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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

GREEN BAY PACKERS AND THE CAP: IT'LL GIVE YOU FITS

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 NFL free agency is back, and with it the mind-crushing task of calculating how player moves affect a team's standing under the league's salary cap. Best advice for Packers fans: Don't even try to understand the rules, just assume the team honchos do and hope for the best.

 

Frank: It's safe to say that neither of us has any idea how this stuff works.

Artie: It's all so byzantine and baffling. Your salary is a certain amount but you “count against the cap” for another amount; you get cut but may still be on the team's books; some bonus money counts now and some gets spread out over years. It makes my head hurt.

F: That's kind of appropriate for the NFL, where everything is over-schemed and over-jargoned like it's a national security operation.

A: The Packers' website is running a combination primer and quiz titled, “Pass the Test and You're a Cap Master.” It's helpful, if your goal is to get more confused. There's a definition for “Salary,” but also for things like “Voidables” and “Dead Money.” And the paragraph on contract offers to restricted free agents begins, “There are four levels, none of which guarantees a player's salary.”

F: What could be clearer? Anyway, although the 2013 cap isn't set yet—$123 million is one estimate—I read that the Packers have freed up some good “cap room” to fit people into, like maybe $22 million.

A: You'd think so after they said goodbye to Donald Driver and Charles Woodson and let Greg Jennings move on to free agency. But every day I hear or read new numbers. A lot of the confusion involves the fact that sooner or later they need to give Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews huge new long-term contracts.

F: Matthews is going into the last year of his original deal and Rodgers has two years left. But with Baltimore's Joe Flacco cashing in on his Super Bowl triumph to become the highest-paid quarterback—with a six-year deal supposedly worth $120 million—the Packers may feel the need to “lock in” Rodgers at Flacco's level or above.

A: In Matthews' case, the deal that Mario Williams signed in Buffalo last year—something like $96 million over six years—is the current gold standard for pass rushers. But remember, in the NFL some contract numbers are fantasy because hardly any of them represent “straight salary.” The bonuses and how they're timed defy comprehension, and anyway most of these mega-deals get restructured long before they're due to expire.

F: To create better cap room, of course. Anyway, Matthews could become an unrestricted free agent a year from now. Currently he's eighth on the roster in “cap impact” at about $4.9 million. Rodgers leads at $9.75 million, followed by Jermichael Finley ($8.75M), Tramon Williams ($8.5M), A.J. Hawk ($7.05M), Ryan Pickett ($6.7M), B.J. Raji ($6.595M) and Josh Sitton ($5.55M).

A: The bad news for Hawk is that with Matthews' deal on the horizon he ain't worth $7 million. Not that he's been a total bust at inside linebacker...

F: My sense is that he hasn't been spectacular but he's been consistently solid. And with all the linebacking injuries they've have had in recent years, Hawk has been the most reliable guy for staying on the field.

A: Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson obviously agree, or Hawk wouldn't still be there. But they've clearly decided that Hawk needs to restructure downward in terms of the cap. If not, there are a lot of options for inside linebackers—including perhaps the return of Nick Barnett, who just got cut in Buffalo.

F: Of course, even if Hawk is released he'll still count something against the cap.

A: But according to the Journal Sentinel it would only be $1.6 million—and “$3.2 million in the future as the remaining prorated portions of the $8 million signing bonus” Hawk got in 2011.

F: The Cap, the Dreaded Cap. It blots out the sky like one of those giant spaceships in the movie Independence Day. I guess in Rodgers' case it comes down to whether he's miffed about trailing Flacco's contract...

A: I'll bet his agent is thrilled about it!

F: At last, something we can be certain of. Whenever those negotiations begin, there'll be... HEY! Speaking of caps, we're running into one of our own—the available space on this newspaper page. And unlike the NFL's, this cap is perfectly clear: There ain't no more room.

A: But I hear the beauty of this Inter-Web thing is that you can keep blathering and no one cares how much space you use...

F: Because there is no “space,” as we know it, in the Cloud or Mist or whatever they call the on-line universe. So we'll keep this discussion going at expressmilwaukee.com...

 

AS WE WERE SAYING...

F: To continue about Rodgers, there's always going to be a “leapfrog” effect; whenever he or Tom Brady or Eli Manning gets his next big pile of money, other elite-level QBs will be trailing. We'll find out, I guess, whether Rodgers feels any urgency about getting to the top of the heap or whether he can wait a year.

