Offseason Headscratcher: What About Stephen Bowen?

The NFL's labor dispute has thrown the entire league into a peculiar stasis, a state of suspended animation between seasons. Of all the various categories of people employed by the league, however, the group whose animation is most suspended are restricted free agents (RFAs). According to the old CBA, these are players who have three or more accrued seasons of service and whose contracts have expired. RFAs have received qualifying offers from their old clubs and are free to negotiate with any club--with important limits. 

If a player accepts an offer from a new club, the old club will have the right to match the offer and retain the player. If the old club elects not to match the offer, it may receive draft-choice compensation depending on the level of the qualifying offer made to the player. This tends to result in very little movement of younger, talented guys. Indeed, NFL players--much to their consternation--must wait until they have accrued six or more seasons before they are free to sign with the highest bidder.

Notice that this reads "according to the old CBA." Without an agreement, the years of service that determine which category of free agent a given player might be are up in the air. As a result, players with expired contracts and between three and six years of NFL service have no idea whether, once the new agreement is in place, they'll be signing one-year tenders or going on the open market--or whether free agency will even exist. Such uncertainty about the future must be discomfiting, to say the least.

On to Stephen Bown after the jump...

On Tuesday The Dallas Morning News detailed this situation as it pertains to Cowboys defensive lineman Stephen Bowen. As a player with five years of service, Bowen's in an awkward position: he's technically an RFA; as such, the Cowboys extended him a second-round tender (worth approximately $1.9 million) in March, just before the lockout went into effect. That's the kind of money that would put anyone at ease. The problem is that the offer could be nullified if a new CBA is negotiated, and Bowen could suddenly find himself a UFA scrambling for a slice of whatever financial pie is baked by the new labor contract.

In the midst of all this uncertainty, Bowen is playing Zen Master. He notes that there's nothing he can do about it, and that his only concern is that he'll have a chance to get to what all NFL players not lucky enough to be first-round draft picks so dearly covet--the lucrative second contract.

The burning question for Cowboys Nation is: will that contract land him in Dallas. Although Bowen doesn't attract a lot of limelight or get a lot of press, he has been surprisingly effective in a limited role (one which grew last season as he replaced an injured Marcus Spears in the starting lineup). As the DMN article points out, Bowen was named a "secret Superstar" by Pro Football Focus. After reviewing the 2010 tape, the guys at PFF ranked Bowen as the league's third-best 3-4 defensive end. Pretty impressive stuff. Exhibit A: in 346 pass-rush opportunities, Bowen had 25 total quarterback disruptions (one fewer than Jay Ratliff, who rushed the passer 137 more times).

The PFF folks also ask whether Bowen will be as effective in Rob Ryan's 2-gap scheme as he was in Wade Phillips' one-gap system. This is a legitimate question--but one that Ryan himself has already answered. Our own O.C.C., who absorbs every scrap of Cowboys-related media, noted in an earlier post something he heard on one of the mothership's Lunch Break segments: Ryan walked into the coaches' office a couple of days after he joined the Cowboys and asked, "Who's that Bowen guy"? Then he said, "He's unbelievable." If Ryan likes Bowen as much on the field as he likes him on tape, I like his chances of sticking around for a shot at a sizable chunk of Jerry Jones' money.

Apparently, Bowen thinks he'll be around, too--at least in the near future. He's joined a slew of other Cowboys defenders in regular workouts at the Hummer dealership where DeMarcus Ware has set up a makeshift gym. The DMN suggests that these guys are not only lifting but working through the various complexities of Ryan's defense. Would he do that if he thought he was on the way out? As Jerry Seinfeld used to say, in a bad British accent, "Not bloody likely."

I'm all for Bowen sticking around. The 90s Cowboys--the team after which Garrett is modeling this one--were deep in situational linemen capable of coming into a game, making plays, and wearing out opposing offensive lines. In Bowen, Garrett has this team's version of Jimmy Jones, a pass-rushing demon who shined in limited playing time. If he can approach Jones' playmaking ability, I'll break out my happy dance.

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