The reality of the National Football League is that it is a zero-sum game. Unlike college where teams in name-recognized conferences can pay lesser schools to play them in order to beef up their records, one team's success is always another's failure if the whole league doesn't all go 8-8 in some extraordinary feat of parity. (Wouldn't that be a nightmare for the tiebreakers?)
The 2013 NFL season was set with a hard salary cap of $123 million dollars (before adjustments.) Some teams with a lack of talent are going to have a fittingly low active roster salary to fit their poor record for the season. But some teams, whether it be due to injuries or poor play out on the field, will underachieve grossly based on the amount spent on their talent. We all remember the disastrous 'Dream Team' of the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles going .500 with their bloated roster and following it with a miserable 4-12 season in 2012 that led to Andy Reid's untimely departure. But not every team that tanks during the season has the talent on the field to show for it. Some teams are saddled with so many bad contracts and so much dead money due to poor decisions by the general managers that the team is destined to fail at a high price.
'Dead money' contracts are an all too common plague to the salary caps of poorly managed teams. When a player is cut several years before his contract expires, not only do the teams have to eat the cost of a good part of their salary, but the cost has to count against the salary cap. Even if they pay it off up front, part of the cost of the salary over the duration of the contract has to count against the cap for each year of the contract, depending on the structure and language of said contract.
Couple that knowledge with every owner's unceasing desire to win (and win as soon as possible or fire everyone), one can see how some teams get themselves into hot water. GM's today feel extraordinary pressure to build a winning franchise however they can. In general, teams that build through the draft and supplement with free agency are the most successful because of the lower cost and stronger work ethic of home grown talent and rookie contracts. But inevitably these GM's who can feel the axe coming go on unprecedented spending sprees to try and save their jobs (see: Jeff Ireland. Congrats, Mike Wallace.)
Some of the teams on this list simply underachieved. Some were doomed to fail with nothing to put out on the field due to dead money salary hell. A few of them were just awful all around. They all spent many many millions of dollars per win in 2013.
10 Tennessee Titans - $18.3 million per win
All things considered, the number ten spot on this list isn't all that disastrous. Sure, a sub .500 season is nothing to write home about, but they suffered the loss of starting quarterback Jake Locker for more than half the season to a knee injury. They probably wouldn't have done much better than 9-7 at best given the general mediocrity of the team, but after Bud Adams' tragic passing in October 2013, the team was given over to his son-in-law Tommy Smith, who thought long and hard about whether or not to fire Mike Munchak when the season ended. I'm sure he isn't amped about overpaying the unapologetic, underachieving running back in Chris Johnson. They spent $128 million against the cap for seven wins and had a reasonable $13 million of that cap figure in dead money.
9 Buffalo Bills - $19.3 million per win
If I were a Bills fan, I wouldn't be too happy that unheralded, second-year QB Thad Lewis looked about as good or better than first round draft pick E.J. Manuel. Manuel's season was incredibly volatile and the team followed suit. In their week 2 loss to the Jets, Manuel looked like he didn't belong on a football field and couldn't wait to lose the game and be done with it. At other times he looked like a good, growing rookie QB. It wouldn't surprise anyone to think that the team performed about as well as he let them. It will be interesting to see how this team does in 2014. They have some great running backs, wide receivers and safeties, and LB Kiko Alonso will most likely beat out Sheldon Richardson of the Jets for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Coach Doug Marrone might not inspire undying faith in the team, but they have some real talent on the roster. They spent $115 million in cap money with $18 million in dead cash and went 6-10 on the season.
8 Minnesota Vikings - $25.7 million per win
It's hard not to feel for guys like Adrian Peterson and Jared Allen. Mostly due to poor quarterback play from the revolving door of Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel, and Josh Freeman(?), the Vikings tanked in 2013, only winning 5 games after going to the playoffs in 2012 as a wild card team at 10-6. Leslie Frazier paid the price for the lack of QB production, being fired at the end of the season. With an adjusted cap of $130 million in 2013, they spent $128.8 with the expectation of winning. With a very modest dead money sum of $5.2 million, mismanagement was not their downfall. The only thing you can lay at the feet of GM Rick Spielman is inheriting Christian ponder. Matt Cassel is admirable as a backup, but they need a franchise QB and quick before Adrian Peterson loses to the only thing that can beat him: old age.
7 Cleveland Browns - $28 million per win
No one expected much from the Browns in 2013, and they certainly fit the billing. Surprisingly they started the season well, going 3-2 in the first five games with the team playing cohesively together and the unheralded Brian Hoyer coming out of left field to perform well at QB. But having hemorrhaged all their 2013 draft picks away in order to get 2014-15 draft picks, the pendulum was soon to swing the other way, arguably by design. Michael Lombardi, with his first trip as GM, decided to invest in the future, apparently not liking what he saw in the 2013 draft. After the tragic knee injury to Brian Hoyer in the week 5 victory against the Bills, the team was never the same and managed only one more win in their last thirteen games against the Ravens in week nine. Spending $112 million in salary with $15 million of it dead money, the Browns managed to pay $28 million dollars in player salary per win, and to the shock of many, head coach Rob Chudzinski was fired after only one year at the helm.
