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Looking at the 2003 moves Butch Davis had to make to get the Browns under the NFL salary cap

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A recent article in which former Browns coach Butch Davis slammed former owner Randy Lerner jogged up some memories — however, because this site was not founded until 2006 and I didn’t start knowing or caring about NFL contracts until years later, Davis’ comments about the salary cap left me wanting to dig a little deeper into the matter.

Davis said that “six weeks after the season ended, Randy Lerner told him that Davis had five weeks to fix the fact that the team was $33 million over the cap.” This would have been during the 2003 offseason, and the timeline would place the directive around the first week of February and before the start of free agency in March.

First off, that is well over the cap even by today’s standards, but even more so when you consider the fact that the salary cap back then was only about $75 million total. Also, numerous articles state that Cleveland was actually only $23 million over the cap, so Davis padded his amount by a good $10 million.

Who were the key players the Browns had to part ways with, and how much did they save from each move?

  • C Dave Wohlabaugh
  • LB Dwayne Rudd
  • LB Earl Holmes
  • LB Jamir Miller
  • CB Corey Fuller

Wohlabaugh signed a 7-year, $26.25 million deal in 1999, including a $5 million signing bonus. His signing bonus was $714,286 per year, and being cut in 2003, he still had three years left. Therefore, $2.143 million worth of dead money would have been accelerated. His base salary was set to be $3.7 million in 2003, and he would’ve had a $100,000 workout bonus. Therefore, the actual cap savings in 2003 by cutting Wohlabaugh was $1.657 million.

Dwayne Rudd #57 of the Cleveland Browns
LB Dwayne Rudd

Rudd signed a 5-year, $23 million deal in 2001 that included a signing bonus of $5.65 million. Against the cap, the signing bonus is divided by the length of the contract ($1.13 million per year). Because he was cut in 2003, Cleveland had to carry $3.39 million in dead money for Rudd that year. His base salary would have been $4.025 million, and they also saved on a $125,000 workout bonus. Therefore, the actual cap savings in 2003 by cutting Rudd was $760,000.

Holmes signed a 5-year, $17.5 million deal in 2002 that included a signing bonus of $2 million. His signing bonus was $400,000 per year, and being cut in 2003, he still had three years left. Therefore, $1.6 million worth of dead money would have been accelerated. His base salary in 2003 was $1.125 million and he was also due a roster bonus worth $1 million. Therefore, the actual cap savings in 2003 by cutting Holmes was $525,000.

Offensive Line Backer Jamir Miller #95 of the Cleveland Browns
LB Jamir Miller

Miller started out with a 1-year, $1.3 million deal in 1999 before agreeing to an 4-year, $17.87 million extension, including a $4.8 million signing bonus, that would keep him with the club through 2003. His signing bonus was $1.2 million per year, and being cut in 2003, he was in the final year of his deal.

Miller suffered a season-ending injury in 2002, and in January 2003, his agent negotiated a $14 million roster bonus with Carmen Policy that the team would have to pay by February 18th, or waive him. Bizarre. His base salary would have been $3.975 million, and he also had a $25,000 workout bonus. Therefore, the actual cap savings in 2003 by cutting Miller was $16.8 million.

Fuller originally signed a 5-year, $20.625 million deal in 1999, including a $5 million signing bonus. However, in 2002, he agreed to significantly lower his base salaries for 2002 and 2003, with a small amount added to his signing bonus. So, the original per year signing bonus was $1 million, and when he was cut in 2003, just one year remained on that amount. His restructured deal in 2002 included a $1.2 million signing bonus, so in 2003, only $600,000 remained on that for a total of $1.6 million in dead money. His base salary was $1.5 million, he had a workout bonus of $100,000, and he had a roster bonus of $1 million. Therefore, the actual cap savings in 2003 by cutting Fuller was $1 million.

Combined, that comes out to $20.742 million in cap savings. I’m sure my math and the numbers (from Ian Whetstone’s old Word Document) is a little off, but it paints a close enough picture to how Cleveland cut $23 million that year. The thing I don’t get is why Davis was pissed off at Lerner for telling him to get under the cap. Unless I am completely unaware of something in previous collective bargaining agreements, didn’t every team have to be under the cap? Whether Lerner gave the directive to shave the cap or not, the moves would’ve had to of been made.

Also, it’s not like Cleveland cut a cast of Hall of Famers. In terms of playing time, yes, the Browns did lose five starters, which is tough to swallow...but that’s where Davis’ drafting skills and coaching needed to come in, and that’s ultimately where he came up short.

In 2003, the Browns drafted C Jeff Faine (1st round), LB Chaun Thompson (2nd round), S Chris Crocker (3rd round), RB Lee Suggs (4th round), LS Ryan Pontbriand (5th round), CB Michael Lehan (5th round), and DE Antonio Garay (6th round). The team went 5-11, with Kelly Holcomb beginning the year as the starting quarterback. In 2004, after a 3-3 start, the team fell to 3-8 when Davis resigned.

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