Garcia, Owens still costing Niners

For those few curious minds out there who have actually e-mailed to inquire about its origins, and whom we strongly urge to please get a life, the term "dead money" is borrowed from poker and refers to cash in the pot that was wagered by players who are no longer eligible to win it.

But whether it is in poker or in the NFL, where "dead money" has now become a part of salary cap lexicon, the term still means the same thing.

You're holding a lousy hand.

"Well, it's certainly something you want to avoid, isn't it?" said Houston Texans general manager Charley Casserly. "It can definitely strangle a team."

Fortunately for Casserly, whose only big "dead money" hit during the brief existence of the Houston franchise was the $6.1 million the team had to absorb when shoulder injuries forced offensive tackle Tony Boselli into retirement last year, there haven't been many financial ligature marks around the Texans' necks. A lot of his counterparts would love to be addressing "dead money" issues from Casserly's perspective, with the Texans ranked at the bottom of the league, with a mere $773,003 allotted to the critical cap category.

Unfortunately, while "dead money" levels leaguewide seem reduced over previous years, some franchises remain overburdened by the lost funds.

"Dead money," as regular visitors to this site probably know by now, is salary cap room assigned to players no longer with a team. It is, in the most pragmatic terms, the financial residue of poor judgements, either in the draft or perhaps in free agency, and too much "dead money" can render a team all but inert. Recent case in point: The San Francisco 49ers who, in paying for past cap excesses, have a current league-high count of nearly $27 million in "dead money," according to unofficial figures compiled by ESPN.com.

Wonder why the 49ers have essentially hibernated during the free-agency period, why the franchise has embarked on a blueprint to rebuild with younger players, and why success in the 2004 draft was so critical? Just sneak a peek at the "dead money" number which, according to ESPN.com figures, is more than three times the NFL average. Consider this: San Francisco is investing one-third of its 2004 cap in players no longer with the team.

The 49ers' salary cap includes six players no longer on the San Francisco roster but who count for more than $2 million each against the 49ers' spending limit. Topping the list is former starting quarterback Jeff Garcia, released in March, but who still counts $10.34 million against the 49ers' cap this year. By comparison, Garcia's cap number for 2004 with his new team, the Cleveland Browns, is a mere $1.78 million.

There are, in fact, 17 players who represent more than $4 million each in "dead money" against their former teams' cap for this season. Eight of those players have "dead money" charges in excess of $5 million and there is a group of four veterans who count more than $7 million each against the spending limits of their onetime employers.

"You have one of those guys (on your cap)," said a high-ranking executive from a club that, indeed, is counting more than $6 million for a player it no longer has, "and it's really a killer. You can't function. The standard rule of thumb is that you're going to have about 10 to 12 percent of your cap tied up in 'dead money.' But to have 10 percent of your cap going to just one guy who isn't around anymore, well, it's like cap suicide, you know?"

At this juncture of the offseason, the average "dead money" leaguewide is approximately $7.6 million, or roughly 9.5 percent of the $80.6 million cap limit. Given some numbers from recent years, that isn't bad, and it reflects the improved cap management evident in many precincts as the NFL enters its 12th season with a spending ceiling. There is about $245 million leaguewide in "dead money" but nearly 50 percent of that is accounted for by eight teams which each have over $10 million in wasted funds.

Those teams, according to the unofficial figures: San Francisco ($26.96 million), San Diego ($22.5 million), New York Giants ($12.72 million), Denver ($12.65 million), Indianapolis ($11.96 million), Jacksonville ($11.26 million), New York Jets ($11.01 million) and Cincinnati ($10.42 million).

At the other end of the spectrum, there are seven teams with less than $4 million each in "dead money" and five of those franchises have less than $2 million on their ledgers. Despite the release this week of free agent bust Joe Johnson, a defensive end who will count $1.08 million against the cap this season and $3.24 million in 2005, Green Bay remains one of the franchises that perennially features a low "dead money" number.

