Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 27, 2012

Will Redskins Pay The Price For Not Marching In Lockstep?

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life is traveling to see family and friends between Christmas and New Year’s. There will be no post on Sunday, December 30, 2012. The regular twice-weekly schedule will resume next Thursday, January 3, 2013. Have a safe and happy new year!

They will play a meaningful football game at FedEx Field this Sunday. That in itself is reason enough for fans of the Washington Redskins to celebrate. With just two winning seasons in this century, meaningful games in December have been a rarity in the nation’s capital. The Redskins haven’t been to the playoffs nor had a winning record since 2007. The fact that Sunday’s opponent with the NFC East title on the line is traditional nemesis Dallas only adds to the drama and excitement. Washington is in frenzy, with reports on Sunday’s game competing admirably with the political drama of the fiscal cliff negotiations for pride of place in headlines and on newscasts.

Whatever happens on Sunday, and it is at least statistically possible though highly unlikely for the Redskins to lose the game and still make the playoffs, Washington fans will be able to look back on a remarkable season. The Redskins mortgaged their draft future to obtain the second overall pick in this year’s college draft, and their choice of Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III has paid off handsomely. RGIII has been everything a fan could hope for, right from his very first game when he dissected the New Orleans Saints defense with his multi-dimensional play.

Still fans were quickly reminded that even a supremely talented signal-caller is still just one of eleven players wearing the same uniform on the field at any one time; and with a porous and badly beat up defense it may be wise for Redskins fans to hold off on making those Super Bowl travel plans just yet. Yet the fact that there is even reason to hope is a glorious testament to what the team has done in the past two months.

Just seven weeks ago Washington entered its bye week on the heels of a 21-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers. It was the team’s third consecutive loss, and with his squad’s record at 3-6 head coach Mike Shanahan stunned the nation’s capital with his post-game remarks. In response to the very first question at his press conference, Shanahan sounded like he had given up on the season as he spoke of using the remaining schedule to evaluate players and seeing “who is going to be on your football team for years to come.” The comments ignited a media firestorm over whether the coach was quitting on his team, which lasted right through the bye week.

We will never know for sure just what Shanahan was thinking when he stood at that podium beneath the stands at FedEx Field. Perhaps in that moment after an ugly loss to an unimpressive Carolina squad he did feel the season was over. Perhaps Shanahan simply misspoke. Perhaps it was all some supremely clever motivational ploy that only a head coach with two Super Bowl victories (and a third as an offensive coordinator) could understand. What we do know is that moments after Shanahan’s press conference ended, quarterback Griffin stood behind the same podium and delivered a different message. “I promise you I’ll come back, and I’ll be a better quarterback the second half of the season for us, for this team,” said an uncharacteristically unsmiling Griffin. “After the bye, I think you’ll see a different team.”

So we have. It has not always been easy, and it has certainly not always been pretty; but the Redskins have run off six straight victories, including four divisional wins that leave the team in position to claim its first NFC East title since 1999. As impressive as that turnaround would be under any circumstances, it is all the more so because the Redskins have played this entire season, and will do so again next year, at a significant financial disadvantage to every other team in the NFL.

As the old collective bargaining agreement between the owners and players wound down in 2010, that season was played without a salary cap in place. Commissioner Roger Goodell’s office warned teams that they should structure their payroll as if the old cap was in place. However four teams, Washington, Dallas, New Orleans, and Oakland, chose to ignore Goodell’s admonition. To varying degrees each attracted free agents by offering larger total contracts than they could otherwise afford under the cap. They did so by front-loading a portion of each contract into the first, uncapped season, instead of allocating the total contract amounts equally over each year of their term.

On the surface this would seem to be a win-win for teams that could afford to do so, a complete list of which would number far more than four; in fact much closer to thirty-two. The players got more money than they otherwise would, the teams got players who they otherwise would not, and the fans got at least the chance for a better squad wearing the home uniforms.

But the great irony is that while thirty-one of the thirty-two NFL franchises (the publicly owned Green Bay Packers being the exception) are owned by individuals with enormous wealth, people who either directly or through an earlier generation could all serve as poster children for the ultimate success of capitalism and free enterprise; the league operates on a very different model. “Competitive balance” and “on any given Sunday” are the NFL’s mystical mantras which all franchises are expected to invoke as their watchwords. The result is the almost humorous site of a group of billionaire business tycoons acting like nothing so much as loyal members of the Supreme Soviet in its Cold War heyday, with the Commissioner’s office in the dual roles of Premier and KGB enforcer.

So it was that last March, in keeping with some of the finest bits of old Soviet illogic, the league determined that the four teams had violated the salary cap in a year in which no salary cap existed. Washington was deemed the worst offender, and was penalized by taking away $36 million of cap space, spread over this season and next. Dallas was similarly “fined” $10 million in salary cap room. The money taken away from the two NFC East teams was reallocated to the NFL’s remaining teams, except for New Orleans and Oakland. They were apparently deemed to be only a little bit pregnant and so not fined like Washington and Dallas; but not allowed to participate in the unexpected salary cap windfall.

In keeping with the model which the league seems to follow, nary a peep of protest was heard when the fines were announced. The miscreants absorbed the news quietly, and the players association was silent. Perhaps they were all afraid of being dispatched to the gulag, also known as the Jacksonville Jaguars. Yet when the Redskins take the field on Sunday evening, surely there will be a few fans in the packed stadium who will wonder just how much vital support for RGIII, or for the team’s battered defense, an extra $18 million might have bought. It’s almost enough to make one miss the days of an owner or two who dared defy the demands of his fellow billionaires and the commissioner for unrelenting uniformity. Oh for the halcyon time of Al Davis in his prime.

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