The Biggest Lie in Football

The Patriots are the last NFL dynasty. Their accomplishments are more remarkable because of the salary cap.

The Colts have won 10+ games every year since 2002.  It’s more remarkable because of the salary cap.

They won 12+ games for seven straight years.  They broke the record of the 49ers who did it for five straight from 1994-1998, which was remarkable because there was a salary cap.

The NFL won’t survive without a salary cap.

The NFL doesn’t want to be like baseball.  Too many teams have no chance of competing in baseball.

Without a cap, mid-market teams like the Colts won’t compete.

Lies.  Lies. Lies.

Here’s the truth about the salary cap and competitive balance:  there is no evidence that it matters at all.

I’ve looked high and low, and I can’t find any statistical or even anecdotal evidence that the salary cap has meant more parity or fewer dynasties in the NFL.  We now have 16 years of data on the salary cap and the league, and I can’t find any justification to keep telling the kinds of falsehoods mentioned above.

Let’s consider the NFL from 1978-1993. For that 16 year stretch the NFL featured a stunning array of dynastic teams.  But did the lack of a salary cap mean that the NFL wasn’t competitive?  Not all.  In fact, let’s look at playoff participation during this era compared with the salary cap era of 1994-2009:

Percentage of Teams Qualifying:

Opportunity % Playoffs Conf Champ Super Bowl SB Champs
1978-1993 33% 96% 82% 50% 25%
1994-2009 37.5% 96.8% 75% 65.6% 34.4%
  • Notes:  The Cleveland Browns that made the playoffs were counted as the same franchise as the Baltimore Ravens.
  • The only NFL team that didn’t make the playoffs from 1978-1993 was the Cardinals
  • The NFL expanded the playoffs to 12 teams in 1990. For five seasons, the rate of playoff entry was 42.8%.  From 1995-1998 it was 40%.  From 1999-2002 it was 38.7%.
  • The new Browns and Texans have not qualified for the playoffs since 1994. It is fair to note that one entered the NFL in 1999 and the other in 2002. Correction:  The Browns made the playoffs with a 9-7 record in 2002.

As you can see, teams were as likely to make both the playoffs and the conference championship game BEFORE the salary cap.  We see more diversity in terms of who wins that game after the salary cap, but I’m not sure how much the cap can be credited with that and how much is just the random outcome of a few games.  Perhaps it even has something to do with changes in the way football is played that there are more upsets in conference championship game now than before.

What happens when we compare these numbers with baseball over the same time span?

Opportunity Playoffs Champ SB/World Series SB/WS Champs
MLB 1993-2009 26.7% 90% 80% 60% 33%
NFL 1994-2009 37.5% 96.8% 75% 65.6% 34.4%
  • Notes:  Baseball had no postseason in 1994. 
  • Baseball adopted its current postseason scenario in 1995.  In 1993 only 14.2% of teams made the playoffs.
  • The only MLB teams to not make the playoffs in this span are:  Pittsburgh, Kansas City, and the Expos/Nationals.

As you can see, Major League Baseball has been absolutely as competitive as the NFL over this span.  During this time, Baseball had no salary cap, but the NFL did.  Despite allowing far fewer teams into the postseason each year, MLB sent basically the same percentage of teams to each round of the playoffs as the NFL did with a salary cap.  Remind me again why the lack of a cap keeps teams down?  Just because Pittsburgh and Kansas City have management issues (and both clubs make a TON of money) doesn’t mean the league has a problem.  Don’t gripe about the Red Sox and Yankees winning four titles this decade and going to six world series.  The Colts and Pats have won four titles and gone to six Super Bowls.  THAT’S WITH A CAP.  I don’t see how anyone can claim the AFC has been any more wide open than the American League this decade.

There are reasons why the cap doesn’t matter:

1.  The careers of most NFL players are short. Under the old system, you had exclusive rights to players drafted for four years.  Most players in the league are used up by then.  The whole idea of “keeping teams together” is a fallacy.  Most guys are just interchangeable parts.  Over the past decade, the Colts have lost a few players thanks to the cap, but not very many.  Is losing five to ten mid-level players a decade really that big a deal in the grand scheme of things? The truth is that most guys who hit free agency are pretty used up.  Most free agent acqusitions just don’t pay off.

If the players want to do away with the cap, the owners should say ok, but only if you give us six years service time before free agency is an option.  This is the actual current NFL rule for the 2010 season.  That would make free agency an irrelevant issue for the majority of all players who ever play in the league.

2.  The NFL is about quarterbacks now. One player levels the field much more than ever before.  Even the capless baseball has super-stars in small markets.  The best player in the game is in St. Louis.  In a capless NFL, teams would have to focus on drafting and signing their QBs to a long term deal.  It wouldn’t be that different.  The key is to make the right decision.

3. Smart beats rich. Sure, smart and rich is always best, but there will always be room for the well run teams to take advantage.  Ask Dan Snyder if being rich is the same thing as fielding a good team.

4.  A lack of guaranteed contracts.  Ok, so you made a bad move and signed Vince Young as a free agent.  Six months into his stint as your new quarterback, he starts moonlighting as a male stripper.  What do you do?  CUT HIM!  The NFL system allows teams to get out from under bad deals instantly and the only penalty…comes with the salary cap.  Cut out the cap and there is less incentive than ever to keep a crappy player.  The phrase in baseball is that money lets you make up for mistakes.  Teams like the Reds are stuck with Aaron Harang at $12 million a year.  The Cubs couldn’t unload Soriano for anything.  In football, if you screw up, you cut the guy.  Sure you are out the money you already paid him, but you never have stare at a corpse of a bloated useless tackle for five more seasons at $7 million per.

5.  Revenue sharing and the TV deal. The Yanks and Sox are richer than all the other teams in part because of lucrative local TV deals. In the NFL most (not all) revenue is split between the teams.  Yes, there are disparities in revenue streams for some teams, but they aren’t as stark as in other sports.  Jerry Jones has his mammoth stadium (which he paid for himself), so that helps, but by and large teams are working with much more similar incomes than in baseball.  If teams operate with a balanced budget, most of them will end up having similar resources.

The salary cap is a complete and utter red herring in sports.  There is no evidence that it promotes competitive balance.  It has not made the NFL more competitive.  It has not made the NFL more competitive than baseball.  All it does is save owners from themselves.

If the salary cap never comes back to the NFL, there is no evidence that it will matter.