Cheap ways dooming Bucs? Numbers say no

TAMPA — On Nov. 19, 2008, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed a running back named Noah Herron. They released him on Dec. 17.

Hardly anybody noticed.

Also on Dec. 17, they signed a defensive end named Patrick Chukwurah, who was with the team for the last two games of the season.

Hardly anybody noticed.

Last month, though, the Wall Street Journal singled out their contracts in a story about what in the National Football League this year seems like a chasm of difference between the teams that are winning big and the teams that are losing badly. The newspaper said Herron and Chukwurah had signed deals with the Bucs potentially worth $25 million but ultimately were paid only $228,000.

Here, thought Tampa Bay fans, was proof that the Bucs were only pretending to spend money, resulting in their rotten play.

"I think it's very telling and obvious what's going on," one fan wrote on an Internet message board.

Said another: "We're screwed!"

Mark Dominik, the team's first-year general manager, knows that's the perception.

"Cheap," he said one recent afternoon while sitting at a picnic table by the Bucs' practice fields. "Right."

That has been true. For the past five years, the Bucs have had the lowest payroll in the league, but it turns out the Herron and Chukwurah deals are not proof of that trend. Just the opposite.

You never hear about these kinds of deals when you're watching from your couch or the bar on Sunday afternoons. Why? Because they involve the salary cap — an often mentioned but not always understood aspect of professional football. What the Bucs did late last season with Herron and Chukwurah offers a fascinating window into the math-whiz manipulation that makes the league's money machine whir and separates the winners from the losers.

It might be hard to believe, but the Bucs, who are tied for the league's worst record at 1-9, not only aren't being cheap — they're also spending more money this year than most teams. National Football League Players Association data obtained through players' agents show the Bucs have spent approximately $131.7 million this year. That's higher than this year's league salary cap of $127.9 million.

Why have the Bucs been able to spend more than the salary cap? Because their "adjusted" cap is $153.6 million.

Why is the Bucs' adjusted cap the highest in the league? Because of those deals with Herron and Chukwurah.

The deals hardly anybody noticed.

• • •

The story of the Herron and Chukwurah deals, though, starts back in the early part of this decade, when the Bucs were not one of the worst teams in the NFL but one of the best.

They won the Super Bowl in January 2003 in large part because their roster featured high-performing and high-priced players like Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks and Simeon Rice. Rice was the league's highest-paid defensive player. But that came at a cost. The summer after the Super Bowl win, the team was only $600,000 under the salary cap, which is no room at all to make any kind of significant signing.

Team execs needed to cut costs fast.

"The first rule of getting out of salary-cap problems," said Mark Dominik, the general manager, "is to stop spending."

Which the Bucs did.

From the 2004 season to the 2008 season, the Bucs ranked 32nd of the 32 teams in the NFL in total dollars spent on players, according to NFL.com. The Bucs in those five years spent almost $120 million less on players than the team that spent the most. The Dallas Cowboys spent $566 million.

At the same time that the Bucs were paying less than every other team in the league, they also were drafting worse than most. Of the Bucs' 47 draft picks from '04 to '08, only 17 are still with the team — an abysmal rate.

This is Dominik's first year. He opted not to blame his predecessors for any poor decisions they might have made, at least not explicitly, but when asked earlier this month how many years in a row the Bucs have drafted poorly, he stared at a reporter, smirked and paused for effect, then said:

"That's a good question."

It's a question perhaps more appropriate for former general manager Bruce Allen. He was fired this past January and didn't want to talk for this story. It's a question, too, that could be asked of the Glazer family. The owners of the Bucs are also the owners of the lucrative but expensive Manchester United soccer team in England. Tampa Bay fans wonder if the other team has become the priority. The Glazers didn't want to talk, either.

Regardless, low spending and bad drafting ultimately got the Bucs to the final month of last season, when they lost their final four games and missed the playoffs after a promising 9-3 start.

Time to rebuild.

Enter Herron and Chukwurah.

• • •

First, though, some NFL 101: The league has had a salary cap since 1994. It's meant to ensure that each team has roughly the same amount of money to spend on players. That's meant to make the games close so they're more exciting. Here, simplified, is how it works: Revenue from ticket sales, merchandise sales and lucrative television contracts is split evenly among all 32 teams in the league.

The overall revenue figure can go up or down from year to year, although to this point it has never gone down, and so the salary cap changes from year to year, too. But it's important to understand that the per-team figures are anything but static.

"Although the NFL salary cap is reputed to be a 'hard' cap, it really isn't," said Al Lackner, the senior editor and "resident capologist" of askthecommish.com., a Web site focusing on the NFL. "There are various things that teams can do to get around it."

Teams pay huge bonuses to the best players, but all that money does not hit the cap right away; for the purposes of accounting, teams can prorate that expense against the cap over five years.

NFL contracts also often include incentives. The league labels incentives in two ways: "likely to be earned" and "not likely to be earned." The "likelihood" of an incentive is based on past performance: If a receiver caught 80 passes last year, an incentive in his contract for next year based on 80 passes would be deemed "likely," whereas an incentive based on 90 passes would be "unlikely."

