There’s an old adage that says you have to spend money to make money. It’s a valid premise. Once somebody becomes a millionaire, the first thing he or she wants to become is a multi-millionaire. The only way to achieve that goal is to spend some of that million you’ve made in order to try to double it, triple it, etc.
When this offseason began, no team had more money to spend than the Denver Broncos – an unanticipated 2011 playoff team that had $40 million to spend. Wanting to remain a playoff team, they significantly blew up that number by signing Peyton Manning – the idea being to spend money in order to make money. How that money will be made is up to debate, whether it comes in playoff revenue or jersey sales or both.
It would seem, as the story goes, if you don’t spend money, you aren’t “in the game.” In some cases, success breeds a lack of salary cap space. When a team enjoys success, it wants to keep it. When the Vikings made their enormous splash in 1998, then-general manager Jeff Diamond mortgaged the future to “keep the band together” and the Vikings were in salary cap hell for the next four or five years. Those days – even the heady days of 2009 – seem like a generation ago. Why? Teams that don’t spend money aren’t in the discussion for being a Super Bowl champ.
Need an example? Consider the following:
As of today, the Vikings are ninth in the league in available salary cap room with $14.57 million in available spending money under the complicated salary cap formula. For the record, the Bengals lead the way with $20.58 million in available cap space, followed by Jacksonville ($20.27 million), Seattle ($18.98 million), Cleveland ($18.5 million), Tennessee ($18.46 million), Tampa Bay ($18.3 million), Kansas City ($17.04 million) and Philadelphia ($16.25 million).
Look back at that list. What do they have in common? Of those nine, only Cincinnati made the playoffs in 2011 – and they finished third in their division with little chance of catching either Baltimore or Pittsburgh anytime soon in the minds of fans and football analysts alike. Coincidence? Considering 20 of the 32 teams in the NFL don’t make the playoffs, the fact that eight of the top nine in available cap space are teams that didn’t make the playoffs is hard to dismiss. The NFL, perhaps more than any other sport, is a sport of trends and numbers. How many teams win a Super Bowl with a pedestrian quarterback? Sure, you can throw out the Ravens with Trent Dilfer or the Buccaneers with Brad Johnson, but, the reality is that those teams won Super Bowls because they had a dominant defenses. They won despite their quarterback, not because of their quarterback. In the last decade, teams with elite quarterbacks tend to earn Super Bowl rings.
It’s hard for teams that are coming off double-digit loss seasons to get free agents to agree to sign on when them. In 2009, in the pre-Favre era, LaDainian Tomlinson chose the Jets over the Vikings because he didn’t like the Vikings’ QB situation and, as a free agent, he had the choice to pick and choose where he wanted to play. He didn’t like the Vikings’ chances in comparison to the Jets. As it turned out, maybe if the Vikings had L.T. to back up A.P. they would have gone to the S.B. He didn’t. The Vikings didn’t. The Jets didn’t.
The bottom line in cap spending, in its current state, is the bottom line of being the bottom of the league. Of the eight non-playoff teams in the top nine in available cap space, six of those eight are slated to pick in the top 12 picks in this year’s draft, including three of the top five.
The Vikings have made the decision not to get into bidding wars for available free agents and, as we reach April Fool’s Day, they still have yet to make a major signing other than tight end John Carlson. Only time will tell if that was the right decision or not. But, in a game that is all about numbers, tendencies and trends, having so much money to spend in a league where good teams and great teams aren’t that distinguishable from one another and decent teams and bad teams have the same blurred line, spending seems to be a common thread among the successful franchises in the league.
Few champions are built by the result of free agency. Solid drafting does much more to building a title contender than throwing players from other teams together and hoping the formula works. Not all Vikings fans begrudge the team for not spending more in the free-agent period. In many instances, many of the signings have been eye-popping in their size – although every year it seems that we say the same thing. This year, however, it seems as though the B-list free agents are getting A-list prices.
Time will tell if the Vikings made the right call. But one thing does seem certain – the teams with the most money to spend on free agents would seem like the ones that need to spend it the most. The Vikings aren’t … and they aren’t alone.