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Affiliated With 49ers Paradise

Parity Sucks!
10/26/02


Parity.

It is both a blessing and a curse. The thing that makes the National Football League so exciting to watch is also the thing that makes the NFL so maddening to be a fan of.

As an NFL fan, I can really get into what Commissioner Paul Tagliabue's collective bargaining agreement has brought the NFL. In any given year, any team could potentially go all the way. Every team has the chance to make themselves competitive by working the salary cap and taking their lumps in pursuit of future greatness. Any team could win the Super Bowl.

Well, any team besides the Cincinnatti Bengals, I mean.

But as a 49ers fan... god, I hate the freakin' salary cap.

San Francisco pioneered the current model of worst-to-first turnaround that the NFL has modeled itself around. Bill Walsh came in in 1999 and took a team that two years previously had been in the NFC Championship game and dismantled it. Too many high salaries, too few good players, too little depth, he said at the time. So out they went. Now the Niners have only seven members of that '99 team still starting. Only twelve remain on the roster.

And hey, that's great! That '99 team was bad with a capital Blech. Over the course of the next two years, Walsh and his compatriot, current Niners GM Terry Donahue, would go on to completely rebuild these 49ers. The Genius had stricken again, as the 49ers went 12-4 last year and earned a trip to the playoffs and look playoff bound again this year.

But what about three years from now?

I know it's hard to look that far down the line, because any number of things could happen. But assuming the Niners' current coaching staff and roster was frozen in place and left undisturbed for three years, it would not fit under the 2005 salary cap.

And here's why.

We'll use the example of fictional NFL player Rodney Shackleford. In the NFL, players sign rookie contracts, usually of four years at a certain salary bracket. These salary figures hold pretty steady throughout the course of their careers and make them pretty easy on the cap. Rodney is happy because he was drafted late in the first round, and got about the same deal as the guy picked the year before him, but with a 5% salary increase over the length of the deal. Booyah.

Rodney plays very well in his first four years, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl and earning status as one of the best young players at his position in the NFL. And now Rodney's ready to make some mad bank in free agency.

Once rookie contracts expire (for those player that survive the length of their contracts), then comes free agency. Quality young players demand and often get big money from teams who want to secure their services. Often, because of the players' youth and likely future successes, teams will overpay to get a "rising star". Rodney fits this mold, a player who has seen some success and is still on the upswing of his career.

But the team that drafted him certainly doesn't want to lose out completely on its investment, so they will pay Rodney even more to stay on the team than his too-expensive free agent contract would have paid him.

In order to do this, Rodney's agent works out a back-loaded deal which pushes the big money in the contract until further out in the future. However, Rodney does get a veritable buttload of semi-guaranteed money in an up-front signing bonus, the balance of which is prorated over the length of his contract.

So while the short-term investment Rodney's team makes in him is relatively small, the fact that the big money is pushed back into the future means the team has to pay big later, an amount that will probably be much bigger than Rodney is worth.

Now Rodney has a couple rough seasons. His first year of the deal he's so stoked to have his big money that he stops caring as much about lifting and working out, his film study suffers a bit, he's partying more, and in general giving less credence to his job, the thing that got him his money in the first place. His play slips. His conditioning suffers. Rodney gets a bad injury and is out for a year. Now, three years down the line, his team is looking at his salary cap figure being two or three times what a player with his recent production is worth, and they're looking at being 10 or 20 mill over the cap.

Rodney gets released. This is the only economically reasonable thing to do, since only whatever's left of Rodney's prorated signing bonus will count against the cap, and not his actual salary.

So in the course of three years, Rodney goes from highly paid rising star to unemployed washup. Why? A tight salary cap and irresponsible spending by NFL teams. Poor Rodney.

This is a scenario that plays out all too often in the NFL, and it's one that leads to the destruction of many a good team. The current NFL salary structure makes it impossible for teams to maintain success, because as they get good, their players are in higher demand on the market. You can't re-sign everyone, but you re-sign who you can, and eventually lack of depth and lack of fundage lead to one big implosion. Happened to the 49ers. Happened to the Jaguars. Both teams now find themselves again on the upswing, but it'll happen to them again.

Think about it, true believer. The 49ers have one of the best, most talented young defenses in the NFL today. But in two years, the contracts for Ahmed Plummer, Jason Webster, Julian Peterson, and John Engelberger are gonna expire. And I guarantee all those players will be in high demand on the free agent market, especially Plummer, a Pro Bowl talent in only his third year.

