The Redskins and Cowboys will appear before arbitrator Stephen Burbank sometime next month to decide whether or not the NFL had the authority to sanction both teams. The Cowboys were fined $10 million in cap space and the Redskins $36 million over the next two seasons. The fines came in response to "excessive" and "abusive" contract restructuring during the uncapped offseason two years ago.
For those who have forgotten, in the year preceding the NFL lockout, the league went through an uncapped offseason where team salaries were unleashed from the typical floors and ceilings under a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). This uncapped year came as a result of the owners' decision to opt out of the then-current CBA and an inability to reach a new agreement before 2010.
During this timeframe, the Cowboys restructured Miles Austin's contract and paid him $17 million so that the bonus would not be prorated across the life of the contract. The Redskins performed similar movies with Albert Haynesworth for $21 million and DeAngello Hall for $15 million.
Restructuring contracts to convert base salary into bonuses is a common strategy used by teams to free up cap space for the immediate future. The move is a bit of a gamble since the conversion typically turns salary (due over the life of the season) into a bonus (due at the signing of the contract), making all the money guaranteed.
What was different—and frankly, smart—by these two teams, was that they restructured these contracts in an uncapped year. The Cowboys and Redskins wrote massive checks upfront and used the uncapped year to limit the cap hit in future years under these contracts.
The first arbitration meeting in May will solely focus on the issue of the authority. If Burbank finds the NFL had no authority to sanction the teams, then a second meeting will likely be scheduled to determine the remedy.
It is unclear at this time if the teams will be able to argue a theory of "collusion" on the part of the other teams, or if they will need to save that for a later date. In either case, the Redskins and Cowboys will join forces and, in a rare display, have both fanbases cheering for the same outcome.