A: If he could be sure he'd follow Flacco as the Super Bowl MVP he'd be glad to wait, ain'a?

F: Lord knows what kind of bonuses Rodgers will get. I read that Matthews should wind up with a signing bonus of $25 million to $30 million. But the NFL and all its teams are swimming in money; the Journal Sentinel reported that the Packers made a profit of $42.7 million for the year ending last March and had $293 million in “reserves.” And when the next national TV deal kicks in next year the green ocean will get even deeper. Of course, that hasn't stopped the team from raising ticket prices for a fourth straight year.

A: There's no question the Pack has the money to pay these top guys. But the crazy rules of the cap make things complicated every flippin' year.

F: The Packers made a big cap-related decision this month when they opted to let Jennings become an unrestricted free agent instead of putting the "franchise player” tag on him. Tagging would have kept him on the team but at a cost of about $10 million, based on the average of top salaries for wide receivers.

A: That's just too much for a guy at Jennings' stage. There's a philosophy these days—might have started with Ron Wolf or Bill Belichick, whoever—that you cut a guy one year BEFORE he starts showing some declining skills.

F: Jennings will be 30 soon and the last couple of years he's had injury problems. As The Onion snidely put it, Jennings "seems all but certain to hurt himself for somebody else next year."

A: Besides, I read somewhere that as the franchise guy he would have been making more than Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Randall Cobb COMBINED.

F: Plus he probably would have been unhappy with the franchise tag. It seems to irk anyone who gets it.

A: That's understandable. Yeah, you make some good dough for that one year, but at the very least it delays your long-term deal and presumably even better dough. So guys feel like they've lost a year in the long run.

F: The Jennings decision probably means the Packers will give Finley the $3 million bonus he's due at the end of March, which would lock him in at that $8.75 million cap impact.

A: And maybe THIS will be the year that Finley has the monster season everyone has been expecting.

F: It would help if he just shut his yap and quit complaining about not getting the ball enough.

A: To say nothing of holding onto it when it DOES come his way. But really, they need his combination of size and speed at tight end to attack those dang “two deep” schemes that teams play with their safeties. You beat those by going down the middle, and Finley can do it. Toward the end of last season he was showing that; now let's have a full-season's worth!

F: Besides Jennings, the other unrestricted free agents from the Packers are outside linebackers Erik Walden and Brad Jones and running backs Cedric Benson and Ryan Grant. For a couple of years we've been talking about whether the team could find someone to complement Matthews' pass-rushing skills on the other side, and Walden and Jones were among the names that came up. But they didn't pan out.

A: Mainly because neither could stay healthy. Jones looked good for a while as a rookie but got hurt and never returned to that level. Walden was the same, up and down. That's why the Pack drafted Nick Perry last year, but after some early flashes HE went out for the year with a wrist injury. They've just got to hope he stays healthy this year.

F: So I take it you don't see a burning need for the Packers to make a big offer to Walden or Jones?

A: It would be nice to keep them in the mix, but not at some big cost.

F: And how about Benson? He was going to provide the running game last season but then broke down with a foot injury.

A: He's 30, getting up there for a running back—and I can’t gauge Ted Thompson’s interest in keeping him—but I’d sure like to see the Packers give him another shot.

F: It really shows how amazing the Packers' passing attack has been these last few years—piling up yards and points with virtually no consistent running game.

A: Ryan Grant, James Starks, Benson, Alex Green, Grant again—there were some decent performances but no one could stay healthy enough to solidify things. Now there's DuJuan Harris, who showed something late last season. He's listed on the Packers’ roster as 5-foot-8 but may be shorter, so of course some people say he's “too little.” But he's not much smaller than Ray Rice, and you never hear Rice called “too little.”

F: Now we come to the restricted free agents. They are two more linebackers, “insider” Robert Francois and “outsider” Frank Zombo; cornerback Sam Shields, tight end Tom Crabtree and offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith. The Packers have to make offers to them by Tuesday or they go on the open market. Who do you consider a “must-stay”?

A: Dietrich-Smith for sure—he shifted over from guard and became the starting center when Jeff Saturday fizzled. And they definitely need to keep Shields. Crabtree would be nice to have as a backup, but not at a real high price. Same for the LBs.

F: I guess the NFL is the opposite of the NBA with “RFAs.” In basketball the player gets an offer from another team and the original team has to decide whether to match it. In football the other teams get a shot at exceeding the original offer.