And in three years? Oh, now it's time to pony up for Andre Carter, Jamie Winborn, and Kevan Barlow among others.

Now certainly the 49ers will extend certain unreplacable players' contracts (Plummer and Carter are almost a given), but what about the rest? Winborn's a rising star and Trevor's Corner Mascot, Barlow could be a feature back on most NFL teams, Peterson has good potential for some team like the Steelers or the Texans running a zone-blitz defense, Webster's an underrated cover corner, and Engelberger would start on most other teams.

And hey, after this year the contracts for Terry Jackson, Tai Streets and Chike Okeafor come due.

Well the 49ers can't re-sign all of 'em, so what do you do? Simple. Draft to replace them.

But many of these players were first round draft picks in years the 49ers had high picks. With their newfound success, the Niners wont have that luxury without trades. Eventually the time will come to pay for these young guys, and the 49ers will have to figure out who holds the most value to the franchise and who can be let go.

And after that?

Well let's hope the 49ers are the first to figure out how to maintain success in the NFL, after being the first to figure out how to regain it.

LAST WEEK'S GAME

In yet another thriller for the 49ers, offenses were on display as the 49ers lost a close game to the N'Awlins Saints, 35-27. In the end, it was the 49ers' mistakes offensively that truly did them in. On a day when the Niners couldn't stop the Saints on third down and Deuce McAllister had 174 total yards and a touchdown, San Francisco still could have pulled this game out had Jeff Garcia not thrown a pick into the arms of Ken Irvin and Kevan Barlow not fumbled deep in Niners territory, turnovers off of which the Saints scored touchdowns to fuel their comeback.

The 49ers' defense showed how much they truly miss the contributions of both safety Zack Bronson and Trevor's Corner Mascot Jamie Winborn, as the middle of the field was, as it was against the Seahawks, a glaring open wound offenses continually rubbed salt on. Rook Mike Rumph also spent a large part of the game getting picked on, something that if it continues unchecked, could become a sore spot come playoff time.

All in all, I walk away from this game feeling not so much that the Saints beat the 49ers as much as I believe that the 49ers just lost the game. San Fran had their destiny firmly in hand, and if not for offensive miscues could have ground out a victory over a top team in the NFL.

I also walk away from the game feeling like while the Saints have the best record in the NFC, they're no more a complete team than the now-defunct St. Louis Lambs were in 1999. Think about it, the strength of the Saints' defense was supposed to be run defense, something that was supposed to give the 49ers problems. San Francisco logged 143 yards rushing! The pass defense, already identified as bad, showed it, also surrendering 275 yards passing to the 49ers. In short, were the 49ers at full strength defensively, this game could have turned out a lot differently than it did.

Assuming the Niners are able to get healthy and these two teams meet in the playoffs, the Saints will be seeing a much different 49ers' team than they saw this last week.

NEXT WEEK'S GAME

In what has suddenly become a key game for the 49ers, the Arizona Cardinals come to town, in a first place tie with San Francisco for NFC West supremacy.

My idol John Madden makes a good point when he says, "And here it is Arizona playing San Francisco for first place. At some point, you have to say that the Cardinals are playing some pretty good football." You know, if a team's winning, they've gotta be doing something right. And I'll give them that coach Dave McGinnis has done the impossible: gotten the Arizona freakin' Cardinals to believe in themselves. And while AZ has the talent (read: David Boston, Jake Plummer, Leonard Davis) to really be special offensively, right now they're anything but. They're winning with pluck and luck.

...dude, that rhymed.

Point is, the Cardinals' pass defense is ranked 23rd in the NFL, and that's just not gonna cut it when you have to go up against a passing game that features Jeff Garcia, Terrell Owens, Tai Streets, and JJ Stokes. True, Arizona's played running teams well, but their pass defense is a freakin' sieve and the Niners will take full advantage of it.

So long as the 49ers get back to their habit of not turning the ball over and playing solid D, this will be an easier win than I think anyone expects. The Cards' flaws will be exposed in a loss.

Sorry guys, no Madden Simulator this week either. Things are getting hectic with school and whatnot. But next week offically becomes Trevor Week, with updates to all three sections of my corner AND a Madden Sim AND an off-the-wall new Main Article. Stay tuned!