Part of that is due to the cap management skills of vice president of finance Andy Brandt. But as Brandt noted, echoing the sentiments of Casserly, having a modest "dead money" total is characteristically reflective of a franchise that features good synergy among the personnel, coaching and front office staffs. The "dead money" roller coaster tends to be cyclical, but the teams that typically aren't forced to carry the dead weight against their caps are those that have enjoyed a considerable degree of stability.

"The lifeblood of good cap management is having everyone and every department on the same page," said Brandt, whose team has only about $1.6 million in "dead money" funds. "I'm sure there are places where that is a challenge. Fortunately, we're not one of them."

Indeed, reducing "dead money" totals begins not at the negotiating table, but rather with the personnel and coaching staffs. In the era of the salary cap, every miscalculation on a player, or the inability of the coaches to elicit peak performance, eventually becomes a "dead money" issue. And as Casserly noted, coaches can be victimized by helping create a disadvantageous cap scenario, or by walking into an already bad situation.

"I do think it contributes to (instability) at the coaching level," Casserly said. "Not many people consider it, but how many coaches have been fired because of what boils down to 'dead money' or cap issues? How many (coaches) have their chances for success ruined by going into a situation where the team is hampered by 'dead money' issues? I really do believe it gets some guys fired."

For sure, just as in poker, "dead money" raises the stakes. And just as often, at least until the situation is rectified, as the 49ers are attempting to do with their latest paradigm, it forces franchises into "fold" situations.

Around the league

  • Unless we are being misled, or badly misreading the tea leaves (the latter of those, of course, is always a possibility), Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Antonio Bryant isn't going anywhere. No release. No trade. No team suspension. No divorce. Cowboys coach Bill Parcells will deal with Bryant internally and the two will move on. Assuming, that is, that the petulant Bryant is prepared to use Tuesday's much-publicized practice incident as a difficult learning experience, to mature in a manner heretofore not demonstrated, and to emerge as the playmaker Cowboys coaches believe he can be. Only a week before the practice flare-up, Parcells was suggesting to some friends that he liked Bryant as a player and felt he could be a significant component to the offense in 2004. The consummate pragmatist, Parcells knows you need good players to win and, while Bryant is anything but a choir boy, he is a good player. Not as good as he thinks he is, but a good player, nonetheless. Then again, unless he grows up this year, Parcells could grow tired of his immaturity. But for now, Bryant's absence from Cowboys workouts on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday is indicative of a cooling-off period and not his pending departure from the roster. Go back to his college career at Pitt, where some of the coaches couldn't wait to be rid of him, and it's obvious Bryant is a prima donna. Me-first guys don't last long with Parcells, who prefers team-focused players willing to subjugate individuality for the good of the whole, but the bet here is that Bryant's tour in Dallas lasts at least through this season. If the Cowboys want to deal Bryant, they've got some suitors, as several teams indicated an interest over the last few days. But they really don't want to trade him and, with Bryant in Miami chilling out and Parcells deliberating over how to handle the situation, things are quiet for now.

  • Here's one element of the Bryant brouhaha that didn't get much notice: Virtually every one of the early media accounts of the incident -- all of them secondhand, since the Dallas practice was closed to minicams and notebooks that day -- reported that Bryant had tossed his shirt and pads to the ground. Even the story on the Cowboys' official Web site used that terminology. A day later, in follow-up stories, the references to "pads" was gone. Why is that notable? Because league rules, and the collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association, prohibit teams from wearing pads at mini-camps. The inference here isn't that Parcells and the Cowboys were flaunting the rules. Fact is, the Cowboys players we contacted said there were no pads involved. But you can bet that Dallas officials made it very clear to media members, following the initial reports, that there were no pads used at practice. Back in 1979, the Pittsburgh Steelers were forced to forfeit a third-round draft pick when a local beat reporter who is now a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com (hint: not me) discovered the club was wearing shoulder pads during a mini-camp. The incident, dubbed "Shouldergate," is still a sore spot with some longtime Steelers officials, even 25 years later. Draft picks are like gold to Parcells and to owner Jerry Jones, and they aren't about to risk losing one because of a mini-camp.

