One of the most interesting scenes at the owners meetings in Phoenix last week came courtesy of Patriots owner Robert Kraft. He stopped to meet with a group of reporters outside of the Biltmore Hotel and, having just lost Wes Welker to the Denver Broncos, stepped out of character and went into great detail to explain why the Pats were unable to strike a deal with the popular wideout. In his efforts to paint New England in a better light, he allowed us a peek at the new NFL business model.
“Let me tell you what has happened in the NFL this year: The top 25 players have received 700 million dollars. How many Pro Bowls cumulatively do you think those players have gone to? Six,” said Kraft. “That tells you the trend has gone to signing young, up-and coming players.
“There were 52 starters — and a starter is someone that plays more than eight games — who had been cut this year. Forty-one of them are over 30 years old. I don’t think this has ever happened the same way in the league.”
As a member of the labor committee that helped negotiate the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, Kraft is fully aware that the flat cap is behind this development. When the salary cap stays at around the same number from year to year but players’ contracts go up, teams have to be even more disciplined in their allocation of resources. As a result older players, whose projected production might not be in line with their salary demands, are hitting the streets with greater frequency. From Welker to James Harrison to Brian Urlacher to Ed Reed, a good deal of notable names either have a new address or no address at all. Quality, veteran teams like the Ravens and Steelers eventually bang their heads against the financial ceiling.
“Now, you can’t win for long, which is why nobody will ever go to four straight Super Bowls again,” said Bill Polian. “The system is designed to take good teams and rob them of players. That’s the way it is.”
It is a good problem to have if you are the Ravens and have to figure out how to redevelop your core after winning a Super Bowl and identifying a franchise quarterback. For teams like the Eagles, the process is about building and identifying that core.
“You have to set your priorities on your team because you’re going to want to keep your front-line players, and as the cap is flat the contracts are naturally going to rise year to year, and the pay scale is going to rise,” said general manager Howie Roseman. “You have to figure out where your priorities are, where your deal-breakers are, where you can live with maybe a younger player, maybe a more inexpensive player. Those are the decisions you have to make when you live in a flat-cap world.”
The Eagles identified LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson, Todd Herremans and Trent Cole as pieces they wanted to build around, signing each to contract extensions last offseason. The idea is to hold onto quality, homegrown talent to help establish a proper culture. You rely on the draft to find other key pieces at bargain prices. In a flat-cap market, drafting well is more important than ever.
Free-agency dollars are spent on young players with upside like Connor Barwin (26), Patrick Chung (25) and Kenny Phillips (26) that are acquired at fair or below-market prices. Hopefully they fit in the locker room and are productive. If not, you cut your losses.
“Now you’ve got a flat cap and not a large, strong free agent class so you have to be more value-oriented,” said Jeffrey Lurie.
“It’s no different than the stock market. You’re not going to have a permanent philosophy for 10 years, you are going to adapt to the economic situation — what the opportunities are, the risk-reward – and try to maximize your situation.”
Invest in your core, supplement that core with quality, inexpensive pieces, have some financial flexibility for a rainy day (like when you discover a franchise quarterback, say) and hope that the group matures into a title contender. The Eagles have a young roster (average age of 26.2) and plenty of cap room at their disposal (around $23 million). Now comes the maturity process.
Lurie hopes that when he faces a situation a few years from now like Kraft did with Welker, that he will do so from a similar position of strength — one that can only come from being a champion.
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