Cap Or No Cap? Pick Your Poison

February 25, 2009 | Thyrl Nelson

In Contrast To The Orioles, The Possibility Of No Salary Cap Could Be A Good Thing For The Ravens And Their Fans. For Football Fans In General Though, It Would Likely Be Very Bad News. 


There’s been a lot of talk lately about the possibility of the NFL going uncapped after the current collective bargaining agreement expires, beginning in 2010. Given the impact that free agency is likely to have on the Ravens this off season, and the difficulty that they’ve had in general, at retaining their own free agents throughout the years, the possibility of the salary cap simply going away from the NFL is intriguing to say the least.


Whether or not to implement a salary cap, and furthermore how exactly to manage one, is an issue that has plagued each of the major professional sports leagues in recent years. While fundamentally sound in principle, it would seem that no league has been able to implement any semblance of a salary system that works entirely. In principle, the purpose of a salary cap is to insure competitive balance among teams regardless of market size. In practice however, salary caps, thus far, have left a lot to be desired.


As an Orioles fan I pray for a salary cap in baseball. History has seemed to show that spending money won’t guarantee championships. But it has also shown that teams who simply can’t spend can’t win, at least not consistently. Baseball’s lack of a salary cap may reflect true capitalist principles, but it’s probably the most severely broken of all salary structures in American professional sports.


The luxury tax is supposed to help smaller market teams to be more competitive, but doesn’t do much to close the disparity in resources between baseball’s haves and have nots. Further, the lack of a salary floor, and the refusal of certain owners who do receive luxury tax money to invest that money in player salaries, makes baseball’s system a joke. If the future of an uncapped NFL looks anything like the current state of Major League Baseball, then put me firmly in the camp for keeping things the way that they are.


The NBA may have been on to something when they added the Larry Bird rule to their version of the cap. If there’s one big problem with the NFL’s current system, it’s that it punishes teams who consistently draft well by making it impossible to retain their own free agents. Providing an exemption for retaining your own players seems to make good sense. Beyond that though, the NBA’s version of the salary cap is as complicated as they come, and routinely lends itself to unbalanced trades for expiring contracts, token contracts awarded to players who never leave home, and traded players returning to their old teams 30 days after being sent packing. Clearly the NBA system is not perfect either.


In the NFL, you could argue that the salary cap is working. Again, there are some minor adjustments that could stand to be made, but under their current structure, the NFL is flourishing like no other league. The salary cap model has made the league synonymous with parity, and gives hope to fans in every size of market. While it’s certainly not perfect, the NFL’s current system is far from broken. It could use a teak or two, but an overhaul is nowhere near in order.


As a Ravens fan, selfishly, I wouldn’t necessarily mind seeing the NFL salary cap go away. After all, the frustration that comes with being an Orioles fan has as much to do with the division that they occupy as it does with the lack of a cap altogether. On their current course at least, it’s reasonable to believe that the O’s could count on being contenders within 2 or 3 seasons in 4 out of the 6 divisions in baseball. In the AL East however, there’s a pretty decent chance that someone will win 95 or even 100 games this season, and still not make the playoffs. No matter how well you scout and develop talent, winning in the AL East still may boil down to spending. As much of a feel good story as the Rays have been, it would mean little if the Yankees and Red Sox simply bought them right back out of contention for the division.


In the AFC North though, with Cleveland, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh to compete with, Baltimore suddenly looks like a big market. The Steelers would still have spending power based on their national appeal and merchandising money, but the Bengals and Browns would certainly have the deck stacked against them. (Not that either of those franchises would need any more help with being non competitive)


Unlike The O’s situation though, there are no Yankees or Red Sox in the AFC North. That would be the problem of Miami and Buffalo, as they’d have to figure out how to keep up with the spending power of the Patriots and Jets. The NFC East would be a nightmare too. Philadelphia, a decent sized market, would be in the unenviable position of having to compete with the Redskins, Cowboys and Giants.


All in all, it would seem that the Ravens would benefit from the salary cap going away, if that were to happen, in 2010 or beyond. The NFL though, would surely suffer. Given the misery that I’ve been subjected to as an O’s fan for the past decade, it’d be tough for me to endorse a similar fate for a number of NFL teams. For the good of the game, I hope that they get things all worked out. But if they don’t, it could be good news for the Ravens going forward.