When last season ended, the Jaguars' salary cap was loaded with big salaries and overwhelming bonus amortization that cast the future of the franchise in a dim light. Four-and-a-half months later, the team's cap fortunes have been radically reversed.
Thanks to the Houston Texans and a series of cap-conscious personnel decisions by the Jaguars, the Jaguars will not have the league's worst salary cap situation this season, and the painful projections for embarrassing amounts of "dead money" in 2003 and 2004 have been all but extinguished.
"We're in good shape in 2003. We have a few players who will be free agents who we will address. We have players with significant amortization who will continue to be on the roster, and that amortization will work off as they play out their contracts. In '04, we have a significant amount of room," Director of Football Operations and chief capologist Paul Vance said.
By now, everyone knows how this happened. The Jaguars' time of greatest cap calamity coincided with an offseason in which the Texans expansion draft lifted three players from the Jaguars roster. Immediately, $17 million of 2002 cap room and $12.5 million of bonus amortization was erased from the Jaguars' books. Had that not occurred, Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver said the team would've had no choice but to have re-structured all of its players' contracts and push the problem even deeper into the future.
The Jaguars got lucky; no question about it. The expansion draft was the catalyst to an offseason of quick salary cap repair. It allowed the Jaguars to make all of the subsequent personnel moves that further healed the team's cap.
Vance has spent the last six months studying other teams' ways and means of dealing with the cap. Vance replaced Michael Huyghue last November as the Jaguars' lead contract negotiator and cap manager.
"There are various ways teams have addressed (the cap). Some have leveraged their cap as much as possible, as the Ravens and Jaguars have. Others have tried to be judicious and limit themselves to contracts players actually play out," Vance said.
"The thing you find when you look at all of (the teams) is that they've all suffered down years. There's no magic potion. It takes real awareness of where you are with the cap. When you make a move, where are you with your cap? If a player doesn't turn out or fit, you're going to suffer," he added.
Jacksonville learned that lesson the hard way. The Jaguars spent a lot of money on players such as Bryce Paup and Carnell Lake, who did not return dollar-for-dollar value, and their amortizations left the Jaguars to re-structure the contracts of players such as Tony Boselli to make room for the Paups and Lakes. Ultimately, it cost the Jaguars Boselli, the most popular and productive player in the team's early history.
In simple terms, the Jaguars' cap philosophy of the past was to re-structure four players to sign one. This spring, the Jaguars re-structured one so they might sign four.
To this point in their history, the Jaguars have established a modus operandi of binge and purge. They are not the first team to find themselves in that situation, and even though every team in the purge stage says, "never again," Vance can't help but consider the possibility that winning requires bingeing.
"If you substantially increase your amortization, at a point in time you're going to have a lot of dead money and that will affect your ability to reload. There's still the question, are the teams that mortgage their futures going to be the ones who win the Super Bowl?" Vance said.
"I think everybody has got to answer that question. If you mortgage your future, you can have a very strong team. Can you win not doing that?" he asked.
It's fair to say the Jaguars are in the process of answering that question. What will become their MO? Will they remain a binge and purge team, in the mold of the Ravens, 49ers, Cowboys, etc.? Or will they model themselves after the cap-conscious Steelers, who've seldom dabbled in expensive free agency and have been reluctant to re-sign their own star players when they've reached the second half of their careers?
What happens this season will go a long way toward determining the Jaguars' salary cap philosophy of the future. If the Jaguars are successful, following an offseason of limited spending, they may continue to follow that plan.
"During the cap era, can you look at a particular approach of a team and say they have been consistently effective? They key is your players and develop them. If you're making a decision today, you have to know what the effect is going to be on your cap in two years. If you're not planning for that, you're going to run into problems," Vance said.
"Wayne and Tom (Coughlin) have both said you have to look at a much broader spectrum than the next game. That's the discipline you have to have. I would think we've learned a lot about the extent you can go toward leveraging your future. I think we're disciplined to not create the frustration," Vance added.
It would be logical to believe the Jaguars will not do to themselves again what they did between 1996 and 2000, when expensive free agents poured into Jacksonville with alarming cap-recklessness. That won't happen again. But it would be illogical to believe the Jaguars won't start spending, again, as soon as they have the room to do so. It is very definitely in Weaver's and Coughlin's personalities to be aggressive in pursuing football talent.
"It would be an easy story to write that there is a strict plan, but the world changes. We've done a tremendous amount of work understanding how other teams react to the cap, and then formulating a way to move forward," Vance said.
What will be that way?