  • The NFL Europe League, which holds its World Bowl XII championship game this weekend, did an excellent job this spring of getting back on track toward developing potentially solid backup prospects, especially at key positions like quarterback and defensive line. So while NFL owners continue to lose money on the experiment, look for them to support it with a bit more ardor now, particularly since the red ink wasn't nearly as bad this season. "We'll probably never get into the black but the way our owner feels is that, if we get a couple players who can contribute, it's worth it," said one AFC general manager whose team has been a key NFLEL proponent. One change that could be pending, though, is that NFLEL could, in essence, become NFL Deutschland in 2005. The NFL is considering consolidating the six-team league into a strictly German-based entity. As it is, four of the six franchises currently play in Germany, with just the Scottish Claymores and Amsterdam Admirals operating outside the country. A decision on whether to compress the entire league into Germany probably won't come until the fall. "The NFL had a deliberate strategy when this league started to spread its reach as far as possible," Jim Connelly, the managing director for NFLEL told the Sports Business Journal last week. "Now we are at the stage where it is better for us economically and strategically to concentrate only in one market, to generate a greater critical mass, to take advantage of Germany's rivalries."

  • On the subject of World Bowl XII, Berlin quarterback and league most valuable player Rohan Davey, the two-year veteran quarterback allocated by the New England Patriots, is getting the lion's share of attention. And, given a performance this spring that figures to earn him the No. 2 spot on the New England depth chart, deservedly so. But not to be overlooked is the "other" quarterback in the title game, J.T. O'Sullivan of Frankfurt, a player allocated by the New Orleans Saints. O'Sullivan has played extremely well this spring, certainly cemented his status as the No. 3 guy on the New Orleans depth chart, and demonstrated he could eventually be a solid primary NFL backup. Plus the two-year NFL veteran should be lauded for even returning to Europe after the recent death of his father. O'Sullivan returned to California for the funeral and could simply have remained in the United States for the balance of the NFLE campaign. He opted instead to go back to Frankfurt for the final regular-season game and the World Bowl.

  • As usual, the Pittsburgh Steelers (and, more accurately, the classy Rooney family) did the honorable thing this week in upgrading the contract of Tommy Maddox, who was slated to go into the 2004 season as the NFL's most modestly-paid starting quarterback. But when it comes to those reports that Maddox could earn up to $14 million during the four years of his newly-extended contract, well, let's just say a few truth-in-advertising laws got stretched a bit. Basically, what the Steelers did was throw Maddox a meaty $2 million bone, in the form of a signing bonus, to reward him for dramatically outplaying the five-year contract he signed in 2002. In exchange for that gesture, and to help reduce the salary cap impact, Maddox agreed to add another year to his contract, pushing the deal through the 2007 season. But here's the breakdown on the deal: In addition to the signing bonus, Maddox keeps the same base salaries for the next three seasons that he had under the old contract. Those bases are $750,000 each in 2004 and 2005 and $900,000 in 2006, with a $100,000 roster bonus due in March of that year. The "extension" year, in 2007, includes a base salary of $1.3 million. But Maddox will be 36 years old and, by then, it's highly likely the club's first-round pick in the 2004 draft, Ben Roethlisberger, will have supplanted him as the Pittsburgh starter. In terms of so-called "new money," the deal Maddox signed is worth $3.3 million, the last $1.3 million of which he might never collect. Over four seasons, excluding bonuses and incentives, the contract totals $5.8 million. Roethlisberger will bank a signing bonus worth more than that. Does that sound like a market-value deal for a starting quarterback? Agent Vann McElroy dogged fought the good fight, and justifiably so, for nearly two years. But over the next two seasons, essentially the most optimistic timeline for Maddox' shelf-life as a starter, he will earn $3.5 million in compensation exclusive of bonuses. Even if Maddox collects on the approximately $2.5 million in "unlikely to be earned" incentives in his deal, that still pushes it to only about $6 million. The average salary for a quarterback in the NFL in 2003 was $3.3 million and, for a starter, it's about double that amount. Plus it's going to be difficult for Maddox to earn incentives in the final two seasons of the contract since, barring an upset, he'll either be the Steelers' backup or will be gone altogether. A nice deal that rewards Maddox for having far surpassed the expectation when the Steelers plucked him off the XFL scrap heap? You bet, and overdue, as well. But a contract that suddenly catapults Maddox into the pay-level firmament for league starters? Uh, no.

