The NFL has had a salary cap for more than a quarter of a century, limiting how much each team can spend on paying players. The aim is to boost competitive balance while also keeping costs under control for owners. There is a good book to be written about the extent to which it has succeeded, certainly in the former objective, but this isn’t that book. Crunching Numbers aims to demystify the salary cap and its effect on player contracts.
It takes an entire book to do this because the salary cap has brought extraordinary complexity to the theoretically simple process of paying players for their work. Teams must meet the rules for paying players set out in the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) without breaching the cap. However, from the outset teams have sought to find loopholes that allow them to accumulate more talent.
For example, when the cap was first introduced in 1994, the 49ers realised that the agreement only covered five years, so they agreed payments that would be deferred until 1999 and were therefore not covered by the cap. By 2000 the 49ers would be stripped of two draft picks for violating cap rules with undisclosed bonus payments.
Closing the loopholes leads to ever more dense collections of rules. There are rules for how much a team must pay if they cut a player, how he counts against the cap if he’s injured, precisely what bonuses are allowed, and so on.
Still, teams are constantly hunting for ways to maximise their cap spending, and every team employs a ‘capologist’ to help them get the most from the cap. Jason Fitzgerald, whose website Over The Cap tracks every team’s cap situation, and Vijay Natarajan, who works for a management agency, have pitched this book at those who want a career working with player contracts and for those fans dedicated enough to want to better understand team spending.
It’s not a stretch to expect fans to be interested. The year-round nature of the sport means that the weeks between the Super Bowl and the beginning of training camp are now filled with speculation about player signings and re-signings. Fans may understand that this year’s top free agent won’t fit under their team’s cap, but there are still plenty who think that a restructure here and there will make some room. This book explains very clearly why that is not always possible.
The authors go through the detail of concepts like dead money – money charged against the cap that has been paid to players no longer on the roster – and what truly counts as cap space. There are explanations of the various types of free agency as well as the kinds of bonuses that players can earn.
A particularly instructive section looks at contracts for Mario Williams and Darrelle Revis and explains how they are significantly different despite both being for a total of $96 million. Williams’ contract gave him more money early on, while Revis’s was backloaded. Ultimately Revis played only one season before he was cut.
The book is full of examples like this, though most date from 2016 and a new CBA will change some of the details in future. Crunching Numbers also contains some fairly dense sections that dive into legal and accounting issues, which can be slow going. However, even with these caveats, the book is still worth reading as a fan because it provides a good overview of the central concepts involved in the cap and player contracts, and those aren’t going to change radically.
It’s not for everyone, but this book is recommended for any fan who wants to understand the NFL’s off-season machinations a little better.