.

Now consider the Bucs have traded away seven first- and second-round draft picks the past three seasons, which means those positions have to be filled by more expensive free agents. Now, you're playing footsie with both feet, which tends to leave someone tangled up.

Does that mean the Bucs are necessarily headed for Salary Cap Jail?

No. But a couple of more restructurings and the warden is going to learn their name.

By now, there is almost a dull acceptance that, eventually, the Bucs are going to pay for all of this fun. Fans have seen time run out on Dallas and San Francisco, on Baltimore and Jacksonville. Anymore, it seems almost inevitable that winning catches up to a team. It's like growing old. It happens to everyone. Why worry about it?

Does that mean the Bucs are doomed to mediocrity in 2005?

Well, maybe not.

Put it this way. As long as Rice is a great player, it doesn't matter which pocket the Bucs slide his check into. As long as Brooks keeps playing well, or Barber, or anyone else who receives a new structure, the Bucs are fine.

Still, this is a different game, and it carries different risks. It demands a team be smart, and that it remains healthy.

If the Bucs make a mistake, if they restructure the wrong guy, or a guy at the wrong time, or if they give too much bonus over too many years, or if the guy doesn't perform, or if he's injured, or if he retires, a team can feel the repercussions for years.

If, for instance, Rice were to be hurt and turn into Marcus Jones, whose career was derailed by injury, then the Bucs could end up absorbing the hit. Too many of those, and they're playing volunteers from the studio audience.

Dallas and San Francisco ran into trouble by paying too many players into their 30s too much money. Dead money, it's called. Payment for players who left the building long ago.

For now, the Bucs are somewhere short of doomed. They haven't restructured with as much money as Dallas, with players the age of the 49ers', with the sheer numbers of the Jaguars. Ah, but wait until next year. If the Bucs have a good season, the temptation to do more restructuring, riskier restructuring, will be greater.

So what does all of this mean? It means the Bucs can afford to sign a few more free agents, if the price is right. It means the defense can hold next year's meetings at the Yacht Club. It means you can brace yourself for the upcoming Warren Sapp negotiations, because there might be a coming storm.

It means Rice can afford to buy a few extra Lotto tickets, even though it would be redundant. It means McKay has hold of Bryan Glazer's Visa card. It means the next thing to be restructured will be the rock, which will be pounded as metamorphic rather than sedimentary.

Most of all, it means this. It means the Bucs are betting, heavily, that Rice will be an impact player throughout his contract. They're betting Brooks and Barber and Quarles and the rest will be, too.

Also, they're betting you'll agree on this:

Compared to a Super Bowl celebration, who's afraid of a hangover in 2005?

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