I've always loved the old spaghetti westerns, especially three starring Clint Eastwood: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More. Aside from the fun and entertainment those movies provided, the "Man With No Name" (Eastwood) taught us a few lessons in basic economics (supply and demand, fair market value, "bang for the buck", contractual obligations etc.). The very same lessons can be applied to NFL team building, managing the salary cap, player salaries and the St. Louis Rams.
After their win against Tampa Bay, the Rams are now 6-8 with two games remaining on the schedule. They're mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. With Sunday's win against Cleveland, the Seahawks are 9-5, riding a 5-game winning streak and are headed to the playoffs. On Sunday, the Rams travel to Seattle to face the Seahawks, in a game that means little beyond the notion of divisional bragging rights.
Before the regular season began, many thought the Rams could threaten Seattle's supremacy in the NFC West. Their Week 1 victory over the Seahawks in OT at the Edward Jones Dome certainly turned more than a few heads. At different points in the season, the Rams were 4-3 and looking forward to the easy part of their schedule, while Seattle was 2-4 and floundering. In the interim, the Seahawks went on a tear, winning 7 of their next 8 games. In stark contrast, the Rams went on a 5 game losing streak, essentially ending any hopes for playoff football in January.
What separates the Seahawks from the Rams? What causes a promising team like the Rams to collapse mid-season, while at the same time the Seahawks (who looked dead in the water early in the season) turn it around and rise again as Super Bowl contenders? The "Man With No Name" might have been able to shed some light on the answers to those questions...
The accompanying chart presents the top dozen 2015 salary cap hits for both the St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks.
Player 2015 Salary Cap Hit St. Louis Rams Robert Quinn 16,744,110 Chris Long 12,500,000 Jared Cook 8,300,441 Rodger Saffold 8,250,000 Lance Kendricks 5,600,000 Greg Robinson 4,837,295 Nick Fairley 4,750,000 William Hayes 4,480,000 Kenny Britt 4,300,000 James Laurinaitis 4,275,000 Nick Foles 4,042,000 Tavon Austin 3,477,546 Total Cap Hits (57%) 81,556,392 Seattle Seahawks Richard Sherman 12,200,000 Marshawn Lynch 8,500,000 Jimmy Graham 8,000,000 Michael Bennett 8,000,000 Cliff Avril 8,000,000 Earl Thomas 7,400,000 Russell Okung 7,280,000 Russell Wilson 7,054,868 Brandon Mebane 5,700,000 Kam Chancellor 5,650,000 K.J. Wright 4,750,000 Doug Baldwin 4,650,000 Total Cap Hits (61%) 87,184,868
The Rams' top dozen salary cap hits for 2015 represent 57% of their entire salary cap. The Seahawks' top dozen salary cap hits represent 61% of their entire salary cap. The Seahawks' top dozen salary cap hits exceed the Rams' by only $5,628,476. What's striking is the difference in performance levels/production For A Few Dollars More.
For Seattle, eight of their top dozen have a combined 8 1st Team All-Pro selections and 25 Pro Bowl invitations. In contrast, only two Rams players in their top dozen have received postseason honors. Robert Quinn is a two time Pro Bowler and a one time 1st Team All-Pro selection. Nick Foles was invited to the Pro Bowl in 2013 as a Philadelphia Eagle.
In my estimation, only 3 players in the Rams' top dozen (Tavon Austin, James Laurinaitis and William Hayes) have performed and produced this season at a level commensurate with their sizable 2015 salary cap hits. The remaining 9 players (for various reasons) have simply not earned their team leading salary cap hits and represent less-than-average value for 2015.
For the Rams, six players with salary cap hits falling outside the top dozen are among the teams' best performers (and provided the most value) in 2015: Michael Brockers ($3.0M), Todd Gurley ($2.5M), Aaron Donald ($2.3M), Johnny Hekker ($2.3M), Trumaine Johnson ($1.7M) and Janoris Jenkins ($1.6M).
Seattle's highest-paid players didn't perform or produce at their best early in the season. Led by Russell Wilson and the Legion of Boom, the resurgent Seahawks collectively came out of their funk (despite the injuries to Marshawn Lynch and Jimmy Graham) and began playing up to the level of their contracts. The result is another possible Super Bowl appearance. All Pete Carroll did was ask them to stick with the program:
"I think you have to stay with what you know and stay the course and make it work out for you. That doesn't mean you don't adapt. You're always adjusting and adapting. But the main themes that you live by, you need to stay true to it."
Invitations to this years Pro Bowl were announced on Tuesday. Three Rams (Todd Gurley, Aaron Donald and John Hekker) received invites. None are in the Rams' top dozen salary cap hits. In contrast, seven Seattle Seahawks were given invitations (Michael Bennett, Kam Chancellor, Tyler Lockett, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Bobby Wagner and Russell Wilson). Five are in the Seahawks' top dozen salary cap hits.
Players play. Players who perform the best are uniformly awarded financially for their efforts. Along with the financial rewards comes the expectation that they'll lead the team to a winning season and the playoffs. The Rams' highest paid players simply haven't satisfied preseason expectations. In contrast, For A Few Dollars More, Seattle's highest paid players have met expectations and will lead the Seahawks on their quest to return to the Super Bowl.
The Rams will have many difficult decisions to make this off season. Some of those decisions will likely involve players listed among their 2015 top dozen salary cap hits:
- Nick Fairley becomes an UFA after the season. Has Fairley accomplished enough on his one year prove-it deal to warrant a longer term contract with the Rams?
- Chris Long has missed 4 games this season due to injury, after missing 10 games in 2014 with an injury. Long will be 31 and counts $14.25 million against the Rams' salary cap in 2016 (the final year of his contract). Will the Rams part ways with Long, or work out a small extension, reducing his 2016 salary cap hit in the process?
- The inconsistent Jared Cook has an $8.3 million salary cap hit in 2016. Will the Rams negotiate a pay cut with Cook, release him outright (cap savings of $5.7M in 2016) or leave the contract as it is?
- The oft-injured Rodger Saffold will miss 11 games this season due to a shoulder injury. Saffold may become a salary cap casualty in the offseason. His release would create $3 million in salary cap savings for 2016.
- William Hayes becomes an UFA after the season. Hayes has played more snaps this season because of injuries to Chris Long and Robert Quinn. He's a quality performer who represents great value for the Rams. They'll make every attempt to re-sign Hayes this offseason.
- Kenny Britt has had his ups and downs since joining the Rams in 2014. Britt will carry a $4.85 million salary cap hit in 2016. Depending on ones perspective, that salary cap hit could be considered a relative bargain...or an extravagance.
- James Laurinaitis' salary cap hit rises to $6.425 million in 2016 (from $4.275M in 2015). Laurinaitis is a better-than-average MLB and team leader. Could he become a cap casualty this offseason? If the Rams re-sign Mark Barron, they could decide to move Alec Ogletree inside (his college position) and have Barron, Ogletree and Ayers as their starting LB's.
- A month ago, I took a look at "The Implications Of Nick Foles' Contract Extension". If the Rams release Foles after the season, they will only save $750,000 against the salary cap. Will the Rams keep Foles through 2016?
Many difficult decisions ahead indeed!! Let's hope the Rams listen to the wisdom of Tuco (from The Good, The Bad And The Ugly) and aren't afraid to pull the trigger when it comes to the tough decisions: "When you have to shoot... Shoot...don't talk".