It is official. Next week, the Dallas Cowboys play the Washington Redskins in the John Mara Invitational NFC East Championship Game.
Despite losing their game against the New Orleans Saints in overtime after a remarkable comeback to tie it in regulation, the Cowboys remain in control of their playoff destiny. They got the help they needed after the New York Giants lost with marked ineptness to the Baltimore Ravens 33-14. (Troy Aikman on how the Giants lost the game: "This was a team effort. They were horrible in all three phases of the game.")
Although a loss would send the Cowboys home, they have to feel good about being in this position after all the challenges they have faced. They have a defense that should be nicknamed "Here's Your Nametag", and we all felt the pain the team suffered after the death of Jerry Brown Jr. in Josh Brent's drunken accident. And although they face the Redskins in a game that has breathed new life into one of the most storied rivalries in the NFL, both teams have to be feeling a good bit of Schadenfreude about how things have played out. John Mara, owner of the Giants, went to some pretty extraordinary lengths to keep two of his division rivals down in the offseason. It all must taste rather ash-like to him now.
For those of you who might have forgotten some of the details of the Great Salary Cap Theft from earlier this year, please allow me to refresh your memory.
(Note: The following explanation reflects the opinions of the writer of this article and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, attitudes or policies of the owners, staff, and management of SBN, although among some, particularly here at Blogging The Boys and over at Hogs Haven, they may elicit a few emphatic "HELL, YEAH" type responses.)
The story actually begins back in 2010, when the NFL owners contemplated the coming network contracts and decided that they wanted to get a better deal with the NFLPA. They decided to void the last year of the league Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) to pressure the players into a better deal. Unfortunately, this meant that they also voided the salary cap. While there are some owners, notably Jerry Jones of the Cowboys and Dan Snyder of the Redskins, who have no problem with paying more to the players to build their teams, most of the owners have a real problem with seeing one more dollar flow to the players than they absolutely have to pay. Under federal law, such as the antitrust statues, without a CBA in effect, it is illegal for the owners of the team to collude with one another to suppress player contracts. However, an "unofficial" policy was promulgated to the league owners that no one was to use the lack of a salary cap to gain an "unfair competitive advantage". One of the strongest supporters of this idea seems to have been John Mara.
Jerry Jones and Dan Snyder, along with a few other owners, made a decision to treat uncapped year of 2010 like it was really an uncapped year. Dallas frontloaded the contract for Miles Austin and Washington restructured the deals with DeAngelo Hall and Albert Haynesworth to move a lot of cap cost into the uncapped year. This was perfectly legal and violated no regulations, as the league admitted. It did, however, totally irritate one John Mara.
The new CBA was completed in time to save the 2011 season. After the season, the NFL took action to penalize Dallas $10 million and Washington $36 million in cap space over two seasons. This move surprised many, and was seen as unjust and possibly illegal by many (see here and here for some details and outside opinion from the time this was happening). John Mara, a member of the Competition Committee and chairman of the Management Committee, stated publicly that the teams were lucky they were not penalized draft picks. This led to a perception that he was one of the driving forces behind the move. Whatever the case, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell saluted smartly in front of Mara's desk and marched out to carry out his orders.
Jones and Snyder filed a grievance, but did not succeed in getting the penalties overturned. They could have sued the league, and many felt they had an excellent case, but they were in the position of Samson in the temple. To win a lawsuit would likely threaten the NFL itself, and the owners of two of the richest franchises in the league were not about to put that gold egg producing goose at risk.
The thing that seemed so odious about the whole situation was that Mara was going so hard against two teams who just happened to be division rivals. Now, perhaps his motivation was truly to preserve a proper level of competitiveness and balance in the league and had nothing to do with limiting the roster-building ability of teams the Giants had to beat to win their division. And just maybe those e-mails you get from Nigeria will really lead to great wealth for you.
So it is rather a delicious irony that the two teams Mara went after (while not punishing other teams that also made some moves to manage their cap hits during 2010, such as the Saints and the Oakland Raiders) are now playing each other for the division crown, while his team is having to hope against rather long odds that they can somehow sneak into the playoffs as a wild card. The defending Super Bowl champions could not even defend their division. Did the cap penalty give the two affected teams a little extra motivation? Is this some kind of football karma? I really don't know, but it makes me smile.
Now the Cowboys need to make sure they win the game against the Redskins, which is their only path left to get into the playoffs. And that smile will stay plastered on my face a bit longer.
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