WASHINGTON — When the Washington Redskins were placed in salary cap jail by the NFL, Kedric Golston had to say goodbye to his best friend on the team.
For the past two years, the Redskins and Dallas Cowboys — otherwise rivals to the bitter end in the NFC East — have been constrained by a much-disputed ruling limiting how much money they could spend on players. It’s as if they were both forced to land on that “Go to Jail” space on the Monopoly board, while their opponents continued merrily down the final big-money stretch buying up Park Place and Boardwalk.
“We lost some good football players,” Golston said. “Obviously Lorenzo Alexander wasn’t able to stay here because they didn’t have the money to pay him.”
Alexander was the Redskins’ special teams captain. After he wasn’t re-signed a year ago, Washington had one of the worst special teams seasons in recent NFL history.
The front office was able to maneuver the dollars enough to keep just about everybody else, but had no chance of adding free agents of significance. While it’s not the only reason — or even the main reason — the Redskins plummeted to 3-13, it sure didn’t help.
Now Washington and Dallas are back on the same playing field as everyone else. The Redskins were docked $18 million each of the last two years — 15 percent less to spend — while the Cowboys’ hit was a more modest $5 million for both 2012 and 2013.
Starting Tuesday, they’ll have the same $133 million cap as everyone else when the new NFL year officially begins with the opening of free agency.
“All’s well that ends well,” Golston said. “Obviously the money’s there now. We weren’t thinking about this two years ago, but you have a new regime who can go out and pick the players they want to pick.”
Coach Mike Shanahan, who had final say over personnel matters, was fired at the end of the season. The buck now stops with general manager Bruce Allen, working with new coach Jay Gruden. Because the league-wide cap rose $10 million, the Redskins are more than $20 million under — even after their decision to slap an $11.5 million franchise tag on linebacker Brian Orakpo.
They’ll likely need every penny. Five defensive starters are set to become unrestricted free agents. They could use two starting safeties, two starting linebackers and upgrades at cornerback, defensive line, offensive line and receiver. Owner Dan Snyder has been known to overpay for big names — Deion Sanders and Albert Haynesworth, just to name two — but the needs are so many that the coffers could dry up quickly if the spending gets too reckless.
The Cowboys, meanwhile, are still in a tight squeeze. They have been trying to restructure defensive end DeMarcus Ware’s deal, which has a $16 million cap hit this year, just to have a modest amount to spend in free agency.
Executive vice president Stephen Jones has said it’s unlikely the club will pursue any expensive players. Receiver Miles Austin, whose six-year, $54-million contract signed in 2010 got Dallas into trouble in the first place, is almost certain to be a June 1 cut that would save $5.5 million under the cap.
Though the cap penalty has been served, the Redskins will be stewing about it for years to come. Allen called it a “travesty of fairness.” Dallas owner Jerry Jones was a bit more restrained, but he also claimed his team “followed the rules” and yet was still penalized. Both teams filed a grievance and an arbitrator ruled in favor of the NFL.
The lingering debate is whether the punishment fit the crime, assuming there was a crime at all. The Redskins and Cowboys felt they were being clever when they structured contracts to load money into the 2010 year, when there was no salary cap.
But the league had warned all teams not to do that. The penalties were announced on the eve of 2012 free agency, the NFL declaring Dallas and Washington had “created an unacceptable risk to future competitive balance.” The Redskins’ free agency plans were thrown into disarray on short notice.
Allen, for his part, has never claimed the Redskins were innocent. Instead, he contended the league’s warning didn’t come with such a dire price tag.
“We were never warned that they were going to come back two years later and punish us,” he said last year.
The players’ union says the whole thing smacks of collusion and has taken the matter to court, even though the union initially signed off on the Redskins’ and Cowboys’ sanctions. In a legal sense, this could run for a few more years.
Meanwhile, Golston is curious to see what his team does with its newfound cap riches. His cautionary note: money isn’t everything.
“Hopefully the money’s going to be used on the right kind of player to help us win football games,” Golston said. “For years, teams have spent tons of money and maxed out on the cap, and that doesn’t mean they’ve had productive seasons. It’s not about necessarily spending the most money.”
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