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Revisiting Denver’s cap penalties from the 1990s


A Sunday replay of Super Bowl XXXII on NFL Network included post-game podium interviews by Greg Gumbel, then of NBC. And when Gumbel turned to the Denver head coach, Mike Shanahan said this: “I thank [owner] Pat Bowlen for giving the opportunity to compete, [he] gave us all the financial resources to get this thing done.”

Indeed, Shanahan had plenty of financial resources to win the Super Bowl. He actually had more than the rules allowed.

It’s another pre-social media football scandal that not only has become forgotten but also never received the attention it would have experienced if it happened today. Through two separate punishments, the Broncos lost a total of $1.918 million and two-third round draft picks for a series of salary-cap violations in the 1990s.

The first punishment, a $968,000 fine and the forfeiture of a third-round pick, came in December 2001, due to $29 million in deferred payments to quarterback John Elway and running back Terrell Davis. The second punishment, a $950,00 fine and another lost third-round pick, for cap violations that occurred between 1996 and 1998. The Broncos won the Super Bowl at the end of the 1997 and 1998 seasons.

The Broncos claimed at the time that no competitive advantage was gained from the violations; the league did not directly address that topic in announcing the settlement of a proceeding brought by the NFL’s Management Council against the Broncos.

Al Davis, the late owner of the Raiders, repeatedly argued that Bowlen should be suspended for the violations. After that epic 2008 overhead-projector press conference held in conjunction with the firing of former Raiders coach Lane Kiffin, Davis said that the Broncos should have asterisks applied to their championships “because they were caught cheating.”

The good news for the Broncos is that a generation has passed since those infractions. The better news is that no asterisk can be applied to the latest Lombardi Trophy that the team has secured.