  • Don't know why some outlets reported the Kurt Warner contract with the New York Giants as being worth $9.5 million. The two-year deal is worth $8 million, with the strong likelihood Warner won't be around for the second season of the deal. As widely reported, and confirmed by league salary documents, Warner received a $1.5 million signing bonus and a salary of $1.5 million for 2004. His base salary jumps to $5 million for 2005.

  • The bad news for New England offensive left tackle Matt Light is that he underwent an appendectomy on Friday, will miss the team's mandatory mini-camp, and be limited in his offseason workouts between now and the start of training camp. And the good news for Light? All of the above. In Light's absence, the Patriots will have to get through the current mini-camp with backups such as Adrian Klemm, a former second-rounder who has never been able to stay healthy in his four seasons with the Pats, manning the most crucial offensive line position. That should help the front office appreciate Light all the more, which is a key for him, since the three-year veteran is entering the final season of his first NFL contract. The prospects of losing Light as an unrestricted free agent after the 2004 season ought to scare Pats executives to the negotiating table to at least open discussions about a potential contract extension. Granted, the Patriots demonstrated in the Super Bowl that offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia can cobble together a representative unit out of spare parts virtually no one else in the NFL seemed to want. But the left tackle slot is different and Light, who has started 44 career games and become a mainstay, is a guy New England needs to retain. Some scouts feel he is as gifted as Green Bay left tackle Chad Clifton, who got an $11 million signing bonus to re-up with the Packers this offseason, so keeping Light around won't be cheap. In general, the offensive tackle spot has escalated financially, and teams seem to realize that the spiral is just a function of the increased profile at the position. New England, of course, has strict fiscal policies, but might have to swallow hard to keep Tom Brady's blindside bodyguard around. Kicker Adam Vinatieri, a clutch performer whose field goals earned the Patriots a pair of Super Bowl wins, is also eligible for unrestricted free agency after this year. But as good as Vinatieri is, and he's excellent, most league personnel people feel Light should be the bigger priority for the Super Bowl champions.

  • Latest example of how one man's misfortune can be another man's gain: On Tuesday, the Cleveland Browns lost rookie safety Sean Jones, a second-round pick from Georgia who almost certainly would have made a considerable contribution in 2004, to a torn anterior cruciate ligament. And by Thursday, ESPN.com learned, the Browns had enhanced the contract of safety Earl Little, a six-year veteran they tried to dump earlier in the spring. The team added an incentives package to Little's existing contract that could earn him as much as $1 million and is based largely on interceptions. The package kicks in if he has four interceptions and escalates accordingly on thefts. Little had six interceptions in '04 and three the previous season, so the incentives are certainly realistic and attainable. Only two months ago, Cleveland officials granted Little permission to seek a trade. Now, with the injury to Jones, they are trying to fatten his wallet.

  • In the spring of 2002, with an eye toward the future, the Philadelphia Eagles selected defensive backs with each of their first three choices in the draft. Three seasons later, the future is now, and we're about to find out about the vision of the club's foresight. Strong safety Michael Lewis, the earlier of the team's pair of second-round choices that year, was a starter in 2003. Now he's going to be joined in the secondary by cornerbacks Lito Sheppard (No. 1) and Sheldon Brown (No. 2b), whose dozen combined starts over the last two years are seven fewer starts than Lewis has notched. The last time a team went to the Super Bowl with such callow cover defenders, we think, was in 1981, when the San Francisco 49ers advanced to the title game with three rookie starters (Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright and Carlton Williamson) in the secondary. But coach Andy Reid and defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, both queried this week about the possibility of perhaps adding a veteran corner, insisted they like their current group. That's good, since there really isn't a veteran available any better than what the Eagles already have. Someone asked about Tyrone Williams, recently released by Atlanta, and Reid wisely bit his tongue, since the veteran has nothing left in the tank. But heading into any season with such a young corps of corners, let alone a campaign when anything shy of a Super Bowl berth will be seen as another Eagles failure, is a dicey proposition. As noted, Sheppard and Brown have just 12 starts between them. The tandem they are replacing, Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor, has an aggregate 282 starts. There are six cornerbacks on the Philadelphia roster, three of them are rookies, and one of those (Brandon Haw) is an undrafted free agent. But early word is that Brown and Sheppard have performed with confidence and the coaches have said good things about second-year pro Roderick Hood. To this point, sixth-round pick Dexter Wynn might actually be outplaying third-rounder Matt Ware. One element that should help the young corners is an upgraded pass rush and, to this point, end Jevon Kearse hasn't demonstrated the foot injuries that slowed him the past two years.

