NFL$

Few weeks ago, before hell broke loose and PayLoo started the frenetic wheeling and dealing that shipped three offensive starters out of town, on one of the Saints blogs a poster compared the cap strapped Saints to the cap rich Raiders. He pointed out that the latter were doing “the right thing” planning for the future, while your team was yet again mortgaging the house and was bound to be go nowhere.

Comparing what these two teams have done in the recent past not only does not pass the eye test, but it is outright ludicrous. But nonetheless the remark got us thinking. You often hear that, from the glass half-empty part of the fan base to the mainstream football “experts”, the Saints are in perennial cap hell and their hands are tied. As proof of this it is often mentioned the over-bloated contracts of non performing veterans, leading inevitably to a case full of Dead Money – whose concept we have just recently tried to explain here at WDW – and which is going to sooner or later cripple the team.

Apart that in the real cap world there is not such “drama” as the naysayers want us to believe, as the Dead Money is pretty much physiological in this line of business (there is no Mr Perfect among the GMs in the League), tends to change from year to year, and while most certainly can put a team in “purgatory” that’s only for a very short time if a savvy GM is at the helm. This was clearly mentioned by Loomis himself in his interview with the media at the owners meeting at the beginning of the week, where he genuinely seemed surprised at the “naivety” of the question from one of media.

Anyway, the two things we were curious to find out were if both Cap Overspending and Dead Money do really cripple a team, or if instead it is the exact opposite – if applied correctly a bit of overspending lead the teams to success, in spite of an acceptable level of Dead Money.

Thanks to Spotrac we managed to analyze the following data for every team in the league, for the last four seasons – basically from the start of the new CBA.

– 1) Cap Carry-Over (a feature of the new collective agreement that allows every team to carry over unused cap space to the following league year, if they so wish); we therefore know by subtraction how much cap did a team use the previous year;

– 2) Dead Money at the end of the league year;

We then compared both variables to the Winning Record of each team over the same period (regular season only), and we tried to identify if there are existing correlations between these variables.

This column will analyze initially the Cap Carry-Over (PART I), leaving the Dead Money (PART II) for a second write-up in the near future.

Cap Carry-Over

Over the period 2011/2014 the Cap jumped from 120 mil to 133 mil, for a total of 496.6 mil. It has basically sky-rocketed on the back of the new TV deals, with a further 10 mil added in 2015 and more increases on the way. Unused Cap has ranged from 0 to around 18% of the total space available around the league, for an average of less than 6% per team. This number shows that, apart from the odd exception, teams do spend because owners know that is the sensible thing to do in order to have a successful season, and probably also because the new CBA is forcing them to do so by setting a minimum spending over time.

The key question we tried to answer was this – does (over) spending pay off? Does a low Cap Carry-Over result in more wins? It is clear that few successful teams have embarked in a controlled spending spree the last few years – a wise spending policy that reflects the new age of bigger caps, and have achieved this mostly through a series of back-loaded deals with their best players, where the heaviest hits will get absorbed by the higher caps of the future. This is the reality of the new NFL and probably the only sensible way to win in this game.

While the empirical evidence tends to support that spending does pay off, it also suggests that not-spending enough gives a team little chance of success, unless the excess cap space carried over is temporary and the result of rebuilding. Teams like Indy and Philly come to mind in this regard – a high cap space at the onset of a new (so far successful) cycle. Obviously the key is a combo of GM and Head Coach who know what they are doing, both in terms of selecting the right players and at the right price.

The idea is clearly one of creating a virtuous circle, where a successful team is able to attract the best free agents on the market, or groom talent internally, and in both cases to be able to retain them at the price of having to open the wallet. If this circle is not in place unsuccessful teams try too to attract talent, but often end up overpaying and end up dumping a good amount of Cap space into the Dead Money pot. From there it can only follow that an unsympathetic, not very patient owner will sack the GM/HC and be less keen to spend in the near future, which makes the turn-around very difficult to achieve in the long run.

The following table shows how the teams ranked by unspent Cap, compared to the number of wins over the period. You can see that Jax has the dubious award of least spender, with the NYG at the other end saving nothing. In terms of wins, New England is clearly ahead of the rest – besides also being the recent Super Bowl winner – with Green Bay and Denver at its tail, and with Cleveland, Oakland, Tampa and Jax to close the rankings at the other end.

CARRY1

The following chart gives probably a better idea of what is going on, with the cluster of the most successful teams clearly shown as money spenders (top left).

CARRY2

In particular we can notice the following:

– Among the bottom dwellers, while teams like Browns and Jaguars can have the partial excuse of not spending, the mighty Raiders, and to some extent the Bucs, don’t;

– A group of underperformers, sub 0.500, is also clearly identifiable (Rams, Redskins, Vikings, Jets, Titans…), who year in and year out seem to try to put the cap money at use, but with poor results at that;

– A group of teams around 0.500 or just above (Giants, Bears, Lions, Cards, Texans, Chargers, Falcons, Panthers, Cowboys…) is also there – franchises who are trying hard to achieve success;

– A small group of sub-elite teams with better results than the average (Saints, Steelers, Ravens and Bengals) are probably still not getting the bang for the buck (with the exception being Cincinnati with a lot of unused space all the time);

– The elite five teams (Pats, Packers, 49ers, Broncos and Seahawks) are also fairly efficient in terms of cap management, although it reasonable to assume that success for some of them (Seattle) will lead to lower caps carryover in the near future.

It must be stressed these are numbers from 2011 to 2014 combined, so they might not describe the current cap environment for each of these teams. And obviously a team with a small cap carry-over can well have a lot of room to spend the following year. Although in this league it is fairly difficult for a team to “turn it around” by creating cap space, rebuilding and make it stick without a successful GM/HC duo.

For those interested in some statistical analysis the overall correlation between Unused Cap and Wins is, as expected, negative (-0.26) for the whole league – probably a number on the low side. The more you spend, and the less carry over you have, the more you (should) win. For the AFC this number is a solid -0.47, while for the NFC it is a somehow surprising at + 0.14, with Philly and Seattle probably skewing the result (starting to win after a rebuilding period), as well as St.Louis and NYG (close to zero cap space all the time, but not winning).

The Saints seem to be doing relatively well, ranked 9th in the league with 38 wins since 2011 and 24th in terms of un-used cap. Decent result, considering the drama experienced over the period, but clearly not as cap efficient as most of the teams with better winning record. Payton/Loomis have been doing a decent job after the Super Bowl, but there is clearly room for improvement and the desire to do so, as this crazy off-season has shown so far.

TO BE CONTINUED…