03-11-2005, 12:03 PM
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Join Date: Oct 2004
Location: San Antonio, TX
A good example of how the cap screws you
PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney is credited with largely designing the NFL salary cap system that went into effect in 1993, and his team has long been one of its most faithful followers.
At least the Steelers were until three years ago, when they began to routinely restructure contracts to get them under the cap -- a strategy that proved the undoing of other prominent NFL franchises, including the Redskins, Ravens, Jaguars and Titans.
The Steelers spent most of last season only a few hundred thousand dollars under the cap, and they were forced to cut cornerback Chad Scott and tight end Jay Riemersma last month to get under the $85.5 million cap that went into effect last week.
Since then, they have restructured the contracts of at least four starters: center Jeff Hartings, linebacker Clark Haggans, running back Duce Staley and linebacker James Farrior. They also reworked running back Jerome Bettis' contract for the second year in a row, after he agreed to a salary cut from $4.484 million to $1.5 million, plus incentives.
Hartings, for example, was to have made $4.2 million in base salary. But according to the NFL Players Association, he will now make $665,000. He accepted the remaining $3,535,000 as a signing bonus that, for cap purposes, can be spread over each of the next two seasons.
But all this maneuvering can extract a price, if not in the short term then in the long term, when years of salary cap shaving can capsize an organization.
For the Steelers, it means a team that went 15-1 last season and was one victory away from the Super Bowl must settle for second-tier talent on the open market, rather than stars such as cornerback Samari Rolle or wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad.
When they cut Scott, the best they could do was re-sign former backup Willie Williams, who played surprisingly well last season, but hasn't been a full-season NFL starter since 2001.
They also replaced defense-stretching wide receiver Plaxico Burress with Cedrick Wilson, who is 7 inches shorter than Burress and is not the deep threat Burress is.
The lack of cap room also means the Steelers are devoting millions of dollars of salary cap space to players who no longer play for them. Linebacker Jason Gildon, who hasn't played for them in 15 months, counts $2.6 million against their 2005 cap.
Director of football operations Kevin Colbert insists the Steelers are not being crushed by the cap and will never be forced to jettison a large number of key players just to stay under the cap, as the Titans recently did by releasing six players.
"We are never going to lock ourselves out from a salary cap standpoint," Colbert said. "You can always make it work."
Even if it is getting harder and harder for the Steelers to make it work.
Hartings, for example, is almost certainly playing his final season in Pittsburgh despite being an All-Pro center in '04. Because he restructured his contract in each of the last two seasons by converting salary into signing bonuses, Hartings will count $7.7 million against the Steelers' 2006 cap if he plays -- far too much for them to devote to a player who doesn't man a skill position.
But even if Hartings is released next year or retires, he will count nearly $3 million against their 2006 cap due to the prorated shares of the signing bonuses he accepted each of the last two years.
Still, Colbert doesn't seem overly concerned, saying the Steelers could sign additional players this season.
"We'll continue to monitor the rest of the players that are out there and what the market is," he said. "We are never going to stop trying to get better."
Anyone still wanna keep Howard and pay big money to Joe?