Kory Lichtensteiger had quite the season for the Washington Redskins. The team gave him its Ed Block Courage Award, recognizing his return from a serious knee injury. He helped anchor an offensive line that allowed Robert Griffin III to become an NFL sensation and Alfred Morris to set the franchise rushing record as the team won the NFC East for the first time in 13 years.
Kudos were also due for Lorenzo Alexander, the hard-working, do-anything special teams standout. He was again a team captain and earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl.
Lichtensteiger and Alexander are scheduled to become free agents on Tuesday. Coach Mike Shanahan likes them both. A lot. The feeling is mutual — they want to keep playing for the Redskins. Under normal circumstances, they probably would have already been re-signed by now with nice, richer contracts.
But Lichtensteiger, Alexander and, essentially, all the players on the Redskins roster are caught in the middle of a dispute not of their making. The second part of the NFL's $36 million salary cap penalty is about to kick in, leaving Shanahan strapped for spending cash and throwing an almighty wrench into his plans to keep the players he likes and to add players where upgrades are needed.
"I've played for five years," Lichtensteiger said. "And I'm waiting for the big contract that kind of sets me apart, like a career-making contract. And to have that meddled with because of what I see as an unjust case again the Redskins, and to have some of that cap money taken away, I feel like that's potentially my money. And I haven't heard a good argument for why the Redskins have lost it. So, yeah, it's very frustrating, and I certainly hope they figure out a way to recoup some of that."
The NFL docked the Redskins $18 million for both the 2012 and 2013 seasons for overspending in 2010, when they was no salary cap. The counterintuitive penalty has led to allegations of collusion by the players' union. The NFL says the sanction was warranted because the Redskins' financial maneuverings threatened the "competitive balance" of the league.
The innocent bystanders? Guys like Lichtensteiger and Alexander. Lichtensteiger said the Redskins told his agent that contract talks were on hold while the team figured out ways to mount a challenge to the penalty. Alexander got a token offer before the Pro Bowl but has heard nothing since.
"You've seen guys come in here and get pretty good deals," Alexander said. "Whether they were justified or not is another thing, but guys getting paid pretty good money. Now it's your turn and you've worked hard and done things all the right ways and you've got to decide, 'Do I want to take a little bit less money? Or do I go somewhere else where somebody's going to pay me whatever the market value may be?'
"I definitely believe that if everything financially were good, I would be here, no doubt. So that's the hardest part, being a guy that loves the community, that loves this area and now I'm forced to be placed in a situation that's not at my fault for doing anything wrong."
Shanahan said he learned of the sanction hours before the start of last year's free agency, forcing him to scramble at the last minute to alter the team's plans. There's a clear look of anger in his face anytime he mentions the penalty, but he said he can't comment in detail until the matter is completely resolved. General Manager Bruce Allen last month called the sanctions "wrong" and "unfair" and said the Redskins were still trying to get them overturned.
But there's been no hint from the league that anything will change before the start of free agency on Tuesday at 4 p.m. Without the penalty, the Redskins would be substantially under the cap, able to not only re-sign their own players but also free to be a competitive bidder on the open market for their positions of need — notably safety, cornerback and right tackle.
With the penalty, the Redskins ended the season over the cap, meaning they would need to cut players and restructure contracts before the Tuesday deadline. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall and ageless linebacker London Fletcher, who had left ankle surgery Wednesday and then tweeted that he plans to return for a 16th season, are among those whose large 2013 cap numbers could merit some tinkering.
More than anything, the Redskins could use a big-time safety after a season in which they finished 30th in pass defense and allowed 58 completions of 20 yards or more. A first-round draft pick would normally be an option, but the team gave up its top pick in this year's draft in order to move up last year and take Griffin at No. 2 overall.
The cap penalty makes the search that much tougher. And it also means they might have to find a new special teams captain.
"There are three or four other teams that are definitely going to come after me," Alexander said. "And I'll have to make the decision when it comes. I just hope the Redskins are in the ballpark."
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