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Cadigan’s Gamble on the Cap Doesn’t Quite Pay Off : Football: Former USC star tears up $850,000 contract with the Jets hoping for $2 million and, months later, has to accept less from the Bengals.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

All is well today in the world of Dave Cadigan.

For seven months an angry, unwitting symbol of the NFL’s salary cap, he has just begun a new job with a new contract.

But Cadigan, who gambled bigger than anyone that the new NFL system would work in his favor, will not soon forget how he nearly lost everything.

And he says he is living proof of the high cost of breaking even.

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“What happened has crushed me,” said Cadigan, former USC star, former first-round draft choice of the New York Jets, currently the most disillusioned guard in football.

He will begin this season with the Cincinnati Bengals, although he ended last season as one of the best lineman for the Jets and wanted to stay there.

He will work for $800,000, but only after tearing up an $850,000 contract in hopes of making as much as $2 million.

He has a job thanks to the NFL’s new system. But the same system caused him to spend a summer looking not at game films, but a digital clock as he lay awake deep into most nights.

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“I’m still bitter, you’re darn right,” Cadigan said. “What has happened to me has been very hard to accept.”

His dilemma began last season. His best season.

Blocking for Boomer Esiason, he was a leader of a Jet line that went eight consecutive games without allowing a sack and finished with a league-low 21 allowed sacks.

He started all 16 games for the first time. He ended the season, at age 28, sound and stronger than ever.

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So he plunked down $25,000 and bought out of his contract, tearing up a deal that would paid him $850,000.

“With free agency in the league, with the kind of money being given to offensive linemen, it was my time ,” Cadigan said.

Little did he know that his time would become a torturous one. Because his entry into the market was greeted with a sound that he rarely heard during his previous six years in the trenches.

Silence.

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Days became months, and spring became summer, and still, silence.

He was looking only for the kind of money given free-agent lineman last year, something in the range of $2 million a year.

He didn’t think it was asking too much, especially considering guard Bob Kratch left the New York Giants for the New England Patriots this winter for more than that.

And still, silence.

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“I didn’t know what the hell was going on,” he said. “I thought in this new system, somebody like me would finally have a chance to benefit. I guess I was wrong.”

When offers finally came in during the last couple of months, they involved contracts that would pay him as little as the minimum $162,000, the kind of money usually given third stringers and aging journeyman.

Cadigan finally learned, like countless other NFL players, that last year’s expensive party was over.

That money was gone, swept, like everything else, under a $34.6-million salary cap instituted in February by agreement of management and the players union.

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Just don’t ask Cadigan how he voted.

“I have never, ever voted on one decision,” Cadigan said. “Not only not on a salary cap, but on nothing, never.

“Gene Upshaw (union chief) never came into our locker room and said, ‘Here’s a topic, let’s take a vote. Never mentioned the possibility of a salary cap.”

Cadigan said he is not the only one who believes he was blindsided.

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“I’ve got a lot of friends in this league, and none of them remembers voting on this,” he said. “Hey, if we had really made this decision, we’d act like men and accept it. But we never, ever made this choice.”

While union officials said Upshaw was out of the office this week and could not be contacted, union regional director Clark Gaines said he saw Cadigan at several meetings of Jet players conducted by the union.

Gaines then scolded all players for blaming the salary cap for their employment situations.

“Too many times, we are confusing the cap with choices made by general managers and pro personnel people,” said Gaines, a former pro running back. “Back when I was released, and everybody else was released, it was because we didn’t fit into somebody’s plans, we were too slow, we had lost a step. Now, everybody just blames the cap.

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“The cap can’t be the source of every problem.”

Dick Steinberg, Jet general manager, admitted that the cap was the reason Cadigan was not re-signed by the Jets at a substantial raise.

“We could not keep both Dave and Jim Sweeney (guard) under the cap,” Steinberg said, referring to another Jet free agent. “Basically, I said whoever could reach agreement with us first would get the deal.

“Sweeney received an offer from New Orleans, there was a sense of urgency there, so we did his deal first, and that was it.”

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The Jets recently offered Cadigan a $400,000 contract, but he would have to serve as insurance for the man who replaced him, Roger Duffy.

“After being a starter all this time, I told them to take the offer and shove it,” Cadigan said.

So he continued to wait. He attempted to stay in playing shape on a high school field near his Leucadia home, with retired lineman Rich Moran.

“I haven’t slept more than two or three hours a night since March,” Cadigan said before he signed with the Bengals. “I tried to watch football on TV and it made me sick, I couldn’t do it. Something like this has never happened to me.”

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He finally cut his losses on Friday, signing a non-guaranteed contract with the Bengals, 16 days before the start of the season, hopelessly late for a lineman in a new offense.

Not only is this year’s salary $50,000 less than he originally was scheduled to receive. His salary for 1995 and 1996 also are less, at $700,000 and $600,000.

Some would say that by finding a job at a comparable salary, Cadigan is a good example of what the union claims is the fairness of the salary-cap system.

“The people who perform will ultimately be rewarded. . . . They may have to change teams, but the money will be somewhere, and they can get it,” said Doug Allen, assistant executive director of the union. “Your high-salaried teams will lose some players, but those players won’t disappear, they will just go to lower-salaried teams, like the Cincinnatis and Tampa Bays.”

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Cadigan prefers to think he was an example of something entirely different.

“Coming into the off-season, I was the type of guy least likely to be affected by a salary cap,” Cadigan said. “I’m not real old or real young. I’m in my prime. I am coming off a good year.

“What has happened shows just how dangerous a cap can be.”


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