Cowboys, Redskins punished ... but why?

Free agency just got a whole lot less exciting for fans of the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins, who may have a lot less to spend on free agents than they originally thought.

Adam Schefter reports that the NFL has docked the Cowboys $10 million in cap space and the Redskins $36 million in cap space for dumping large chunks of long-term contracts into the uncapped 2010 season. The teams are allowed to split the penalties up over the next two seasons, so technically this might not affect either team's spending until 2013. But you have to believe they'd be wise to get at least some of it out of the way this year.

We had the Cowboys at $12.667 million under the cap before they put an $8.8 million franchise tag on Anthony Spencer, so the full penalty would actually put them over the cap and even if they took $4 million of the hit this year they'd still have work to do to get under. We had the Redskins as $47.568 million under the cap before they put a $5.4 million franchise tag on Fred Davis, which means they could take their whole penalty this year and still be under.

What'd they do wrong? Well, they apparently violated no actual rule but rather a behind-the-scenes guideline designed to keep the uncapped year from truly being uncapped.

While the 2010 season was an uncapped year, the NFL told teams not to use that as a means of eating up portions of long-term contracts in order to reduce cap room in future years. The Redskins and Cowboys and, to a lesser extent, the Raiders and Saints, were found to have done just this. As a result, not only do they lose this money, but every NFL team other than Oakland and New Orleans gets an additional $1.6 million in cap room. (The Saints and Raiders aren't docked any cap room, they just don't get to share in what the Redskins and Cowboys have to give back.)

This seems a pretty ridiculous thing for the league to do. Either the year is uncapped or it's not. To tell teams, "Yeah, it's uncapped, but don't spend too much this year just because of that, or we'll fine you for it down the road" feels a little bit like collusion to me. But this is the NFL, which does what it wants and makes up the rules as it goes along. The Cowboys and the Redskins surely know that, and the fact that they were the only two teams found to have engaged egregiously enough in this behavior to deserve a huge loss of salary-cap space indicates that they should have known better.

The immediate fallout will be more roster cuts than initially expected for these teams as they work to stay under the cap and still fill out their 2012 rosters. The Redskins, for example, have already announced that they have cut fullback Mike Sellers and safety O.J. Atogwe.

As for recourse, which some of you are already asking about on Twitter, I doubt there is any. All indications are that this is the result of a settlement between the league and the NFLPA, which indicates to me that the four teams mentioned weren't the only violators, just the worst ones. And again, while they don't appear to have broken any actual league rule that's on the books, they do appear to have been warned. So, they're being punished. In the NFL's world, you pretty much have to do what the NFL tells you to do.