NFL Salary Cap World Helps Sustain Even Field
By Tim Richardson
For most fans, the National Football League salary cap resembles rocket science. Back-loaded contracts, cap floor … what does that mean in relation to the team they see during the season? That's simple -- everything.
The NFL introduced a $34.6 million salary cap in 1994. In 2012, it's $120.6 million.
Pat Moriarty, the Baltimore Ravens' vice president of football administration, is the man charged with ensuring the team stays within that cap. His job is less about Xs and Os and more about dollars and cents.
Moriarty knows what it's like to be on the other side of a negotiation. A running back at Georgia Tech, where he majored in industrial management (subsequently earning a master's degree in business administration from John Carroll University and graduating from the University of Baltimore School of Law), he signed with the Cleveland Browns in 1979 as an undrafted free agent. Released in 1980, Moriarty spent the 1981 summer with the Miami Dolphins before being cut by the Dolphins and then the Michigan Panthers of the United States Football League.
"I realized after being cut it was time to actually work for a living," Moriarty said. "Since I had a business and finance degree, I took a job with a bank in Cleveland and was assigned the Browns' account."
The franchise hired Moriarty as its director of business operations in 1994. Because his first season coincided with the institution of the salary cap, he was responsible for deciphering the new system.
"It was new to everybody, and we had these new rules that were put into place," Moriarty said. "But, like everything else, some of the rules were up to interpretation, so as you were negotiating contracts, you were trying to apply these new rules."
The new rules also impacted agents. Tony Agnone is the founder of Eastern Athletic Services, whose clients include Osi Umenyiora (Giants) and John Abraham (Falcons). After 16 years, his job had a twist.
"You had to embrace the new system by learning the rules and knowing them backwards and forward," Agnone said. "The teams brought in 'capologists' -- young, bright accountant/lawyer types -- when they were developing the new system, so you had to learn a new language."
Teams constantly evaluate their own talent. Moriarty is involved in assigning values to players, while monitoring what happens in the free-agent market.
"A large part of my job is literally going through deals, line by line, and then putting them into our system so we can calculate what the increases were with respect to various positions," Moriarty said. "I'll do valuation to see if the deal is really worth what is reported. … I know what the cap is, but what is the cash?"
Moriarty is one of the original capologists.
"There are few, if any, executives in the NFL who have negotiated as many player contracts as Pat," said Ozzie Newsome, Ravens general manager and executive vice president. "He is a significant factor in our winning, maintaining and managing our salary cap, and directing our football finances.
"He is highly respected among his peers in the NFL, by the agents he works with and, certainly, by all of us at the Ravens. We see his impact every day."
Moriarty said he felt the cap created parity in the league. It forces clubs to put their resources to the players that are most productive. Through the draft, a team may get a productive player at a discount. But if that player performs at a high level, teams must give him a better deal to keep him.
"I tell Ozzie that you are a victim of your own success," Moriarty said. "The more successful you are in drafting good players, the more great players you will want to keep. But the system just doesn't allow for it. Eventually, other teams will reap the benefits by taking your players."
The system does include items such as compensatory picks to help clubs that lost more unrestricted free agents than they signed. The formula determining those picks a team receives involves the lost players' salary, playing time, etc.
Roman Oben played 12 seasons in the NFL. Like Moriarty, he said the salary cap allowed for parity.
"Any team in the NFL could go 4-12 one season, then turn it around and make the playoffs the next year," Oben said. "That can't happen in other sports."
He also said it's needed for teams to balance their finances.
"With the new rules that require teams to spend a designated percentage of their salary cap, it helps make it more attractive for players to sign with teams like Kansas City or Cincinnati," Oben said, "as opposed to only focusing on larger markets. The salary cap gives low-market teams a shot."
Oben said players benefited because the leverage no longer fell solely to the team. It's as important for clubs to keep their starting quarterback as it is to hold on to solid players at other positions. It maintains the overall quality of the team.
Opinions on the cap vary.
"My chief complaint is if you develop a player, you should be able to pay him what you want," Agnone said. "Do teams really need to let a guy go that they took a chance on and is now a good player … just because they paid another?"
Teams and agents have ways to be creative with the cap.
Agents will seek guarantees during the latter years of a contract, try to front-load deals or get guaranteed base salaries. According to Agnone, these options protect the player, because it wouldn't make sense for a team to cut him and take a hit on the cap.
Every team wants to win a title. Moriarty said that while there were creative ways to stay within the cap, making the cap work wasn't about finding loopholes in the system. There's a bigger picture … how the Ravens manage their roster and salary cap in a way that maintains their competitiveness.
Moriarty said he's fortunate to be with the Ravens, which he called the best organization in the NFL. He has been with Newsome for 18 years, and said it helped having a GM that had an appreciation for how the cap worked to the betterment of the club.
Issue 172: April 2012