At least over the last decade, the Bears have managed their salary cap situation intelligently, unlike the Cowboys and 49ers of the 1990′s and the Washington Redskins every year since Daniel Snyder took over. San Francisco and Dallas have a few Super Bowl rings to show for their manipulation of the cap, but it took ten years for the 49ers to get back to respectability, and the Cowboys are still trying.
Before discussing Chicago’s current cap situation, I thought it would be fun to look back at some of the Bears’ foibles going back to 1993, the first year of free agency and the salary cap.
That year, the Bears’ first foray into free agency had them spending money on their own free agent-quarterback Jim Harbaugh. New coach Dave Wannstedt deemed Harbaugh the Bears quarterback of the future and signed him to a four-year, $13 million deal with $5 million guaranteed. Then Wannstedt quickly cut Harbaugh in March 1994.
But the Bears didn’t get themselves into their first cap trouble until after the 1996 season. That year for the first time the Bears signed a marquee free agent in Miami linebacker Bryan Cox. Cox surpassed Harbaugh’s franchise-record contract with a four-year, $13.2 million deal. What also set the Bears up for a fall was the signing of defensive end Alonzo Spellman that year. Spellman was entering his first year of unrestricted free agency, and the Bears made him their transition player, giving them the right to match any other offers he received. After the Jacksonville Jaguars offered him $12 million for four years, the Bears matched.
As we all know, the investments in Cox and Spellman were horrendous mistakes. These signings, along with the trade of a first round pick in 1997 for quarterback Rick Mirer, put the Bears in a salary cap mess when all three players were cut prior to the 1999 season. (Cox and Mirer didn’t even make the ’98 season). This is because while salaries are not guaranteed, signing bonuses are spread over the length of the deal and at the time accelerated to the year they were cut. This put the Bears in a bind for investing in top-notch free agents in 1998-1999.
Following terrible seasons from 1997-1999, the Bears were ready to spend again in 2000 under then VP of Player Personnel Mark Hatley. In the opening days of free agency that year, Hatley broke the bank by signing DE Phillip Daniels, CB Thomas Smith and S Shawn Wooden to mega-deals. In return, the 2000 Bears finished 5-11. Wooden never started a game for the Bears, Smith was cut just one season into his $20 million deal, and Daniels was an unspectacular player in his four-year tenure with the team.
Since the splurge in 2000, the Bears have been perhaps the best team in the NFL at managing their cap situation. This doesn’t mean they don’t spend for players, but they have always structured their deals wisely so they’re not pushing money back and back until it’s time to pay the piper. This is exactly what happened with the 49er collapse in the late 1990′s. Hell, even the Carolina Panthers who haven’t been any good for three years have terrible cap problems.
Prior to the Bears signing Julius Peppers to the largest contract in their history in 2010, and taking on Brandon Marshall‘s $30 million salary, the Bears were said to be between $20 and $30 million under the cap.
But I was surprised to read Brad Biggs’ article that this may be changing. According to Biggs, the Bears really need to restructure the contracts of Charles Tillman and Peppers in order to fit a possible franchise salary of DT Henry Melton under the cap.
Then where does that leave the money to go get that left tackle, receiver or guard the Bears need? Or to sign or replace Brian Urlacher?
Hey, maybe we need to start talking draft after all.