Penalties send strong signal

Cowboys, Redskins hit hard despite lack of written prohibition

Originally Published: March 13, 2012
By Andrew Brandt | ESPN.com

For the second time in two weeks, the NFL has revealed some dishonorable behavior. Following the New Orleans Saints' "bounty" debacle currently awaiting punishment, the NFL has now announced penalties stemming from contract structuring in the uncapped year of 2010.

In issuing the penalties, the NFL took a strong stance against the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins for behavior that was not prohibited in writing.

The league is deducting $36 million from the Redskins' cap and $10 million from the Cowboys', to be split between 2012 and 2013. The subtracted amounts will be pooled to the remaining teams -- except the Saints and Oakland Raiders, who had less egregious violations. The NFLPA agreed to the penalties provided that the deducted cap room was allocated among the other teams.

2010 anomaly

Under the previous NFL collective bargaining agreement, which expired after the 2010 season, the final year of the agreement operated without a salary cap.

During that year, the Redskins and Cowboys -- two teams with reputations for a "pay now, worry later" approach to cap management -- used the uncapped year advantageously to prepare for the return of the cap. Those maneuvers now result in discipline.

The Redskins restructured two bloated contracts that were too onerous to shed yet ripe for "dumping" into the uncapped year.

[+] EnlargeMiles Austin
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezThe Cowboys' approach to Miles Austin's contract -- out of character for that franchise -- caught the league's attention.
The contract of Albert Haynesworth -- the Redskins' gift that keeps on giving -- was restructured for cap purposes to allocate a $21 million bonus to 2010 rather than spreading it over the remaining years of the contract. DeAngelo Hall's $15 million bonus was similarly restructured. Thus, $36 million scheduled for cap allocation over several years was now contained entirely in the uncapped year of 2010.

The penalty given to the Redskins for this "abuse" is that exact amount: $36 million in cap space.

The Cowboys have always used signing bonuses, prorated over the contract, to save present cap room. In September 2010, however, the Cowboys strayed from that strategy, rewarding Miles Austin with $17 million in the first year of a contract, designated as salary (not prorated).

In 2011, when the cap returned, most of Austin's $8.5 million salary -- $7.855 million -- was converted into signing bonus, returning to the old Cowboy way. Many NFL owners took note of the Austin deal.

Warnings issued

The NFL announced its reasoning for the discipline in a statement that reads in part: "The Management Council Executive Committee (CEC) determined that the contract practices of a small number of clubs during the 2010 league year created an unacceptable risk to future competitive balance."

The management council approves all NFL contracts; it's curious that these contracts are now questioned. Further, the "Uncapped League Year" article of the previous CBA makes no mention of warnings.

Team officials around the NFL, however, said there were several warnings -- although not in writing -- at the start of 2010 advising teams of (1) potential "retroactive accounting" for the uncapped year, and (2) potential discipline for "abuse" of the uncapped year. These warnings obviously went unheeded by the Cowboys and Redskins -- and, to a lesser extent, the Saints and Raiders -- and were followed by more strident warnings at an NFL owners' meeting.

The lack of written warning or restriction gives the NFL little "hard evidence" in levying penalties. My sense is that the out-of-character structure of these contracts combined with the wanton disregard of repeated warnings was too much for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to ignore.

Competing owners watched the Redskins and Cowboys operate one way during capped years while attempting to push "file delete" in the unique uncapped year of 2010.

The executive committee pushed for this discipline and used the announcement of the 2012 cap number and the NFLPA blessing as advantageous timing to deliver this punishment. Why wasn't this done coming into the 2011 league year? It was lost in the rush of final CBA negotiations, several officials with other teams said.

I know from my time in the NFL that every team thinks that the NFL office, at some level, favors other teams at its expense. Today the Redskins and Cowboys believe that they have been unfairly targeted for maneuvers that were not against any written rules, and they have issued strong denials. Meanwhile, other teams may be feeling that Dan Snyder and Jerry Jones finally paid the price after being favored sons for some time.

The Redskins and Cowboys will feel this pain. Ironically, however, this penalty may cause a return to their former ways of pushing out cap problems to the future to operate in the present. We won't have to wait long to find out; free agency begins today.