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NFL Salary Cap Floor: Why it isn't forcing the Buccaneers to spend


Here's a headline from today's Tampa Bay Times. "Salary cap rules ensure Bucs' increased spending". This headline, or at least that which it implies and certainly that which it explains is false, and yet it's something I see repeated quite often. There will be a salary cap floor, and therefore the Buccaneers will have to spend! But that simply isn't true.

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Starting this year, there will be salary cash floor in place. But that salary floor in cash will not force the Buccaneers to spend. For one, it's set at 89% of the salary cap. With the cap expected to be around $121 million, that'd give the Bucs (and every other NFL team) a target of $107.69 million. The Bucs have around $81 million in pure salary committed to this season, by my accounting, but counting in some bonuses not covered by salary and rookie contracts yet to be signed they should be able to reach that target easily without splurging in free agency in any way.

But that's not the biggest problem with this story. The biggest issue is that the salary cash floor does not apply to a single year. Instead, it applies to the four-year period running from 2013 through the 2016 season. Every NFL team must spend 89% of the salary cap cumulatively over those season.

In other words: the Bucs will not be penalized in any way, shape or form if they do not spend this season. They may be penalized if they have not spent 89% of the salary cap in cash over that four-year period, but that's a significantly weaker requirement. They won't have to break that 89% threshold in every season, they'll just have to make up the average at the end. This may seem like a minor distinction, but it is extremely relevant. In practice, if the Bucs would have been forced to spend at least 89% of the cap in cash every season, they would likely have been between 90 and 95% of the cap in cash spending in every season. Instead, they can now sit back and spend much less in several years, while neatly making up the difference in later seasons.

Here's a theoretical example of how this could work, assuming a flat $121 million cap throughout. The 89% threshold would be set at $107.69 million in each season.

Rules/Year 2013 2014 2015 2016 Total
89% each year $112 million $114 million $112 million $108 million $446 million (92%)
89% over four years $85 million $95 million $120 million $130 million $430 million (89%)

The difference may not be huge -- it's essentially one medium-sized contract over those four years -- but the implications are pretty big. Mostly in that the Buccaneers will not be forced to spend any money in 2013, or 2014 or even 2015 -- they can simply delay that to 2016 if they wish. In fact, they don't even need to do that, because the penalty for breaking this rule is incredibly weak. They'll just have to make up the difference, effectively spending that exact 89% of the salary cap.

But let's look to the other part. Is this why the Buccaneers will spend this year, which they will do? Is it why they spent last year? Certainly not the latter, because the Bucs didn't face any salary floor last season. And spending last year wasn't a way to increase spending in future years, either, because the Bucs just moved some $23 million in cash into last year's accounting by restructuring the contracts of Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks. In other words: they just decreased the cash they have committed to 2013. If they simply needed to spend money to keep up with the cash floor, moving spending back is completely counterproductive.

No, this theory doesn't explain the increase spending at all. Instead, the team appears to be spending because that's what they feel they need to do. Maybe they feel the need to increase fan excitement. Maybe they have some leftover cash. Or maybe, just maybe, they just really want to win a championship again. It's much more likely that we've simply seen a paradigm shift, and the Buccaneers are willing to start spending again -- and perhaps that says something about the reasons for a lack of spending in previous seasons, too.

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