They arrived in Jacksonville from opposite directions. The Eagles and Patriots are polar opposites in every way, almost.
The Eagles are led by a coach with a "West Coast offense" background. The Patriots' boss is a hard-core defensive guy.
When the Eagles embarked on their rebuilding project, they began by making quarterback Donovan McNabb the second pick of the 1999 draft. The Patriots got their guy, Tom Brady, in the sixth round of the 2000 draft.
The Eagles lost three consecutive NFC title games before they broke through in this postseason. Under Belichick, the Patriots haven't lost in the postseason. They are now at 9-0 and counting.
What got the Eagles over the hump? Most would attribute it to the additions of Terrell Owens and Jevon Kearse, two extremely expensive free-agent acquisitions. Meanwhile, the Patriots spent a minor amount in free agency last offseason.
They are two teams that prove there's no one way to get to the Super Bowl, right? Well, not exactly. Though the Eagles and Patriots are very different in many ways, they are identical in the most important way. They are extremely sound salary cap managers.
That's the one way to get to the Super Bowl. Manage your salary cap soundly. That's the one path common to both of these teams.
Where's the bad money on their caps? Go ahead, find it. Roosevelt Colvin? Yeah, that was a goof by the Patriots in 2003. Jon Runyan? OK, that was a lot of money to pay a right tackle. Name some others.
Philadelphia and New England are in Jacksonville because they haven't made many salary cap mistakes. They don't have a lot of "dead" money. They have been willing to let guys go and they've replaced them very neatly with less expensive guys.
"The signature of the Eagles is doing guys early. They trust their personnel evaluations. We can lock him up," Jaguars salary cap whiz Tim Walsh said.
Cornerbacks Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown are perfect examples. The Eagles allowed 2003 starting cornerbacks Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor to escape in free agency. That put Sheppard and Brown in the starting lineup and, as the Eagles expected, they were very capable of replacing Vincent and Taylor.
So what did the Eagles do midway through this season? They signed Sheppard and Taylor to long-term contracts, even though they each had two years remaining on their rookie contracts. It meant the Eagles were going to lose a little more room on their 2005-06 caps, but they were going to save oodles in the years after '06. In other words, even as they were embarking on their first Super Bowl berth in over 20 years, they were thinking three years ahead.
"If you identify the core guys you're going to get a savings that way. The Eagles identify guys early and sign them early. You get better value than if you let them get to free agency," Walsh said.
Smart, huh? The Patriots are, too, in the same way.
The Patriots went into the 2003 season as the AFC favorite. It was a team with a promising present and a healthy salary cap. It had the room to spend on safety Lawyer Milloy, but coach Bill Belichick said no, not for a safety. Belichick cut Milloy, and the Bills, right in the same division, signed Milloy to a deal that included a $5 million signing bonus.
Milloy's replacement in New England was Rodney Harrison, who the Pats signed for a $2.5 million signing bonus. That means the Pats got an upgrade at safety for half the price. Smart, huh?
When it comes to these two teams, that's all you see, smart. "They're both willing to let guys go," Walsh said.
It's the motto of the salary cap era: You have to be willing to let guys go.
Philadelphia allowed Duce Staley to leave in free agency last offseason, and Staley was off to a big year before being injured at midseason. Staley would've been a major loss for the Eagles, except they knew they had a guy, Brian Westbrook, to replace him.
That's another one of the Eagles' signatures. They seem to have an inexhaustible supply of young players who are able to replace older, more expensive players. The Eagles have drafted well and that has allowed them to excel at managing their salary cap.
Another one of the Eagles' signature moves is paying roster bonus instead of signing bonus. Roster bonus must be declared in full on the salary cap of the year in which the money is paid, whereas signing bonus money must be spread evenly over the life of the contract. Paying roster bonus is a way of pre-paying for future years.
"What they do is if they have room in the current year, instead of pushing money out with signing bonus, they put money in that year," Walsh said.
The Eagles did a lot of that in their early years of their development, and the cap space they saved for future years is the cap space that allowed them to sign Owens and Kearse.
Smart, huh? You bet it is.
And when it comes to smart, nothing makes the Eagles look smarter than what they did with linebacker Jeremiah Trotter. In '02, the Eagles let Trotter go in free agency. He signed with the Redskins for a $7 million signing bonus. Two disappointing seasons later, the Redskins cut Trotter and the Eagles signed him to a one-year deal, minimum wage, no signing bonus, and Trotter is playing the best brand of linebacker the playoffs have seen since Ray Lewis led the Ravens to the Super Bowl XXXV title.
The Patriots have used a lot of the same techniques to make their cap possibly the healthiest in the league. Imagine having Brady as your quarterback at a $5.06 million salary cap figure. That's about what the "franchise" fee will be for a safety in '05.
Brady won his second Super Bowl in '03 with a cap figure of $3.1 million. You gotta be kidding, right?
No kidding. It helps, of course, that Brady was a sixth-round pick. He started his career at slave wages and the Patriots could've kept him there, but instead of getting all of the cap benefit up front, they seized the opportunity to use that advantage to their long-term benefit.
After Brady's second pro season and a Super Bowl win that didn't convince everyone that he was "The Man," the Patriots did a new deal with their young quarterback. In August of '02 the Patriots signed Brady to a contract extension that he's playing under right now. What do you think Brady would've cost the Pats had they let him play out his first deal? Do you think he might be getting Peyton Manning money?
Smart, huh? Oh, yeah, real smart.
That's what Sunday's Super Bowl teams have in common. They are both real smart when it comes to managing their salary caps.