Dallas wide receiver Michael Irvin has called it “ridiculous.” Minnesota quarterback Warren Moon says it “stinks.” Former quarterback Phil Simms has several adjectives for it, most of them unprintable.
It’s the NFL’s new $34.6-million salary cap, and it’s the reason Ram linebacker Joe Kelly will spend his Sunday afternoons this fall in Anaheim Stadium instead of the Coliseum.
An eight-year starter with Cincinnati and the New York Jets, Kelly was cut in April by the Raiders, who no longer needed him as their starting middle linebacker.
A signing bonus and incentive bonuses drove Kelly’s $600,000 annual salary to nearly $900,000, and the Raiders thought it was too much to spend on their starting middle linebacker, who finished second on the team in tackles with 103.
“The salary cap was the death of Joe Kelly with the Raiders,” said Steve Feldman, Kelly’s Newport Beach-based agent. “Here’s a guy who got cut for all the wrong reasons.”
Three months have passed since the Raiders cut Kelly, whom they signed as an unrestricted free agent before the 1993 season. Does he harbor any resentment?
“I was never resentful about it,” he said. “My wife was really upset and all my teammates were upset. But I’ve been in the league nine years and nothing really surprises me.”
The salary cap has meant major pay cuts for veteran players such as Kelly, who signed a one-year, $500,000 deal with the Rams in May.
“The game as I see it now won’t field the best players,” Kelly said. “With the cap, there won’t be a team in the league with the 11-best guys on defense or offense because of the financial structure.”
But who’s to blame? Perhaps the players themselves.
Kelly didn’t vote on the proposal. Now he wishes he had.
“It (the vote) was a group thing,” he said. “A lot of us with the Raiders didn’t agree with it (the cap) because we knew with that system you were going to have a defensive end, a running back, quarterback, wide receiver who were paid well, but not everyone.
“And the proven veterans, like myself, would get caught up in the cap. Why keep a veteran who’s making $800,000 at a position when you have a rookie who’s making $108,000?”
Teams once cut down rosters almost entirely in August, but with the cap, they must make many decisions before going to camp. Kelly was one such decision for the Raiders. Money had become as much a factor as age, injuries and skill.
“I probably had my best pro season last year,” Kelly said. “Nobody really expected anything out of me when I came to the Raiders. All I told (owner) Al Davis and (Coach) Art Shell was all that I wanted was a shot.”
The Raiders cut Kelly shortly before April’s draft, leaving the 29-year-old to test the free-agent market for the second time in a year.
“I really wasn’t expecting it (the cut),” he said. “If you ask anybody on that Raider team, I would be one of the last names that would have been mentioned as someone they would have to look at as far as salary.”
Ram linebackers coach Dick Selcer, who coached Kelly as a rookie in Cincinnati, was more than a little surprised to see the linebacker in the free-agent market after last season. Kelly talked to several teams, but chose the Rams over the Washington Redksins because of his relationship with Selcer.
Kelly’s versatility gives the Rams some much-needed depth at linebacker. His strength and hitting ability made him a run-stopper with the Raiders. And although Kelly can back up Shane Conlan at middle linebacker, Selcer thinks Kelly’s speed puts him in contention for the starting outside linebacker jobs with Henry Rolling and Roman Phifer.
“Joe is versatile in the sense that he can play regular in our nickel-back situations or he can cover,” Selcer said. “You can play him in goal-line situations and on special teams. He’ll be involved in all facets of the game, the kind of guy you won’t have to take out of a game.”
Which is just the way Kelly likes it.
“I come to this camp facing the same thing as last year,” he said. “I don’t have to prove that I can play because I know I can. But I have to show the Rams that I wasn’t cut because of my abilities. I can come in here and contribute.”