6 Atlanta Falcons - $29.9 million per win
Way to fall off a cliff, Atlanta. It's rare for a team to go from the NFC title game to tied for the third worst in the league a season later. They won a staggering nine less games in 2013 than in 2012, going 4-12. Easily attributed to the lack of attention paid to line play, the neglected offensive line afforded Matt Ryan no reasonable pocket to throw from after a few injuries showed their lack of depth. Despite the addition of Osi Umenyoira the defensive line left much to be desired. They were 31st in the league at stopping the run, giving up 135.8 yards/game, and had a very lackluster pass rush with only 32 sacks on the season. They spent $119.8 million in salary and managed to completely ruin an extra year of Tony Gonzalez' life after pulling him out of retirement.
5 Oakland Raiders - $30.5 million per win
This one isn't hard to figure out. The Raiders had a staggering $56 million dollars in dead money this season. With only $53 million in active contracts and the rest going to players on IR and practice squad, The Raiders somehow managed to spend more money against the cap on players no longer on the roster than their actual team. If head coach Dennis Allen HAD won more than four games with this team it would've been a miracle. With bloated, dead-money contracts with players like Richard Seymour, Carson Palmer (yikes, did they get robbed by Cincinnati in that trade,) Rolando McClain and Matt Flynn, the team was being crushed by the weight of the ghosts of players past. With the late Al Davis reluctant to ever truly rebuild, wanting to see his beloved Raiders succeed again, they were set up to fail even before the catastrophic trade for Carson Palmer that threw away so many draft picks.
4 Jacksonville Jaguars - $31.4 million per win
Team owner Shahid Khan doesn't strike me as the impatient type, and it certainly doesn't seem that way. After he bought the team in 2012 the Jaguars haven't had much success, but you don't see the GM scrambling to hand out huge free agent contracts to save his job. A good sign if you're a Jacksonville fan, even if their team is in the doldrums. With the abject failure of first round QB Blaine Gabbert and the fill-in duty of Chad Henne, the quarterback position leaves much to be desired. With some good pieces there in Paul Posluszny and Maurice Jones-Drew (2013 season failures aside) there is some light at the end of the tunnel. But much like the Raiders, a surprisingly large $42 million dollars in dead money from regimes past left the active roster of $65 million not a lot of wiggle room. Their total cap charge was $125 million, a low figure considering the adjusted salary cap of $145 million for them specifically.
3 Tampa Bay Buccaneers - $31.8 million per win
Josh Freeman was a disaster from the start, the team facility somehow gave several players MRSA, and the players had no love lost for their former head coach Greg Schiano. Silver lining: Mike Glennon was undoubtedly the best quarterback of all those drafted in terms of rookie year production. Despite some really noticeable talent on the team, they played like a team under duress. The defense was loaded with talent on all levels, with players Darelle Revis and Dashon Goldson inexplicably playing zone coverage most of the season, completely wasting much of their talents. This team was mismanaged, discordant, and struggled to find an identity. The blame rightly falls on the former head coach Greg Schiano who was unceremoniously fired at the end of the season. They spent $127 million against the cap, with only $15 million in dead money and managed to win only four games.
2 Washington Redskins - $36 million per win
Oh, where to begin? This team was a clown show all year and the media had a frenzy over it. The rift between Mike Shanahan, RGIII and Dan Snyder took an ugly turn as subtle finger-pointing during pressers became standard operating procedure. London Fletcher's likely swan song season was a disastrous 3-13, RGIII played like a second-year QB with no offseason would, and the defense was unprecedentedly miserable, giving up 478 points over the season. With a reduced adjusted salary cap number of $110 million, they spent $108 million with a very manageable $6.8 million in dead money but had only three wins to show for it all, rounding out an ugly $36,284,586 spent in salary cap per win.
1 Houston Texans - $61.7 million per win
Anyone with a reasonable eye for game tape could realize that Matt Schaub's success was a byproduct of a very proficient play-action passing game set up by a run-first mentality with tandem Arian Foster and Ben Tate. Once the run game lost its efficacy the play-action followed suit, and the team became incredibly ineffectual on offense. With a flood of pick-sixes by Schaub, they turned to undrafted rookie Case Keenum who performed admirably in his stead. Alas, after eeking out two wins in their first two games, they lost their last 14(!) beating out Atlanta to be the most epic failure of the 2013 season after making the playoffs and winning a wild card game in 2012. They spent $123 million in cap space, and had two wins. Don't need a calculator for that. Johnny Manziel, anyone?