Exposing perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of the Redskins-Kirk Cousins #ChaChaCha
NFL teams reportedly were told on Monday March 5 that the salary cap for the upcoming league year will be $177.2 million. As we finally are concluding the Redskins-Kirk Cousins contract situation with him set to leave the team via unrestricted free agency upon the start of the new league year on March 14 at 4 p.m. Eastern, and as we get set as Redskins fans to welcome Alex Smith as our new starting quarterback, I wanted to set the record straight on something that I’ve heard and read time and again during the #ChaChaCha: the Cap Cry.
You know what the Cap Cry is. It’s some version of, “The Redskins couldn’t afford to pay Kirk big money, because doing so would have come at the expense of the rest of the team.” The logic behind the Cap Cry is that unless a quarterback is truly elite, you shouldn’t pay him massive money because that precludes you from fortifying the rest of your roster.
This is a myth. I’m tired of hearing and reading it. So let’s establish the truth once and for all.
First of all, the NFL salary cap has sky-rocketed in recent years, going from $123 million in 2013 to now 177.2 million in 2018. That’s a $54.2 million increase – a 44.1-percent increase – in just five years. The cap now has gone up by at least $10 million each of the last five seasons. This is the crux of something that I have said time and again in the #ChaChaCha – “today’s overpay is tomorrow’s bargain.” What seems like an exorbitant amount to pay an NFL star today won’t seem so bad in just a few years due to a) the continuing increase in salaries, especially for quarterbacks and b) the continuing increase of the cap.
And then there is the advent of rollover cap space. Perhaps the most historically-significant change brought by the 2011 CBA was a clause allowing teams to roll over unused cap space from year to year. The idea behind this was to give teams varied ways of spending while still ensuring that over four-year periods those teams would be spending 89 percent of their caps. A consequence of the rollover cap-space clause has been cavernous amounts of cap space for some teams and wild spending sprees as well – see Jacksonville, which carried over $32 million on top of the normal salary cap in 2016, signed defensive lineman Malik Jackson that offseason and then signed defensive lineman Calais Campbell and cornerback A.J. Bouye last offseason. Those three players were huge parts of what was the no. 1 defense in the NFL this season per the Football Outsiders DVOA metric.
So we have established that the salary cap is increasing at an incredible rate and that teams’ cap spaces are growing even more thanks to the rollover-cap-space clause.
But even with all of that established, a team still can find itself in a predicament in which the bulk of the club’s cap space is occupied by just a few players. Surely those teams are doomed, right? Surely those teams make up a parade of double-digit-loss seasons, right? Au contraire.
Let’s start with the team specifically referenced by Kirk at his charity event on Jan. 5, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Five offensive players on the Steelers accounted for 40.26 percent of their cap space this season. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger ($18.2 million), receiver Antonio Brown ($13.618 million), running back Le’Veon Bell ($12.12 million), center Maurkice Pouncey ($11.051 million) and right guard David DeCastro ($11.05 million) combined for $66.039 million in cap space this season. And yet the Steelers went 13-3, had the no. 3 offense in the NFL per DVOA and had the no. 9 defense in the league per DVOA.
How about a team that ripped the Redskins by 17 points in Week 14, the Chargers? Just four players accounted for a whopping 32.38 percent of the Chargers’ cap this season. Quarterback Phillip Rivers ($18 million), linebacker Melvin Ingram ($14.875 million), defensive tackle Corey Liuget ($9.5 million) and receiver Keenan Allen ($8.65 million) combined for $51.025 million in cap space this season. And yet the Chargers went 9-7, had the no. 7 offense in the NFL per DVOA and had the fifth-best point differential in the AFC (+83).
You want more? Look at Carolina. Just four players accounted for 31.27 percent of the Panthers’ cap this season. Quarterback Cam Newton ($20.167 million), linebacker Luke Kuechly ($12.763 million), tight end Greg Olsen ($12.1 million) and defensive tackle Kawann Short ($10 million) combined for $55.03 million in cap space this season. And yet the Panthers went 11-5 and had the no. 7 defense in the NFL per DVOA.
There are many keys to having success in the NFL. The biggest key is having good players. And good players can be found and developed in a variety of ways. Salary does not always equal production. If you draft and develop well, you can afford to pay certain guys a lot and still be just fine.
Finally, let’s examine the most oft-cited Cap Cry in the #ChaChaCha: Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens. How many times have you heard some version of the Ravens having not been able to properly build up their team since signing Flacco to his big-money contract in March 2013? This just isn’t true.
The Ravens have had a top-10 defense per DVOA in four of the five seasons since Flacco signed his deal. Here are the rankings: no. 7 in 2013, no. 8 in 2014, no. 20 in 2015, no. 6 in 2016 and no. 3 in 2017. If the Flacco contract is so burdensome and onerous, then why have the Ravens had top-10 defenses in four of the last five years?
Baltimore’s offenses – and Flacco himself – have been the problem. The Ravens may well have spent big money on a quarterback who wasn’t worth big money, even though they were essentially put in a position in which they had to give him big money after his amazing playoff run during their 2012 Super Bowl-winning season (Flacco had 11 touchdown passes versus no picks and averaged 9.05 yards per pass attempt over the Ravens’ four wins in the postseason of Jan. and Feb. 2013). But the notion that the Flacco contract has prevented Baltimore from having what it’s known for – great defense – is simply wrong. And better drafting would have helped the offense during this time – how has that 2015 first-round pick, receiver Breshad Perriman, worked out?
The debate over how much Kirk is worth is a separate issue. I, personally, would have paid whatever it took to get a long-term deal done. If you disagreed, fine. There are legitimate reasons to do so. But, please, enough with the Cap Cry. It’s a myth.