Capologists must wear many caps
NFL's salary cap experts are part banker, part coach, part math whiz, part salesman, part magician.
By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
Published February 29, 2004
Bruce Allen tossed out the number mere minutes after being introduced as the Bucs general manager in January. Even coming from the lips of the new salary cap expert in town, a man who deals in millions of dollars as routinely as the rest of us scrape together change for coffee, it was a humdinger.
Half a billion dollars.
Half a billion.
"We're going to spend a half a billion dollars on players in the next five years," Allen said. "When you talk about the salary cap, that's a very important accounting procedure in the NFL."
The NFL is about to enter its 11th season with the salary cap system that has helped make it a sports-hungry nation's most successful professional league. In changing the landscape of the league, the cap also created the need for a front-office player whose position is every bit as important as the star quarterback.
Meet the capologist.
Part banker, part coach. Part mathematician, part salesman. Part lawyer, part magician. Charged with balancing the desires of the coaching staff against an ever-present bottom line, the capologist is the ultimate multi-tasker, able to juggle intricate contracts, super-sized egos, demanding agents and enough numbers to make Donald Trump dizzy.
"It's like being a stock broker," Allen said. "The market is always fluctuating."
In 1993, the NFL and its players union agreed to a salary cap, a maximum amount of money teams can spend each year on players. It went into effect in 1994 and has more than doubled the past decade, from $34.6-million the first year to nearly $80.6-million for 2004. With many teams scrambling to get under the cap by Tuesday, the start of the new league year, Allen is among those searching for ways to save.
As of Friday, the Bucs were projected to have a total payroll of $80.668 million, according to John Clayton of ESPN.com, meaning Allen has about $260,000 to trim by Tuesday. But Allen will not stop at that. He wants to create as much room under the cap as possible to allow the Bucs to pursue free agents in hopes of making Tampa Bay a Super Bowl contender. The first phase of free agency starts Wednesday.
"It's exciting," said Allen, who joined the Bucs after nine years with the Raiders. "You visualize some of these players in our uniform. For college coaches there is national signing day. Our defining date is free agency. I've always enjoyed talking to players on the first night of free agency."
Managing the salary cap is of utmost importance in today's NFL, where players move from team to team in waves. Allen said Friday he expects 20 new players to be on the Bucs 2004 roster. The caliber of those acquisitions hinges on Allen's ability to find room under the salary cap. But Allen has more to consider than just the upcoming season.
"The salary cap is not a year-to-year issue," Allen said. "It's a long-term plan that you have to have. We had a long-term plan in Oakland where we knew that we would never let the salary cap get in the way of acquiring a Pro Bowl-type player."
There are pitfalls.
Teams use the loophole of prorated signing bonuses to mortgage debt. Unlike base pay, signing bonus money can be amortized over the length of a contract up to six years for 2004 with regard to the salary cap. But similar to a consumer who runs up credit cards, there is risk in borrowing from the future.
The Cowboys, in an effort to win championships in the 1990s, repeatedly renegotiated the contracts of their biggest stars, freeing up money to sign veteran free agents. Eventually, that strategy caught up to them. In 2001, Dallas had more than $25-million in dead money, cap space taken up by players no longer on the roster.
The cap essentially has eliminated NFL dynasties, because no team can afford to keep all of its star players.
The strategy employed by the Bucs under former general manager Rich McKay was to maintain a core of talented players, re-signing them before they became free agents, and complement that core with free agents. The roster underwent many changes through the years, but core defensive stars Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, John Lynch and Ronde Barber have played their entire careers in Tampa Bay.
"Football is a very temporal sport: "What are we going to do in '04?' " said John Idzik, the Bucs former assistant GM and cap expert under McKay. "You have to always keep an eye to the future so you don't box yourself in. It gets tempting. You have to pay attention."
Jacksonville cap expert Paul Vance, who did not have a sports background when he joined the Jaguars as general counsel in 1994, devised a model to calculate the economic impact of a personnel decision for the next three years. Using spreadsheets and a projector, he made complex financial concepts easy for his coaches and personnel staff to understand.
Allen, who said he plans to build the roster around the Bucs' core players, also has tools for projecting impact, but he keeps a running total of the team's salary cap totals handy at all times.
In his head.
"The salary cap is a simple accounting procedure, really," Allen said. "You can make it complicated if you want, but it's simple. I don't think I even have a calculator in my office."
[Last modified February 29, 2004, 01:15:11]
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