FENNO: Salary cap penalty an NFL fight Redskins can’t win


Free agency has overtaken the NFL and sent beloved veterans searching for gainful employment, churned rosters by the minute and, of course, deployed new contracts like wads of Monopoly money (the nonguaranteed portions are worth about as much).

Meanwhile, as prorated signing bonuses and dead money replace chatter about the pistol offense and read-option, the good folks at Redskins Park are, well, quiet.

This used to be the time of year when Dan Snyder’s Bombardier BD-700 jet with the Redskins helmet on the tail zipped across the country and scooped up big-name free agents. For better, but usually worse, the Redskins owned free agency. Throw $100 million at Albert Haynesworth and $56 million at Deion Sanders and $36 million at Jeremiah Trotter and $35 million at Adam Archuleta and so on.

All that’s missing from the string of debacles is Montgomery Burns hucking stacks of greenbacks at erstwhile assistant Waylon Smithers.

Money fight, anyone?

But the NFL is an unforgiving place, not just for Robert Griffin III’s twice-reconstructed right knee. Enter the NFL’s arbitrary (and possibly illegal) $36 million salary cap penalty the rest of the league seems to have forgotten about that’s reduced the Redskins to peeking through windows at Nordstrom while doing their own shopping in the dollar store’s clearance section.

Last year’s $18 million hit on the eve of free agency was more of a nuisance. Sure, the Redskins couldn’t sign a couple of key players, but Griffin’s on-field brilliance quickly pushed aside memory of the NFL rapping them for moving $36 million of bonus money to the uncapped season in 2010 to free up future space. That didn’t violate the collective bargaining agreement, but an uncapped year became capped, in the NFL’s alternate reality, when the league strong-armed the players’ union into accepting the penalty to avoid a lower overall cap.

Translation: The NFL does what it pleases.

Appeals failed and the Redskins, during a Monday news conference that revealed a rare public outburst of anger about the situation from general manager Bruce Allen and coach Mike Shanahan, insisted they haven’t contemplated litigation. While such a course may find a friendly federal judge to explore juicy questions of antitrust violations and collusion, it would be akin to kicking over a nest of Africanized honey bees and spending the remainder of the day stomping on it.

The NFL would find a way to cover the franchise in stings that’d make the salary cap penalty look pleasant in comparison.

So last year’s paper cut has sliced to the bone this time around. The beleaguered cap can’t fit new additions or even pieces of the core the team is trying to assemble around Griffin. DeAngelo Hall is gone from a secondary already desperate for another cornerback and free safety. Special teams ace Lorenzo Alexander is gone, too. Tackle Tyler Polumbus could be, too. Re-signing playmaking tight end Fred Davis requires cutting more contributors or restructuring contracts (at least three players have already done so) — moves that only push the financial toll down the road and, potentially, extend the ripple of damage from the penalty.

That’s not something Shanahan wants to do.

And so the Redskins, by virtue of breaking a rule that didn’t exist, are forced to be near-perfect with each personnel move. The leap from January’s playoff appearance to long-term contender could take longer than anticipated. Already without first-round draft picks this year and next thanks to the Griffin trade, they have to bring in young players who can contribute immediately. There’s no luxury of a leisurely development like last year’s third-round selection, Josh LeRibeus, enjoyed.

Little chance exists of adding a significant free agent — no matter how much agents float the Redskins as possible destinations for their clients — without blowing a Haynesworth-sized hole in another part of the roster. Even last year’s modest acquisitions of Pierre Garcon and Joshua Morgan would be hopelessly expensive now. That leaves the Redskins scrounging for bargains, bringing in players like 32-year-old lineman Tony Pashos, who hasn’t played since 2011.

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