Last weekend was everything good and bad about the Dallas Cowboys. The team on the field was exhibiting an impressive, high-variance performance: Despite holding star linebacker DeMarcus Ware out with an injury for the first time since Dallas drafted him in 2005, the much-maligned Cowboys defense delivered an elite performance by limiting one of the league's best offenses, Philadelphia, to a lone field goal in a 17-3 victory.1
Off the field last weekend, the Cowboys were asserting their own shortcomings through the media. One report noted that the Cowboys were unhappy with injured running back DeMarco Murray, a player who fell to their third-round pick of the 2011 draft specifically because he had so many injury issues at Oklahoma. The report suggested that the Cowboys wanted to replace Murray and upgrade at running back " … possibly in a big way," implying that the Cowboys would be looking to acquire a big-ticket running back who is being paid a premium salary. Hours later, Adam Schefter tweeted that the Cowboys are expected to be $31 million over the salary cap next year, with an NFL executive decrying their financial situation as "a train wreck."
At the heart of all those contradictions and inconsistencies is Jerry Jones, the owner/general manager of the Cowboys, who runs his team like the Dutch boy who constantly plugs dikes with hundred-dollar bills. Since Bill Parcells left in January of 2007, Jones's organization has been consistently successful at only one thing: draining the family coffers. It pays top dollar for premium talent, and sees the guys on the bottom of its roster blow plays that cost it playoff chances. The Cowboys have moments when they look like the best team in football and moments when they look entirely incompetent, occasionally during the same contest. They have terrible drafts and great drafts. They do something good teams do — lock up their own young talent — and somehow make more mistakes doing it than anybody else. If insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results, nobody is crazier than Jerry Jones, personnel man.
Let's start with that running back situation, a scary case of history repeating itself. When the Cowboys decided to move on from Troy Hambrick following the 2003 season, they made moves in two different directions. First, they drafted Julius Jones in the second round of the 2004 draft. Later that summer they added Eddie George2 on a one-year, $2.2 million deal and handed him the starting job. Jones would get hurt in Week 2, but when he came back, the Cowboys were so sick of George's middling play that they inserted Jones directly into the starting lineup; Jones got 30 carries during his first game back and averaged 27 carries per game the rest of the way. It was the first example of the Cowboys getting sick of their established back while hankering for a younger, more explosive player to succeed in his place.
That pattern kept going. Jones ran for 2,077 yards over the next two seasons, but when he failed to look like a franchise back by the end of the 2006 season, the team got sick of him and everybody — fans, media, and organizational types alike3 — wanted to move on to the bruising back it had drafted as his backup, Marion Barber. Jones started all 16 games in 2007, but Barber out-carried him and took over as the starter following the season. Barber got a seven-year, $45 million deal before the 2008 season, but Dallas was dissatisfied with his work by the end of 2009, with Barber failing to live up to the promise he had shown as a part-time back. The fans clamored for speedy first-round pick Felix Jones to play a bigger role, and so Jones did … while failing to live up to expectations. Jones averaged 6.5 yards per carry during his first two seasons as a part-time player, and then 4.2 yards per carry over three seasons as the nominal starter. The crowd got sick of the inconsistent Jones and called for the punishing back who ran for 253 yards in his sixth game as a pro, Murray, who started the following week and every one of the games for which he has been healthy since.
And now, with Murray having failed to deliver on his initial promise, the Cowboys are hankering for another change at running back. The only problem this time around is that there's no obvious replacement on the roster; if fifth-round pick Joseph Randle plays well in Murray's stead as his injury replacement, the Cowboys will turn to him. Otherwise, they'll continue to cycle through flavor of the month after flavor of the month, using up valuable assets in the process. Dallas has already run through one mammoth failure of a contract (Barber), a first-round pick (Felix Jones), a second-round pick (Julius Jones), and a third-round pick (Murray) without finding a single long-term solution at running back. A rational person might notice all those problems and change strategy; the Cowboys see those mistakes and want to, for some reason, devote more money to the running back position. You remember that famous saying: Fifth time's the charm.
The weird, inconsistent part of that argument is that the Cowboys have actually had great success mining the scrap heap and undrafted free-agent pools for players who became key contributors to their core.4 Most famously, Tony Romo was an undrafted free agent who joined the team after going unselected in the 2003 draft, but he's not the only one. Miles Austin was signed as an undrafted free agent following Parcells's final draft with the team in 2006 and later became a Pro Bowl wideout. Marc Colombo was an offensive lineman almost literally on the scrap heap whom the Cowboys signed on a lark during the 2005 season and turned into an above-average tackle. Ken Hamlin was signed on a one-year, $2.5 million deal 17 months after getting into a nightclub altercation that ended his previous season, promptly making the Pro Bowl during his first season with the team. And Jay Ratliff was forced into a job after Parcells favorite Jason Ferguson suffered a season-ending injury, the 224th pick in the 2005 draft eventually becoming a Pro Bowl tackle. All these players delivered far more than the Cowboys ever could have dreamed. And Romo aside, every single one of them received contract extensions the Cowboys would later regret.
