Under the cover of media darkness, secrets hide from the prying eyes of journalists.
Some of these secrets are kind of a big deal. For example, before the free agency period began, differing media accounts (including those from your friends at the OBR) gave the Browns anywhere from $16 million to nearly $40 million under the cap.
That's a bit of a disparity, isn't it? If you're looking for a sure sign that the media might be clueless, you can find it right there.
In this modern age, we cannot have the media looking silly. Americans believe in the purity, faithfulness, and integrity of their Fourth Estate, and this sort of embarrassing failure can undermine all the principles on which our great nation stands.
Fortunately, I'm here to save us all from this horrible fate.
From the depths of my purposely darkened Cap Cave, which is not my parent's basement as far as you know, I will illuminate the mysteries of the NFL salary cap. After that, I'll square the circle, isolate dark matter in a lab, quickly whip up some cold fusion and find the Higgs Boson.
First things first: The NFL salary cap, and your Cleveland Browns.
I will first reveal to you the magic number: $29 million. That's how much the Browns had to spend in free agency prior to March 1. Nearly every report on the team's available cap space was wrong.
According to our sources, after the free agency trade and spending spree, the Browns currently have somewhat less than $8 million available to them under the cap, prior to the recent signings of Kris Griffin and Seth McKinney to one-year deals.
Here on the OBR, we reported in Ask the Insiders prior to the beginning of free agency that the Browns were between about $16 million under the cap. Those numbers were correct.
"Holy green eyeshade, Capman!", you find yourself saying, "how could the $16
million number have been correct while the Browns still had $29 million to
spend? Tell me!"
There's Gold In Them Thar CBA Rules!
Our sources had told us that the Browns had about $100 million spent towards 2008 salaries prior to the beginning of the 2008 roster year. The cap figure for all NFL teams was $116,729,000. Simple math yields $16 million or so available to spend.
So why were the Browns able to spend more than that? It's because the Browns used a little-known rule in the Collective Bargaining Agreement to push up the amount of money they had available to them to spend. They didn't have more money available under the cap, they effectively increased the cap figure by over $12 million.
According to Reuben Frank of Sports Illustrated, the Browns and several other teams took advantage of Article XXIV, Section 7, section ii, paragraph c, part (iii) of the CBA.
Don't have the CBA memorized? Here's what it says:
At the end of a season, if performance bonuses previously included in a Team's Team Salary but not actually earned exceed performance bonuses actually earned but not previously included in Team Salary, an amount shall be added to the Team's Salary Cap for the next League Year equaling the amount, if any, by which such overage exceeds the Team's Room under the Salary Cap at the end of a season.
Teams have something called "Likely to Be Earned" (LTBE) incentives which they have to count in the salary cap. If a player's contract contains something like "Earns $50,000 for being able to breathe after game five", it goes down as an LTBE. That counts on the salary cap.
On the other hand, there are Not Likely to Be Earned (NLTBE) incentives. For example, "Earns $100,000 for being able to jump over Terminal Tower while carrying a load of bricks". Those probably won't be paid out, so don't count towards the cap.
So, he above rule helps make sure that teams don't hide salary outside the cap under NLTBEs. If teams do pay out bonuses classified as "unlikely" they lose that amount of cap space the next year. Conversely, it compensates teams with more money next year if they had counted bonus money against their salary cap that they didn't actually have to spend.
Like any loophole, teams are more than happy to abuse this exception for competitive advantage. Here's where the cleverness begins.
Mutual Contractual Back-Scratching
The Browns quietly re-signed two players towards the end of last season, when everyone's attention was on what was happening on the playing field. Two players who signed new deals during that period were long snapper Ryan Pontbriand and QB Ken Dorsey.
Information late last season about Pontbriand and Dorsey's contracts was, in journalistic parlance, "kind of weird".
"Kind of weird" is what I do, so let me explain.
The long snapper's deal was exactly the opposite of the back-loading you usually see in NFL contracts, where players sign for "reasonable" amounts in the immediate future, but then are then promised absurd salaries in later years that they will never, ever see. The players with these contracts generally get cut or renegotiate their contracts before teams have to pay through the nose.
Pontbriand's contract, from what we heard, was incredibly bloated in the first year for a long snapper, with a cap hit of nearly nine million for 2007, and a cap hit in 2008 of around five million. After that, Pontbriand's cap impact started being a little closer to what you might expect from a long snapper. After 2008, Pontbriand is making a lot of money by the standards of mere mortals, but is getting more typical paychecks by NFL long-snapper standards.
It turns out that Pontbriand's contract was structured this way because the Browns put $8 million in his contract as "Likely to Be Earned" incentives for 2007. By signing the contract during the season, and giving Pontbriand huge performance bonuses that he (presumably) didn't earn, the Browns were able to push extra cap space they had in 2007 forward into 2008.
In other words, the Browns hid a bunch of 2008 cap space in Pontbriand's contract by promising him performance bonuses he would never earn. At the same time, the robo-snapper gets a nifty long-term deal. Mutual backs are scratched.
The special bonus: it looks like the Browns have another $4 million or so stashed in Pontbriand's contract that they can roll forward into 2009. Either that, or the Browns long-snapper is going to get some nice bonus checks this year.
Very clever. Someone give Browns GM Phil Savage and cap coordinator Trip McCracken free beers. Or raises.
So, Pontbriand's deal shows how $8 million could get added to the Browns cap for 2008. Where did the other four million come from?
Even I, the Dark Beancounter, haven't been able to nail that down precisely, but we suspect a lot of it was in the contract that Ken Dorsey signed late in the 2007 season. That contract gave Dorsey a very nice looking first year and we suspect that contract held another huge chunk of change that the Browns could push towards 2008 spending.
So, if you put this all together, the Browns were able to add over $12 million onto what they were able to spend on salaries this year.
As a result, they had $29 million in March and have $8 million now. Mystery solved.
Same Cap Time, Same Cap Channel
My mission has just begun. If you're interested in knowing more about how teams (specifically the Browns) manage their salary cap, consider an OBR Total Access Pass subscription. There is more of this to come.