The NFL's free agency season was barely hours old this week, and the talk of the league was how that was a pretty amazing trick that Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco pulled off. He won the Super Bowl on Feb. 3. Became the NFL's highest paid player exactly four weeks later. Then he seemed to make half the Ravens' roster disappear.
Veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin? Traded for a sixth-round pick. Free-agent linebacker Paul Kruger? Off to Cleveland. Dannell Ellerbe, the linebacker the Ravens really did want to keep? He jolted them by signing a deal with Miami. Now venerated safety Ed Reed, the Ravens' most respected team leader now that Ray Lewis is retired, is scheduled to make a visit to the Houston Texans.
"Flacco is going to have to play both sides of the ball," ESPN analyst Mark Schlereth said only half-jokingly after the Ellerbe news came down.
The seeming chain reaction between Flacco's six-year, $120.6 million deal and the exodus of players who contributed greatly to Baltimore's title win is the most dramatic example of a nagging little question that came to mind repeatedly this week as other teams shed veteran players they'd prefer to keep: Is the NFL's salary cap too low?
Or, more precisely, given that NFL revenues are higher than ever but a strikingly large class of valued veteran players is now available at cut-rate prices, do we need to reappraise how badly the NFL Players' Association got schooled by NFL owners when the new 10-year collective bargaining agreement (CBA) was negotiated during the lockout of 2011?
Remember, one of the raw numbers that blinked off the page then was how the NFLPA agreed to roll back its share of revenues from 53 to 48 percent. So even if you accept the union's contention that a smaller chunk of an ever-growing pie still means more money is going to the players overall, they did still take a bit of a haircut. Percentage-wise, the players' haul is less than it could be.
So is that causing this?
The answer to all those questions is no. Not exactly.
"We actually go through this outcry every year when players start to move in free agency -- it's nothing new under the sun," says Rodney Fort, a sports management professor at the University of Michigan who studies the economics of games including the NFL. "In my opinion, nobody 'won', nobody 'lost' in the NFL talks. It was a push. The players wanted a broader definition of revenues, owners wanted to squeeze them tighter and get a bigger [financial] share for themselves and that [both] is what happened."
But if you hone in on how disproportionately big a chunk the salaries of star quarterbacks like Flacco are growing and eating up the cap, well then you are on to something interesting.
The cap, which will be at $123 million for the 2013 league year, has only grown 2.2 percent in the two years since the new CBA was struck in July of 2011. And yet, the flood of veteran talent that's now hit the market is pricing itself based on old expectations of deals that were handed out when the cap was still growing at a clip of about 8.6 percent between 1999 and 2009. But nobody is more guilty of the high self-appraisals than quarterbacks (though Darrelle Revis' conceit about wanting to be the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL though he's now rehabbing an ACL tear comes close).
The difference with quarterbacks is, they're the only class of NFL players who have the leverage to keep demanding -- and getting -- the sort of huge salary bumps that Flacco just received, though nobody except perhaps Flacco's momma and the Delaware Blue Hens Alumni Association thinks he's really the best player in the league.
So what does that kind of cap hit mean when you're building a team? It's significant.
Simply put, the cap isn't too low. "As for our expectations of this CBA, it has worked out slightly better so far, but it is very early to judge a 10-year deal," George Attalah, the NFLPA assistant executive director for external affairs, said in an email response to ESPN.com Wednesday. "In the first year of this deal, players received approximately 54 percent of all revenues up from just under 50 percent in the last capped year of the prior deal. This year's figures are too early to report."
But you could argue the rate that quarterbacks' salaries are growing is too high. And it's hard to see how teams will get around it, given that everyone in the NFL is chasing a big-time quarterback more than ever because of the advantageous rules for passing offenses. And if history shows us anything, it's that owners across sports can't control their fool selves when it comes to throwing money at something they badly want. Or think they need.
And so, while obits for the great NFL running back have been written many, many times in recent years (Adrian Peterson's brilliance notwithstanding), the Cult of the NFL Quarterback is alive and kicking.
What that has created is one of those careful-what-you-wish-for scenarios. Having a star quarterback can be a double-edged sword, as Aaron Rodgers', Matthew Stafford's, Tony Romo's and Matt Ryan's franchises are going to discover now that their contracts are coming up.
Having one player like a Flacco, Brady or one of the Manning boys eating up 15 percent or more of your cap when you still have to pay 52 other players is a significant drain. It's also led to a pretty active speculative market for the lesser quarterbacks. Some teams have been willing to throw money at the likes of an unproven Matt Flynn or Kevin Kolb, hoping to hit gold (only to find themselves now staring at dead money or trying to cut their losses).
But now, look ahead: Someone like the Packers' Rodgers could wind up siphoning off 20-25 percent of his team's cap if he gets a contract of, say, $25 million a year plus bonuses, which is not inconceivable. And if a team guesses wrong on quarterbacks who command far less, that hurts too. The Jets, for example, now find Mark Sanchez's $17.1 million cap hit in 2013 if cut so unpalatable they'll almost certainly pay the $12.8 million owed if they keep him.
And what all that means is the NFL's so-called veteran "middle class" at other positions is likely to keep getting squeezed and forced to downsize its salary expectations, at least until the cap resumes growing more vigorously.
Teams are going to put even more emphasis on hoarding draft picks and developing younger, cheaper players at other positions. They're likely to avoid players with injury histories more than ever. A perfectly fine player like veteran defensive tackle Chris Canty -- whom the Giants cut rather than finish paying his six-year, $42 million contract -- must reconcile himself to the three-year, $8 million bargain deal he just took from Baltimore. And even a playoff hero like Boldin has to move on if he's not willing to restructure his contract, as the Ravens reportedly asked him to do before trading him to the 49ers.
So get used to heartsick caterwauling about roster teardowns (it sounds like Velcro ripping). And get used to seeing quarterbacks continuing to get paid at an out-sized rate. The prevailing wisdom in the NFL right now is you can't win without 'em. And that's true. It's just hard to keep teams together with them.
But as Peyton Manning's former boss and ex-Colts general manager Bill Polian put it this week: "The market has spoken."