Q&A on the Cowboys-Redskins cap mess

You guys want some answers on this deal where the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins are losing millions in cap space for spending as much as they wanted in an uncapped year. I'm here for you. I have spoken to a couple of sources close to the situation, and this is what I have learned:

Q: What exactly did they do?

A: During the uncapped 2010 season, teams were repeatedly warned by the league not to structure contracts so that big money was assigned to 2010 in order to attain future-years cap relief. They were told there would be penalties if they did this. The Cowboys and the Redskins, to a greater extent than the league's other 30 teams, ignored these warnings and engaged in such behavior anyway. Miles Austin's contract with the Cowboys, which included a $17 million base salary in 2010, is being brought up as the prime example.

Q: How did they get caught?

A: The complaints against the Cowboys and the Redskins for engaging in perfectly legal behavior that violated no actual rules but only the collusive backroom dictates being issued by the league came not from the league office but from the other 30 teams, who were doing what they were told while the Cowboys and the Redskins were not. The other teams demanded action, since they were the good soldiers, and so the league decided it needed to take some.

Q: Why isn't the union challenging this?

A: While this behavior seems to fit the very dictionary definition of collusion, as multiple teams were engaged in discussions to limit the earning potential of their employees and prospective employees, do not expect it to be challenged in court. The decision today, in which the Redskins were docked $36 million in cap space and the Cowboys $10 million, is the result of a settlement between the NFL and the NFLPA. One reason the union has no problem with it is that the money lost to the Cowboys and Redskins is not taken out of the overall 2012 spending pool — each of 28 other teams gets $1.6 million extra in cap room, so there's no net loss league-wide. Another reason the union won't push on it is because they agreed, as part of the settlement of last year's Brady vs. NFL federal lawsuit, to drop all pending legal action against the league. That included their claims that the league engaged in collusion in 2010.

Q: Why is this happening now, the day before free agency?

A: The answer to that lies in the reason it took so long for the league to establish and announce this year's salary cap. The union must sign off on the cap before it is approved, and it obviously took issue initially with the idea of punishing teams for spending money in an uncapped year. But the league was toying with the idea of lowering this year's salary cap, and used this issue as a bargaining chip with the union. Basically, if the union agreed to the punishment for the Redskins and Cowboys, the cap would be $120.6 million, as it is now. But if they refused, the league was prepared to make the cap lower. I don't know by how much, but say for the sake of argument they wanted to drop it to $116 million per team. That'd have been a total of $128 million when spread across 32 teams — a significant loss to the players if they agreed to it.

More to come on this, of course, but that should help answer some of your questions for now.