A Forgettable NFL Season: Why the Salary Cap Can't Fix It

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A Forgettable NFL Season: Why the Salary Cap Can't Fix It
(Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

A salary cap makes a lot of sense on paper. Level the financial field and you level the playing field. Right?

Apparently not. Have you seen the most recent NFL standings?

There have been a lot of great stories for the NFL in 2009. After being left for dead in the preseason, the Denver Broncos have put together a 5-0 start, highlighted by wins over New England and Dallas.

The Cincinnati Bengals are 4-1, fresh off a riveting come-from-behind win over rival Baltimore.

Brett Favre’s experiment in Minnesota is working out remarkably well. The legendary quarterback put together one of his most memorable performances ever last Monday night.

But polluting all those good stories is the cold reality that 2009 is also shaping up to have some of the worst stories in league history. Already, more than a few franchises are wishing it were 2010. Maybe even 2011.

Every season, of course, there is the terrible team. Last year, it was Detroit. The year before, it was Miami.

But this year, there are at least seven teams in contention for worst in the NFL. Tampa Bay, Detroit, Washington, Kansas City, Oakland, Cleveland, and Buffalo are simply abysmal.

In Week Five, St. Louis lost 38-10. Tampa Bay lost 33-14. Oakland lost 44-7. Cleveland won, but they beat Buffalo 6-3. Cleveland quarterback Derek Anderson was 2-for-17 for 23 yards. And he won the game.

I can’t remember the last time there were this many bad teams in the NFL. The standings are proof enough, but the real evidence comes just by watching the games. Ask any fan of the NFL. Some games have just been brutal this season.

This isn’t supposed to happen, though. Wasn’t the salary cap supposed to prevent this sort of disparity?

The problem is that, while a salary cap can level the financial playing field, it cannot level leadership and team management. In fact, it might do the opposite.

When organizations are forced to play under the same financial cap, then those organizations’ true strength and weaknesses come to the forefront. Coaching becomes more important. Smart financial planning becomes more important. Preparation becomes more important.

The winners rise to the surface. The losers sink to the bottom. The New England Patriots are a winning franchise. The Washington Redskins are not.

It’s not a level playing field between those two organizations. New England has quality leadership and a long-term strategy for success. Washington has none of that. That’s why they lose, every single year.

Of course, baseball fans have known this for years. There is no salary cap in baseball. But year after year, teams like Florida, Minnesota, Tampa Bay, and Colorado are in the hunt for the playoffs and World Series.

These teams’ entire payroll is often the salary of certain players on teams like the Yankees or Red Sox. But in baseball, the playoffs are never a foregone conclusion. Why?

Because winning and losing is not simply a matter of money. It takes so much more than that. Leveling the financial field doesn’t fix disparity. It exasperates it.

Unless you completely manipulate the entire concept of competition, then it’s simply impossible to mandate winners and losers off the field.

Always has been. Always will.

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