  • The only other franchise since the 1970 merger to invest each of its first three choices in a draft on secondary players, Green Bay, hasn't experienced the same kind of positive results for which Philadelphia seems in store. In 1999, the Packers used the 25th overall choice in the first round on Antuan Edwards, and he is no longer with the team. Edwards started just 18 games in five mostly injury-marred seasons with the Packers, had only seven interceptions, and departed this spring as an unrestricted free agent, turning down more money in Green Bay to sign with the Dolphins. The team's second pick that year, the first of its two second-round choices, was cornerback Fred Vinson. After just one season, Green Bay traded Vinson to Seattle, in the deal that brought tailback Ahman Green to the Packers. At least in that regard, it seems, Vinson held some value and the Packers have something to show for him, in a convoluted way. He never played a single snap for the Seahawks, twice blowing out his anterior cruciate ligament. The Packers' other choice in the second round? Cornerback Mike McKenzie, who currently is embroiled in a contract dispute with the team, hasn't reported for any of the offseason workouts and is seeking a trade.

  • Regarding the unhappy McKenzie, agent Drew Rosenhaus reiterated to ESPN.com this week that he has a "solid group" of suitors for the five-year veteran. Rosenhaus also noted that most of the franchises with which he is dealing feel they can reach a contract accord with him. "I think all the teams -- and they've all asked not to be identified -- feel we can do a (contract)," Rosenhaus said. "The hangup remains compensation between the two teams. There just isn't anyone yet who wants to meet the Packers' asking price. We're hoping that, one way or another, that will eventually change." Green Bay is said to be seeking first- and fifth-round draft choices for McKenzie. One Green Bay official, who again noted the Packers hold all the leverage in its dealings with McKenzie, who has three years remaining on his contract, insisted the team will not lower its compensation expectations anytime soon.

  • Make no mistake, the Green Bay Packers still want quarterback Tim Couch, whose official release by the Browns was still held up in paperwork as of midday Friday. But while the Packers assume they are in the driver's seat for Couch, whose long good-bye from Cleveland is now bordering on ridiculous, they do not intend to overpay for him. The dynamics of acquiring Couch have changed, because Green Bay does not have to compensate the Browns now with a draft choice, but the parameters of the offer the Packers have prepared won't be significantly enhanced. "We're still dealing with his demands," said one Packers official, "and they're still too high."

  • Three-time Pro Bowl performer Dexter Coakley is going to have to hold off the challenge of second-year pro Bradie James in training camp if he is to retain his post as the Dallas Cowboys' starting weak-side linebacker. Coach Bill Parcells felt that James was one of his team's real middle-round steals in the 2003 draft (tight end Jason Witten was the other) and the former LSU star performed well in spot playing time as a rookie. James has size, quickness, versatility and playmaker skills, and has done well this offseason. Remember, Parcells covets size at linebacker, and the Dallas corps includes a couple of undersized players in Coakley and middle 'backer Dat Nguyen. In the recent mini-camp, James and Coakley split time with the first-unit defense. But his impressive credentials aside, it could be just a matter of time, a year maximum, before Coakley is ousted.

