If the dream has always been to have a league that’s competitive, or with “parity” then the salary cap is the warm milk NFL administrators have taken in order to drift off to sleep at night. The salary cap has brought mighty teams down, making them pay for what was once thought to be a virtue: a desire to win.
The cap is supposed to give each team an equal opportunity to compete, year in and year out. Many teams have found ways around it, the 49ers did with Carmen Policy and Dwight Clark in charge. They go caught, and have paid hefty fines. As many who break the rules say, their only crime was they got caught. Maneuvering around the salary cap is rampant in the league, the Niners are just the first to be exposed.
The Jacksonville Jaguars have taken advantage of their advantage as an expansion team. Starting out, their balance was zero. They paid no money to players not on their roster. Nobody counted against the cap that wasn’t in uniform. Using that advantage, they signed players to lucrative contracts, attracted free agents, and became instantly respectable. Now, they’ll fall in line with the rest of the league.
Although Head Coach Tom Coughlin says he doesn’t sense a “rebuilding” year ahead, he has used the phrases “magic wand” and “a challenge” when describing salary cap issues in the upcoming off season. If there is one thing the league needs inside the salary cap rules, it’s a provision for injury. Setting a team in the off-season takes plenty if imagination and ingenuity. The balance created between the stars and the backups on any roster is very tenuous. One injury, and that balance is forfeited. If you lose a star player, you can’t go try and replace him, but his salary counts against your cap.
Inside the Jacksonville Jaguars locker room, the talk is about a .500 record, the Giants and playing for pride, at least publicly. Outside of the locker room, the talk is of the salary cap, and that’s it. Estimates range as high as $40 million as the number the Jaguars will be over the cap next year. Michael Huyghue, the Jaguars Vice President of Football Operations, their capologist, says the number is not quite that high but they will have some cutting to do. He lists, Mark Brunell, Leon Searcy and Kevin Hardy as the team’s top priority in restructuring contracts for next year.
No mention of Keenan McCardell, whose cap number is just over $4 million. If the team cuts him, he’ll still count $1.8 against the cap next year, so for not much more, they can keep him. If you go through the offense, there are no more than 5 players who will definitely be back in the teal and black next year.
Brunell says ‘no question” he’ll be back next year. His cap number will need to be around $7 million. Jimmy Smith is the best bargain in the NFL, Tony Boselli and Fred Taylor are under contract. After that, it’s wide open. Kyle Brady has been valuable, but are they willing to pay $3 million for a Tight End? Jeff Smith and Todd Fordham are both free-agents who have made themselves some money in the last 6 weeks. Brad Meester will only be in his second year. Daimon Shelton and Brendan Stai seem to be returning players, if their salaries are at the right level.
Huyghue’s comment about Searcy was the most puzzling. Leon is in the driver’s seat. They owe him money if they cut him or if they keep him. The Jaguars didn’t allow Searcy to show the rest of the league he can still play when they put him on injured reserve at the end of the season. He didn’t like that, but didn’t make a stink about it either. As Tom Coughlin said, he’d like to wave a “magic wand” to keep Searcy on the team, but it will be very difficult.
Defensively, the question centers around Carnell Lake and Hardy Nickerson. The Jaguars have admitted they went out of their model for success in signing both players, but Tom Coughlin says they did that because they were productive players who had never been hurt. Both have been injured. Bringing them back seems unlikely, except Nickerson already counts over $2 million against the cap next year so he might return.
They have to make a decision on Tony Brackens and the second half of his bonus. Gary Walker is a Pro Bowl caliber player, but do they want to spend that money on a defensive tackle? Joel Smengee wants to return and says he’ll be reasonable with the Jaguars because, frankly, he doesn’t want to move and play somewhere else. If he returns, it will be with an entirely new contract.
Huyghue admits the team will have what he calls a “catch up” year, in order to pay for being very competitive for the last five seasons. Every other team in the league has had to “catch up” and it looks like the Jauguars turn.