A: Which is why it gets tricky for the Packers; the higher the original offer, the less chance you'll lose a guy. But if you're not really dying to keep someone, you have to think about what kind of draft-pick compensation you might get for him and maybe “low-ball” him with that in mind. It's always a gamble.

F: One thing Thompson doesn't do often is spend a lot for a free agent from the outside.

A: Nope, he's a “build from within” guy, emphasizing draft picks and then finding some “street” free agents who go undrafted or are cut by other teams. And it's worked out pretty well for the Pack.

 

FANTASTIC FINISHES

 

The topic shifted to another sport Sunday evening....

 

A: Man, I'm completely wrung out! Between losing an hour to daylight savings and surviving two buzzer-beating finishes for Marquette and Wisconsin...

F: Vander Blue's gutsy layup—two of them, actually—saved MU in overtime Saturday against St. John's, and then Traevon Jackson's three-pointer got UW past Penn State.

A: I didn't think it would be easy for the Badgers even though Penn State has a bad record. And in the last minute I thought, “This is identical to the Minnesota game they lost in overtime.” Mike Bruesewitz couldn't get the ball inbounds in that one with 22 seconds left, and this time he threw it away with 25 seconds left. But Jackson saved 'em.

F: Marquette almost threw its game away too, with St. John's making up a lot of ground in the final minutes of regulation. And just before the end of the game Len Elmore had a comment that I think summarizes MU's whole season.

A: I think I know the one you mean.

F: Elmore said, “The folks at Madison Square Garden are not getting cheated, man. They are seeing some of the best effort—I didn't say best basketball—but certainly the best effort I've seen in a long time.”

A: That's the Golden Eagles all right.

F: Not pretty, sometimes out of control, but they leave every ounce of themselves on the court just about every game.

A: And the same with the Badgers, even if their pace is a little more even.

F: After the MU game I did some number-crunching in terms of how many excruciatingly close games they've had this year, especially in the Big East. And I was surprised to find that ONLY seven of their 18 conference games have gone to OT or had a margin of six points or fewer in regulation. But in those games they're 5-2.

A: I'll bet it's kind of the same for the Badgers.

F: Even more so. UW also has played 18 conference games, and 10 of them were either overtime or under a six-point margin in regulation. And the Badgers are 7-3 in those games.

A: But they had two horrible shooting games against Purdue and Michigan State before this last one. If they'd been on a cruise ship they could have tossed a ball over the rail and missed the water.

F: Yeah, in those two games they shot 35% overall (37 for 105) and 20% on three-pointers (10 for 50). But they were better at Penn State—22 for 51 overall and 7 for 21 on threes. As we've noted before, the Badgers are among the national leaders in treys attempted—well over 20 per game— and the longer shots are, by definition, riskier.

A: While MU knows it isn't a good-shooting team and doesn't bomb away from long range. But I've noticed that one of their real strengths all year, their free-throw shooting, seems to have cooled off recently.

F: Let's consult some box scores... Yeah, in their last three games MU has gone 33 for 56 from the line, only 59%.

A: That can really hurt a team when it comes to the conference tournament, and especially the NCAAs. So many of those games come down to the last minute, the last possession, and when you don't have a real go-to outside shooter like MU, the freebies are huge. I'd say the way to defense MU is to pack the middle and dare 'em to win from the outside.

F: Whatever happens now, MU has had a great season—23-7 overall, 14-4 in the conference and a share of the regular-season title with Georgetown and Louisville. In the conference tournament the Eagles are likely to face Notre Dame on Thursday and then Louisville in the semifinals.

A: The Badgers, meanwhile, were 21-10 overall and 12-6 in the Big Ten—way better than I even hoped for after they lost their point guard, Josh Gasser, before the season began.

F: And because Michigan missed a couple of free throws and had the winning put-back roll off the rim against Indiana...

A: I can't believe my favorite point guard, Trey Burke, missed one of those freebies!

F: Because Indiana took the conference title at 14-4 and Michigan fell to 12-6, the Badgers earned a tie-breaker against the Wolverines for the No. 4 seeding and a first-round bye in the conference tournament. Michigan will play Penn State on Thursday and the winner gets the Badgers on Friday.

A: If it's Michigan, that ain't much of a reward for the Badgers! And if it's Penn State, well, they'd still better watch out.

 

Frank Clines covered sports at The Milwaukee Journal and the Journal Sentinel. Art Kumbalek has worked his entire life under a salary cap.

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