Posted March 12, 2012

NFL hits Cowboys, Redskins hard by docking salary cap space

Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins

Two days after acquiring the No. 2 pick in April's draft, Mike Shanahan's Redskins were docked $36 million in cap space. (AP)

Just about 24 hours before the start of the NFL’s free-agency period, the Cowboys and Redskins suddenly find themselves in much more trying salary cap situations. Both teams were punished by the league Monday for front-loading contracts during the 2010 uncapped year — something the league cautioned teams against doing. As a result of failing to heed those warnings, the Redskins were docked $36 million and the Cowboys $10 million.

Every other team in the league except the Raiders and Saints (presumably as a far-less severe punishment for similar missteps) will receive $1.6 million more money to spend under the 2012 cap. Washington and Dallas can choose how to split the money over the 2012 and 2013 seasons.

This is a huge penalty for both teams, but it may be especially painful for the Redskins, who sent their fan base’s excitement level soaring over the weekend by finalizing a trade for the No. 2 overall pick in April’s draft. By all indications, they’ll use that pick on electrifying quarterback Robert Griffin III, who figures to be handed the reins to the franchise almost immediately.

The Redskins dealt their 2012, 2013 and 2014 first-round picks plus an additional second-round pick in 2012 to St. Louis for that No. 2 slot.

That’s a huge price tag under any circumstances, but Washington pulled the trigger on the deal with upwards of $30 million in projected cap space for 2012 — money everyone expected the Redskins to use to upgrade at several positions, including wide receiver. Monday’s smackdown from the NFL could put all that in jeopardy.

The Cowboys, meanwhile, were already walking the salary-cap tightrope, standing a projected $5 million or so under the 2012 cap number of $120.6 million.

How much this impacts the two NFC East rivals this season as opposed to next depends on how they decide to take this hit. Dallas could take the 50/50 tact and accept a $5 million loss this offseason and next, and basically be right at the 2012 cap number. Washington has enough space to fit most or all of its whopping $36 million reparation under its allotted cap space this season.

Still, this will be a substantial hurdle for both organizations in the coming weeks, and likely limits what each team will be able to do in free agency.

The biggest free agent who could be impacted by Monday’s news is Vincent Jackson, the star San Diego wide receiver who’s about to hit the market. Washington, given its anticipated cap space and potential selection of Griffin, had been considered a serious suitor for Jackson.

While the $36 million cap penalty doesn’t necessarily take the Redskins out of the running for Jackson’s services, it definitely helps open the door for other receiver-needy teams like Chicago and Tampa Bay. It also keeps alive the possibility that Jackson could wind up back in San Diego.

This all has to be pretty hard to swallow for the Cowboys and Redskins, if only because of the timing: The teams were likely aware this was coming (Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio speculated the Redskins pushed for a quick resolution to the draft-pick swap with St. Louis so the Rams wouldn’t raise the price on a desperate Washington post-punishment), but it does not leave them a lot of time to regroup.

This also appears to be more of a “gentlemen’s agreement” breach than an actual rule-breaking scenario.

As mentioned, teams were free to spend whatever they chose on their rosters during the uncapped 2012 season. However, the NFL and its owners apparently agreed to avoid the type of front-loading Dallas and Washington utilized, to avoid using the uncapped year as a way to dump salaries. Basically, part of why Washington looked to have so much cap room heading into this free-agent period is because it paid out huge chunks of money in 2011, then lowered a host of player salaries through 2012 and beyond.

Regardless of what happened, Dallas and Washington have rotten hands to deal with in the short-term. We should know more about how this impacts their long-term plans based on how they react in the coming free-agency cycle.

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