- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Dan Snyder and Vinny Cerrato are back in a familiar place: near the top of the NFL rankings for payroll.

Three years after setting an NFL record with a payroll approaching $100million, the Washington Redskins owner and personnel chief have compiled the league’s second-highest payroll at just more than $83million, according to a recent analysis by the NFL Players Association.

The Redskins’ payroll — the result of an offseason spending spree that saw the signings of wide receiver Laveranues Coles, guard Randy Thomas and other key free agents — has given the club what it considers a talented young core. But it also could contribute to salary cap problems if the Redskins don’t balance their spending in coming years.

For now, the figure illustrates how much Snyder and Cerrato — back in charge of Redskins personnel for the first time since 2000 — invested in an effort to win in the short term. Large payrolls don’t necessarily lead to cap troubles, but they do if a team tries to be among the league’s big spenders each season.

“It’s cyclical,” said NFLPA research director Michael Duberstein, who compiles the payroll statistics. “You have to look at it in a pattern rather than as an isolated event.”

Washington has ridden the cycle over the past four seasons, averting major cap difficulties after its 2000 spending spree when Marty Schottenheimer took a conservative approach in 2001.

After Snyder and Cerrato paid massive signing bonuses in 2000 to players like LaVar Arrington ($10.75million), Chris Samuels ($10million), Deion Sanders ($8million) and Bruce Smith ($4.25million), Schottenheimer paid no signing bonus more than the $623,000 he gave to guard Ben Coleman.

Schottenheimer was fired at season’s end, and his personnel duties were turned over to Joe Mendes and Cerrato. Mendes was the de facto general manager in 2002, when Washington rose from the bottom of the payroll rankings to the middle tier. Cerrato assumed control last offseason, and Mendes and the team mutually agreed to part in June.

At this point, the Redskins do not appear to have set themselves up for major cap troubles. They have $73.5million committed to a 2004 cap that is expected to be in the $79million range, assuming it increases by about the $4million it rose from 2002 to 2003.

Although that $73.5million accounts for just 40 players under contract and does not include cornerback Champ Bailey, whose franchise tag would run in excess of $6million, there is room to move. For example, cutting defensive end Bruce Smith will save about $5 million off the $73.5million figure.

Things grow tighter in 2005, when Washington has $60.5million committed to just 22 players. But there obviously are countless decisions that will affect how the Redskins set up in 2005, and Cerrato believes they already have the nucleus to win in coming seasons.

“It was all put together for a three- to four-year plan,” Cerrato said. “Of course there will be some adjustments [in coming years]. But we figured most of the team would be together, so we thought we could spend a lot on young guys and build the things we needed to build.”

Proration of signing bonus money allows teams to spend more than the cap each season. A club can pay out a large signing bonus and spread the impact over the life of the contract, and it can guarantee much of a player’s base salary to prorate for cap purposes, too. And because there always are more seasons to cushion cap impact, there generally is more money to spend.

“If you would sum up all the cap limits since 1994 and measure that against all the dollars spent, the difference actually is something like $2 billion,” Duberstein said.

However, teams that maintain high payrolls season after season eventually have to blow up their high-priced rosters and start over as San Francisco did in 1999 and Baltimore did in 2002. Even Oakland last winter, as Dubertstein pointed out, had to shed “$40 to $50million in a two-week period” after playing in the Super Bowl.

“At some point, you get to be like the Raiders in February of this year,” Duberstein said, noting Oakland had $115million committed to a $74million cap.

Cerrato said the Redskins plan to function within a budget in coming years, but there remain questions whether he and Snyder can hold off on major signings for a 2001-style small payroll to compensate for the currently high payroll.

“It’ll be dictated by the budget,” Cerrato said. “Dan will always spend what’s available on players. He’s going to spend to make improvements, if it fits into the budget.”

The NFLPA stated Washington’s payroll as $83.567million, above every other NFL team except New Orleans ($85.886million). Interestingly, only one of the top five teams in terms of payroll — No.4 Minnesota, $81.196million — has a winning record. The Vikings are 6-4, while the Saints, Redskins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons all are .500 or below.

Meanwhile, the NFL’s five best teams (Kansas City, New England, Tennessee, Indianapolis and Carolina) all rank between Nos.10 and 24 in payroll.

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