That is the biggest problem with the Dallas Cowboys: Nobody misjudges and overpays the talent on hand more than Jerry Jones and his organization. From 2006 (Parcells's final year with the team), the Cowboys have been almost comically shortsighted in signing players who were already on the roster to long-term extensions. You can almost build an entire team out of bad Cowboys extensions. No, really:5
None of those guys is, in a vacuum, a bad football player. When the Cowboys signed them to their massive deals, each had exhibited some promise that he could live up to a contract of that stature. In every single case, they failed to do so. By the time each of these players was released, he was playing at a level that didn't remotely match his compensation. Beyond the players who are still on the roster, every single one of these core players had to be released or traded before his deal was up. The three who are left are unlikely to make it to the end of their deals. In total, I can find four Cowboys players who signed notable extensions during this time frame and delivered enough on their deals to either justify another contract or finish out their extension without being traded or released: Romo, Ware, Jason Witten, and Bradie James.
For the uninitiated, NFL contracts are extremely complicated but work off of two simple components: the base salary and the signing bonus. Base salaries are provided for every year of a contract, but in most cases they're not guaranteed. There are a variety of bonuses in contracts, but the simplest one is a signing bonus, which is paid out as a guaranteed figure when the contract is signed. The NFL allows teams to spread the contract hit from a signing bonus across the length of the deal for purposes of the salary cap, so if a player signs a five-year deal worth $45 million with a $20 million signing bonus, even though the player might take home that $20 million bonus the day he signs, the team doesn't charge that figure to its cap. The cap figure for each season is the base salary in the contract plus that $20 million bonus split five ways (for five seasons), for a $4 million figure. If the team cuts a player after two seasons, it doesn't have to pay his base salaries, but whatever bonus money hasn't already been accounted for on the cap accelerates into that year's cap. If our player being cut before Year 3 has a $5 million base salary, the team can cut him without paying the salary out, but with $4 million of the bonus paid for in each of the first two seasons, there are still three $4 million bonus "payments" left on the contract. Those bonus figures all accelerate into "dead money," the cap figure for a player who isn't on the team. In this case, the player's cap hold would be $9 million to play for the team ($5 million base salary and $4 million bonus) and $12 million to leave ($0 base salary and $12 million in accelerated bonus). It gets more complicated than that, but that's the basics.
In making all these moves, the Cowboys repeatedly tried to push their cap problems into the future. When they released players like Terrell Owens and Hamlin shortly after signing them, massive amounts of dead money hit their cap. This year alone, the Cowboys already have more than $14 million in dead money clogging their cap, with departed players like Ratliff, Gerald Sensabaugh, Terence Newman, and Nate Livings leading the ranks. They already have nearly $12 million in dead money on next year's cap because of how the dead money from the Ratliff deal was distributed; his contract will not be alone.
Dallas thought it had a solution to its dead money problems, but that ended up causing it more grief. The uncapped year at the end of the old CBA in 2010 theoretically gave a team like Dallas a chance to soak up all the dead money it could while creating an opportunity to load up the base salaries for new players in the meantime. That's exactly what the Cowboys did; not only did they have some or all of the onerous deals for the likes of Hamlin and Owens expire during the uncapped year, they structured Austin's extension to give him a $17 million base salary in 2010 that essentially served as a signing bonus; because it was a base salary, though, the Cowboys were able to absorb the entire cap hit in 2010 as opposed to over the full length of the deal. The NFL frowned upon the move, fining the Cowboys millions of dollars in cap space for the 2012 and 2013 seasons.
Instead, the Cowboys have to create cap space by perpetually restructuring contracts and turning large base salaries into signing bonuses that they can then spread over the length of the deal. Take Witten, who has four years left on his deal and a base salary of $5 million next year with $3.4 million in bonuses, for a cap hit of $8.4 million. The Cowboys need Witten, but they also need to field a team and create cap space. What they usually do is renegotiate the contract by turning most of that base salary — let's say $4 million — into a guaranteed signing bonus. Witten gets his money up front, but the Cowboys get to spread that $4 million over the four remaining years of the deal at $1 million per year. Now, the Cowboys' theoretical cap for 2014 has Witten with a base salary of $1 million and assorted bonuses totaling $4.4 million; that's a total of just $5.4 million, meaning the Cowboys now have $3 million more to throw around. It's a painless transaction … until Witten (or one of the guys from that table) is no longer playable. That's when all the bonuses you've been throwing into the back of the deal for years come due, and you're paying millions in dead money.
