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Only tricking yourself

You're an expert. You even found the error in yesterday's pop quiz answer. What? That's right, the story tried to trick you. The correct answer was a one million dollar cap savings.

Congratulations! You know your stuff.

You've done a great job managing your team's cap. You've provided yourself with flexibility in the present without robbing from your future, and if your personnel department fills your roster with the right people, the Super Bowl may be just around the corner.

But not every team in the league enjoys the same salary cap health. In fact, a couple of teams from right in your division are in big trouble. One of them is capped-out big-time from years of abuse, while the other is following the same course of destruction.

How do we know? It's simple. Look at the things they're doing in an attempt to create room on this year's cap. They're trying every trick in the book to find a way to move money into the future and out of the present.

We'll call them "tricks of the trade," and these are the most common.

Converting salary to bonus—It's the most common and basic concept of creating room on the current year's salary cap. The player agrees to restructure his contract, with all of his salary money above the minimum re-classified as signing bonus and paid immediately. It's a great deal for the player because he gets his money now. It's a "great" deal for the team because it's then able to amortize that money over the life of the contract. Here's an example: A player with four years remaining on his contract is due to make $5 million in salary this year. Four million dollars is converted to signing bonus in a contract restructuring, which means one million dollars will be assigned to each of the four remaining years of the deal. All of a sudden, the player's $5 million cap hit in 2004 has been reduced to $2 million; a cap savings of $3 million. But it's really not a savings. Three million dollars has merely been moved to future caps. It's a cap shuffling. The Jaguars executed this tactic with every player on their roster in the winter of 2001, or the team would've had no chance of getting under the cap.

False or dummy years—The player agrees – usually for some extra money – to add years to his contract, which allows the team to amortize the conversion money over a greater period of time. To assure the additional years will not be enforced, the restructured contract provides for outlandish salaries to be paid in the dummy years. There's no way the team will pay that kind of money to keep the player, so they'll have to cut him, or they'll relinquish his services by not paying a roster bonus due on a specific day. Renaldo Wynn had such a contract.

Voidable years—These are basically the same as false or dummy years, though the contract language is different. The contract merely stipulates that on such and such a day the contract voids. Until then, the team uses the extra years to spread out the amortization, creating room now for which the team will have to pay later. With a restructured contract that includes voidables, the player may not require an extra bonus to do the deal. Kevin Hardy's contract included voidables.

NLTBE—The letters stand for "Not Likely To Be Earned," and they refer to incentive money. Here's how it works: If the incentives in a player's contract were not reached the previous season, then they are not likely to be earned in the current year, which means the team does not have to include them on this year's salary cap. So, in the case of a player such as Tony Brackens, who missed almost all of 2002 with a knee injury, incentive standards were easy to reach in 2003. Last season, Brackens agreed to a restructured contract that converted salary into incentives that significantly lowered his cap hit. They were incentives standards Brackens hadn't reached in '02, but easily reached in '03 when he played in 15 games.

June 2—Ah, yes, who could forget the salary cap equivalent of Christmas? On June 2, teams are able to rid themselves of their most grotesque salary cap mistakes and realize only a portion of the penalty in the current year. A player's remaining amortization is spread out over the next two seasons, though the "stagger" on that amount is one of the most misunderstood aspects of the salary cap rules, and it shouldn't be. It's as simple as this: What's in the current year, stays in the current year; what's in future years, goes into next year. The only exceptions to that rule are trades and players subject to the waiver wire who are claimed. Let's go back to the rule. Here's what it means: If a player cut on June 2 or after has $3 million of remaining amortization, and that amount is prorated over each of the next three years, then the $1 million in '04 stays in '04 and the $2 million remaining amortization goes onto the '05 cap. If the player is a non-vested veteran – meaning he's subject to the waiver claim process – and is claimed by another team, all remaining $3 million goes onto the '04 cap of the team that cut him. Any trade immediately accelerates all remaining amortization onto the current year's salary cap.

Tampa Bay found itself in such a predicament last fall when it wanted to release Keyshawn Johnson. Even though Johnson is a vested veteran, he would've been subject to the waiver claim process because he would've been released after the trade deadline. That means the Bucs would've had to accept an additional $7.3 million of remaining amortization on their '03 cap if they had cut Johnson and he had been claimed. The Bucs didn't have room on their cap to be able to take that risk, thus, the decision to pay Johnson to stay away.

Jaguars senior cap manager Tim Walsh says he's reminded of "where we were a few years ago" when he sees teams employ tricks of the trade. "You can do it in moderation, but if you do it with too many of your guys, you're going to cause problems in the future. You can run from it for a few years, but eventually it's going to catch up with you," Walsh added.

Philadelphia and Denver are two teams who've made opposite philosophies work. Philadelphia is a "hard cap" club. The Eagles prefer salary and roster bonus, which means paying now for a portion of money they'll use later; prepaying. Denver's trademark is alternating years of high and low spending in free agency.

In each case, discipline is the key ingredient. The Eagles have disciplined themselves to bite the bullet in the present, and the Broncos have also disciplined themselves not to deviate from their strategy. In other words, if this is a year for not spending, then you don't dare spend.

So, what happens to the teams who don't practice discipline? Well, they usually experience a fall and the depths of that fall are usually defined by the degree to which they screwed up their cap, and the degree to which they are willing to embrace corrections.

"You're going to have to take a couple of years when you're going to have a lot of 'dead money' and play with a lot of young players," Walsh said.

Buffalo did that in 2001, Baltimore did the same in '02, and mistakes the Jaguars made in 1999-2001 left them in a corrections mode in each of the last two seasons.

Forget the tricks. You're only tricking yourself.

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