Most every Canadian Football League preseason opens with a power sweep of change. New head coaches. Old coaches in new places. New playing rules. Old playing rules made new. Sometimes a new commissioner.
But for sheer impact, nothing this past winter has rocked the CFL as hard as the new salary management system.
Long before this weekend's opening of training camps, budgets were blitzed, depth charts were sacked and personnel changes were the order of the day.
The Saskatchewan Roughriders cut loose a handful of prominent veterans (Andrew Greene, Nate Davis, Jackie Mitchell) and reworked the salary of their starting quarterback, Kerry Joseph. The Montreal Alouettes dumped four players in one day, then traded receiver Thyron Anderson for a draft pick. The Toronto Argonauts tried to get ahead of the $4.05-million salary cap by front-loading and extending the contracts of five players last November and three more in mid-January.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers did the same with defensive lineman Doug Brown and receiver Milt Stegall.
"No question, the salary management system is having a significant impact on teams making decisions," said Calgary Stampeders managing partner and president Ted Hellard, an architect of the system and its cap. "The releasing of players who don't fit in the cap model is one thing, but the players after being released are not immediately being picked up at that salary. That tells you the system is working."
Even when the Grey Cup champion B.C. Lions re-signed outstanding offensive lineman Rob Murphy, it wound up costing them Bobby Singh, who refused to accept less money to stay in Vancouver. As general manager and head coach Wally Buono explained, "The reality of this business is not always pleasant, but in order to remain competitive at all positions, and operate within the parameters of the CFL's salary management system, difficult decisions are necessary."
CFL clubs had the 2006 season to comply with the salary management system without being punished through a series of escalating fines. (A club that goes over the cap by $100,000 will be fined $1 for every $1 over the limit. A club $300,000 over will pay $3 for every $1.) This year, the penalties are in place and clubs are required to provide full disclosure when it comes to player salaries, bonuses and side deals.
As Argos GM Adam Rita noted this week: "Everything goes to the cap, except [players put on the nine-week injured list]. … You really have to make some hard decisions. There's someone in your pocket checking it all the time."
This business of checking has some CFL followers rolling their eyes and saying, "Yeah, and the Las Vegas Posse are about to make a comeback." Can a league that has forever paid lip service to keeping its spending in line suddenly become financially correct?
To the CFL's credit, Trevor Hardy, a forensic accountant, was hired as the director of salary expenditure reporting. He and the director of finance and administration, Doug Allison, spent time with the National Football League going over its salary cap methods.
Although the CFL will not identify which clubs have been fined for failing to stick to the cap, there are officials who insist abiding by the new rules is in everyone's best interest.
"For the CFL to be a strong league, it needs cost certainty," Hellard said. "It's important that fans understand it's a revenue-sharing based cap. It allows us as players and owners to focus on revenues. As the revenues increase, it allows the cap to move up and the players to receive more money."
Unfortunately, the players most affected by the salary management system have been the aging veterans who typically make the most money. Edmonton Eskimos linebacker Singor Mobley chose retirement at the age of 34 instead of agreeing to a sizable pay cut. Along with Greene, the 'Riders dropped Charles Thomas from their offensive line because of salary concerns.
What will be interesting to watch once the regular season begins June 28 is how clubs will react when hobbled by injuries. Will they go for the cheapest fix? Will that lead to a competitive imbalance? Will we ever know whether or how much a team is hit in the wallet for going over the limit?
Like most every CFL season, there are questions, there are answers and there are mysteries that defy logic. The salary management system has given us more of all three, and the assurance of more player moves to come.