That brings us to 2014 and the season of reckoning that appears to be coming for the Cowboys. Schefter's report notes that the Cowboys are going to be $31 million over the cap. Want to know how that'll happen? Here are the seven largest contracts on Dallas's roster (per Spotrac.com) and how their cap hold changes from 2013 to 2014:
Yikes. Oh, and one more thing: Two pretty important players for the Cowboys are in the final year of their contracts in 2014. Wide receiver Dez Bryant and left tackle Tyron Smith are two players the team will have to re-sign, and even if they sign deals in 2014 that don't begin until 2015, there's not exactly a lot of wiggle room to work with. This is a brutal situation.
It is, however, fixable in the short term. Jason Fitzgerald's Over the Cap site does a good job of getting into the gory details of each move and how it will specifically affect the Cowboys' cap figure, and he has a good plan to use as a starting point. I'm going to sneak in a couple of my own moves, too.
1. Restructure the contracts of Romo, Lee, Brandon Carr, and Witten. The new deals signed by Romo and Lee this past year each have two bonus-free seasons at the end of the contract that are designed to absorb renegotiations, while Fitzgerald suggests that Carr's deal might be renegotiated to add a season that would be voidable by the team. In all, those four moves would save Dallas about $22 million in cap room for the 2014 season. It doesn't help at all in figuring out how the Cowboys will fit the Bryant and Smith deals under their cap in 2015, but the goal here isn't to build a long-term viable strategy, it's to balance the budget today.
2. Release Doug Free. Releasing Free would create a hole in the starting lineup, but it would save the team $3.5 million with no future repercussions.
3. Release Austin after June 1. The Austin deal was supposed to give the Cowboys some cap relief in future seasons, but because they've renegotiated it several times, there's now a significant cap hit no matter what they do with Austin. His cap hit for 2014 is $8.3 million if he remains on the roster, but if the Cowboys release him, they'll owe $7.9 million in dead money. To make things easier, they'll have to designate Austin as a post–June 1 release, which allows them to spread the hit from the release over two seasons. Fitzgerald suggests this will free up $5.5 million.
Those big moves alone save the Cowboys $31 million. They can make moves elsewhere on the roster — rent, don't buy, Mackenzy Bernadeau — and renounce the rights to Anthony Spencer, who took up $10 million on the cap this year as the team's franchise player but isn't included in next year's totals. Jason Hatcher seems like an essential player right now, but Dallas might not be able to afford him when he hits free agency this offseason. It can choose to go year-to-year with Tyron Smith and use a team option to sign him for an additional season in 2015 at a price equivalent to the average salary of the top 10 offensive tackles in football, which is basically a mini–franchise tag, using that to stagger the first years of the new long-term deals for Bryant (2015) and Smith (2016), but this is all short-term window dressing that hides a long-term problem.
The bigger issue, as Fitzgerald notes, is what to do with Ware, who is currently in the fifth season of what amounts to a nine-year deal with the team. For Ware, both professionally and contractually, the future is now. Ware has base salaries of $12 million or more in each of the four years remaining on his deal, with cap holds ranging between $14 million and $17 million; it would be exceedingly difficult to push any more money from his deal into the future. Furthermore, if the Cowboys decided to move on from Ware, they would actually realize the meaningful cap savings that they would need to lock up Smith and/or Bryant to long-term deals. If they don't touch Ware's contract, they would save $7.4 million by releasing him before 2014 or, more likely, $12.1 million by releasing him before 2015. That seems like anathema considering how well Ware has played during his time in Dallas, but the Cowboys just can't afford to keep him and Romo while giving big contracts to Bryant and Smith, while the contracts to Lee and Carr will be too onerous to move. Dallas could try to give Ware a new contract, but it seems unlikely Ware would take a deal that would massively slice his pay, and at 31, it would be near-suicidal to give Ware another top-caliber deal that stretched his pay across six or seven years. Barring a new deal, it seems plausible the Cowboys would expect to move on from Ware after the 2014 season. If you start seeing the negative stories about Ware trickling into the Dallas media over the next few months, you'll know what Dallas is planning to do.
This, for many years now, has been the Jerry Jones plan. After Jimmy Johnson left, Jones's drafts were terrible and his coaches were mostly bad until Parcells came around. Now, since Parcells has left, Jones's drafts have mostly been bad (2010 aside) and he has traded away valuable draft assets for hunches on players who weren't worth it. Jones traded first- and third-round picks for wide receiver Roy Williams at the trade deadline in 2008 when Williams was about to become a free agent at the end of the season. He dealt a second-round pick to St. Louis in 2012 to trade up and grab cornerback Morris Claiborne, a move that has been an unmitigated disaster so far.
So, given that his team is facing a cap Armageddon that Jones keeps putting off year after year, why wouldn't he be interested in an expensive running back? The only guy who makes sense is Maurice Jones-Drew, who would be a free agent after the season that the Cowboys couldn't possibly afford to re-sign. Never mind that Jones-Drew has been essentially useless this season, or that a trade would cost Jones one of the draft picks he desperately needs to restock the depth on his paper-thin roster. It's no surprise that the guy with the billion-dollar stadium and the enormous video screen would be distracted by shiny things.