IRVING, Texas – First the good news.
As expected the Dallas Cowboys successfully ducked under the NFL salary cap last week despite all the consternation being made out there.
By this afternoon they still had roughly $7 million of cap space, and by June 1 they will add another $5.5 million when the release of Miles Austin takes effect, basically a savings fund to absorb this year’s rookie pool, projected to cost them roughly $5.3 million for their eight draft choices.
Oh, and this may be a reach, but the current Dallas Cowboys Top 51 cap figure for 2015 is only $108 million, but then that doesn’t account for Dez Bryant, Tyron Smith’s option ($10.5 million), Doug Free, DeMarco Murray, Bruce Carter, Ronald Leary, and Miles Austin’s $5 million more of dead money that rolls over into next year. But still, that’s better than this year right, when the Cowboys were projected to be nearly $25 million over the cap heading toward March 11 before the cap increased nearly $7 million (to $133 million).
Now the bad news, and be forewarned, you might not have the stomach for all this.
As you know, after the Dallas Cowboys released DeMarcus Ware the Broncos signed him in the blink of an eye to a three-year deal too rich for the Cowboys’ cap blood to match. Then it took Washington all of two full days to sign unrestricted free agent Jason Hatcher to a four-year deal, another one too rich for the Cowboys’ salary cap constitution, and the Redskins seem to also be flirting with Cowboys unrestricted free agent Anthony Spencer, although with his knee condition there should be a buyer-beware tag on him. And the Cowboys no longer own the rights to wide receiver Miles Austin, designating him a June 1 release.
Now the Cowboys did ink a couple of guys, defensive end Jeremy Mincey and defensive tackle Terrell McClain, but remember, Denver didn’t even attempt to re-sign Mincey and the Texans didn’t even offer McClain a minimum restricted free-agent tender ($1.4 million). At least the Dallas Cowboys didn’t commit a lot of cap dough to them.
But here is what is so sobering about all these exits, and get your Pepto-Bismol ready:
The Dallas Cowboys finished the 2013 season with 34 sacks, and now, with Ware and Hatcher gone, along with a couple of other spares, the Cowboys no longer own the rights to the guys accounting for 19 of those 34 sacks.
And get this: The Cowboys totaled the identical 34 in 2012, too, and nary one of those eight guys producing those 34 sacks is currently on this Cowboys roster, including Spencer, Ware, Hatcher, Victor Butler, Sean Lissemore, Ernie Sims, Josh Brent, and Marcus Spears.
That was just two years ago, and is no wonder the other day after Ware signed his three-year, $30 million deal in Denver, with $20 million guaranteed over the first two years and making $13 million this year – actually a $250,000 raise from what he could have earned from the Cowboys in 2014 – Spears tweeted, “There goes the neighborhood.”
No kidding, the whole kit and caboodle. Man, that’s a whole lot for you guys to stomach, and made me wonder the other day why someone would even bother to ask me, “Are the Cowboys a better team today than they were the end of the season?”
Of course not, not even close, at least defensively, although when you finished 32nd defensively and give up the most yards in franchise history getting worse if relative.
Well, the Dallas Cowboys made some very tough business decisions, and there seems to be a misconception out there that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and his personnel advisors are turning over a new leaf. Or that the Cowboys finally are rebuilding, which would make no sense with time running out on Tony Romo’s career. Or that they are making a concerted effort to grow younger since they cut Ware, made only a minor attempt to re-sign Hatcher, are quite hesitant as they should be with Spencer, who will be hard-pressed to start training camp on time while recovering from microfracture knee surgery, and designated soon-to-be-30 Austin a June 1 release.
Look, the Cowboys cut Troy Aikman when his cap hit outweighed his performance and good health. They cut Emmitt Smith. They let Deion Sanders go. Same with Marion Barber, Terrell Owens, and Roy Williams squared. They let go of the likes of Leonard Davis, Marc Colombo, and Andre Gurode, guys who went on to play a few more years.
Now, here is what the Cowboys did, for better and maybe for worse: They made a hard business decision on a couple of guys ready to turn 32 years old. They basically told both: Some combination of your health, increasing age and declining play is not worth, for Ware, $12.75 million this year and the $14.25 million on the docket for next year; and for Hatcher the four-year, $27.5 million deal Washington decided he was worth.
My guess is the Cowboys would have kept the going-on 32 Ware for half his price, but no way should he have accepted that without testing free agency to see exactly what the open market would bear. The Cowboys would have gone like three years, $12 million for Hatcher but he nearly doubled that $3 million a year deal on the open market. Good for him, too.
So were the Cowboys smart or the Broncos and Redskins extravagant?
Well, welcome to free agency, and we should revisit these decisions in two years to see if Denver and Washington got the necessary bang for their buck.
Still quite amazing that the Cowboys went into the 2013 season with two Pro Bowl defensive ends (Spencer for the first time and Ware for the seventh straight time), a soon-to-be Pro Bowl defensive tackle for the first time (Hatcher) and a defensive tackle coming off a non-Pro Bowl season for the first time in five seasons and now do not own the rights to any of those guys, with Spencer the only one (at this very moment on Friday) with any chance of returning, likely for no more than a one-year deal if he needs the chance to reestablish his market value following the surgery.
That’s a lot to replace, although the Cowboys, with limited cap room, might be saving themselves from becoming big spenders in free agency by trying to restock the cupboard. That means you have to draft well.
Although, your bearer of sobering thoughts must point this out to you: The Cowboys needed 5½ seasons to find and/or develop a creditable replacement for Aikman in Tony Romo; nine seasons to find a replacement for Charles Haley in Ware; they still are looking eight years later for the next Larry Allen; nine seasons to find a suitable replacement for Emmitt in DeMarco Murray; 11 seasons to latch onto a replacement for Michael Irvin in Dez Bryant; the jury is still out on if the combination of Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, and Orlando Scandrick has satisfactorily replaced Sanders and Kevin Smith; and they still are some 10 years removed from the last time we saw Darren Woodson wearing No. 28 and still are searching for his replacement.
Not easy to replace Hall of Famers, no matter who is doing the drafting. The bar is certainly high, and the Cowboys just can’t let the anxiety caused by necessity provoke low-percentage moves or choices.
But if we look at all this in dollars and sense, by releasing Ware, not re-signing Hatcher at the going rate of nearly $7 million a year, releasing Austin, remaining tepid on Spencer and having finally cut ties with the recalcitrant Jay Ratliff last year the Cowboys are saving close to $60 million in salaries they would have been paying over the 2014-15 seasons while eating $22.4 million in dead money vs. the salary cap.
That’s money they can now spend and have spent to keep their new core in place, guys like Sean Lee, Dan Bailey, Tyron Smith, Dez Bryant, and Romo for another three years, Witten and who knows depending on this year maybe even Free, Murray, Carter, Leary, George Selvie, Dwayne Harris, and Tyrone Crawford.