  • The NFL lost a few good men, most notably Hall of Fame offensive tackle Rosie Brown this week. I'm old enough to remember Brown, who used to come to Pittsburgh and just brutalize Steelers defenders, as one of the most imposing figures of his era. The former New York Giants star, later a longtime scout for the team, was a bit less imposing when we would chat with him at the annual combine workouts, but he was still a big man with a big heart. Brown died Wednesday, at the age of 71, after suffering a heart attack. We also remember former Steelers linebacker Bob Schmitz, another player we used to watch as a kid, and a man who was very helpful as a scout for Pittsburgh and the New York Jets. And, finally, our condolences to Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy and his family. Dungy's father, Wilbur, passed this week after battling leukemia for several years. We met Mr. Dungy a few years ago in Tampa and it was obvious in chatting briefly with him that the apple hadn't fallen very far from the tree.

  • Cleveland officials plan to use some of the club's spare cap room to extend contracts of key players and right offensive tackle Ryan Tucker was the first beneficiary. The seven-year veteran this week signed a four-year extension worth nearly $14 million in so-called "new money." Tucker received a signing bonus of $4.9 million and base salaries of $660,000 (2004), $665,000 (2005), $1 million (2006), $2.55 million (2007), $2.3 million (2008) and $3.25 million (2008). There are roster bonuses of $100,000 for 2005 and of $1 million each for 2008 and 2009, along with annual workout bonuses of $250,000 each for 2006-2009. Tucker was to have earned base salaries of $1.9 million for 2004 and $2.3 million for 2005 under his former contract. So instead of making $4.2 million for the next two seasons, Tucker will pocket $6.325 million, a healthy increase. The deal benefits the Browns because it keeps a key player under contract, probably for the rest of his career, and drops his cap charges in 2004 and 2005. In fact, the team gets pretty palatable cap charges for most of the deal. The contract doesn't go over $5 million capwide until its final year, when it tops out at $5.3 million.

  • Remember how teams would wait until their draft choices' universities held commencement exercises to bring in rookies for mini-camps? Well, this year, several clubs discovered that the language in the NFL rule for rookie participation actually allowed the draft choices to report once they had concluded final exams. The Atlanta Falcons had Ohio State officials fax them confirmation that first-round choice Michael Jenkins had completed his finals on Tuesday evening, then raced the wide receiver into town on Wednesday to get him some on-field practice time. Carolina did the same with another former Buckeyes wide receiver, Drew Carter, a fifth-round pick. Unfortunately, during a mini-camp practice, he tore his anterior cruciate ligament and will now miss his entire rookie campaign.

  • Punts: Lions officials are pleased with what they have seen so far from recently-signed veteran tight end Stephen Alexander, who played in just three games with San Diego last season because of a groin injury. Alexander hasn't gone full-speed yet, but has picked up the offense quickly, and could be a key target for Joey Harrington if healthy. … Of the 16 assistants on the staff of first-year Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith, eight have no previous NFL experience. … There has been some productive dialogue between the agent for Atlanta defensive tackle Ellis Johnson and general manager Rich McKay, but little real progress. Johnson reiterated this week that, if his contract isn't upgraded, he probably won't report for training camp. Very quietly, Johnson led all interior defenders in the league in sacks (8) in 2003, and the Falcons would like to have him around. But the new regime isn't going to allow the uncertainty to fester the way the old staff did in the past. There figures to be some resolution to the stalemate well in advance of camp. … Some Miami veterans are beginning to fret over the direction of the offense. The team, of course, was recently forced to reshuffle its offensive staff when then-coordinator Joel Collier was stricken with a stress-related disorder. … For now, the Giants seem content to go with untested Nick Greisen at the No. 1 middle linebacker spot, but New York will keep close tabs on free agent Jeremiah Trotter, released by Washington two weeks ago.

  • The last word: "What they went through, being down 2-1 in Canada, tying the series, falling behind, being written off by a lot of people, going back to that place (Calgary) and winning again, it's awesome, man. I lost a lot of sleep with these Lightning guys. These are not only physically tough and gifted skaters, these are mentally tough dudes." - Bucs coach Jon Gruden, on the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

    Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.