But here's a particularly useful loophole: Incentives for performance on "special teams" — kickoffs, field goals, punts — are always labeled "likely." That's because of the overall unpredictability of that part of the game. Team execs and analysts of the league call these special teams incentives "bogus." They will never be reached.

That's the point.

And this is where Herron and Chukwurah come in.

When you think of the NFL, you probably think of players like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, but far more players in the league are guys like Herron and Chukwurah. Unknown and hardly used, they're Plan-B players, recycled from team to team.

Herron, 27, was drafted in 2005 in the seventh and last round. He has played, sparingly, for the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Green Bay Packers and the Bucs. Since leaving the Bucs, he has signed with, and been released by, two other NFL teams. Right now he's playing for the New York Sentinels of the first-year United Football League.

Chukwurah, 30, was a fifth-round draft pick out of the University of Wyoming. He has played for the Minnesota Vikings, the Denver Broncos and the Bucs. He's playing in the UFL now, too.

Late last year, though, the Bucs signed the two of them to contracts worth a total of $25 million when incentives were taken into account. All they had to do was block six punts. Each. An impossible task. And if either one of them had in fact managed to block five punts, Dominik said earlier this month with a laugh, he never would have gotten the opportunity to block the sixth. He would have been kept on the sideline.

Neither player ever got into a game, as it turned out. The Bucs paid Herron $157,000 and Chukwurah $71,000, and then they were gone.

This, though, is the key: Because Herron and Chukwurah didn't make their incentives, that is money the Bucs didn't have to pay last year, and league rules say they get a credit for that. It's money, in league lexicon, that a team can choose to "roll over."

The Bucs, according to players' agents, rolled over $25.6 million from their salary cap last year to their salary cap this year. That was by far the highest figure of any team in the NFL. The league average this year was only $5.4 million. Almost all of the Bucs' rolled-over money came from the Herron and Chukwurah deals.

It's not illegal. It's not unusual.

"There are a number of teams that have done this for a number of years," said Charley Casserly, an NFL analyst for CBS and a former general manager for the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans.

"Nobody around the league in salary cap circles is looking at the Bucs as being an oddball in terms of what they're doing down there," said J.I. Halsell, a "capologist" who has worked as an analyst for the Redskins and in the NFL's labor relations department.

"It's actually pretty smart," he said.

Teams don't have to roll money over to their cap the next year — they can let it "burn off" and start over — but the Bucs chose to give themselves at least the chance to spend it.

"The best analogy," said Dominik, the general manager, "is the commercial with the mom and son, and she's saying, 'You threw away rollover minutes. They're perfectly good!' It's the same thing with the salary cap. That's perfectly good money you can spend on players."

That, he said, is the plan.

"Our owners didn't just say, 'Just do this with it,' " he said, putting his right hand in the pocket of his slacks and holding it there with his left.

"Let's roll it into next year," he said, "so we can use it on players."

• • •

What have they done with that money?

In February, they offered more than $100 million to the most coveted player on the first day of the free agency period, defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. He chose to sign instead with the Redskins. But the point, Dominik stressed this month, was that the team wanted to spend $100 million on one player.

The same day they traded for tight end Kellen Winslow from the Cleveland Browns and then extended his contract for six years at $36 million. This season he has been the team's leading receiver.

In March the Bucs signed free-agent running back Derrick Ward for four years at $17 million and re-signed wide receiver Michael Clayton for five years at $26 million.

"We went out and drafted a first-round quarterback" — Josh Freeman — "which is one of the most expensive deals in the draft," Dominik said. "Not a lot of clubs have written $100 million in contracts."

It not only has allowed them to spend a lot of money by purchasing players, it also has let them cut at least one underperforming player.

Defensive end Gaines Adams was drafted two years ago and was one of the team's highest-paid players because he was the fourth overall pick. But his ineffective play made him expendable, and the team traded him to the Chicago Bears last month. When they did that, though, his bonus payments could no longer be prorated over the remainder of his six-year contract — all that money hit the Bucs' cap immediately. They could take that hit because of all their cap space.

"There was a point when we were $40 million under the cap," Dominik said. "There was a point when we were $30 million under the cap."

Now? The number is still high, about $21 million.

Next spring, they could pursue prized free agents like Brandon Marshall of the Denver Broncos and Vince Wilfork of the New England Patriots.

"They're going to have plenty of room to go after some big-name free agents if they want to rebuild like that," said Halsell, the capologist.

The Bucs' awful record, of course, comes with one benefit: They'll have a high first-round draft pick in April. That pick won't come cheap. They'll also be able to resign some of their young potential stars like Barrett Ruud and Davin Joseph.

And around this time of year, toward the end of the season, at least for the teams left with the necessary cap space, there's always the option of writing some bogus special teams incentives into a couple of contracts and then rolling that money over to next year.

Might the Bucs do that again?

Dominik sat at the picnic table by the team's practice fields and nodded.

"Yes," he said.

"Yes."

Stephen F. Holder can be reached at sholder@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3377. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

Cheap ways dooming Bucs? Numbers say no 11/27/09 [Last modified: Saturday, November 28, 2009 9:39pm]

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