Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Tony Romo has captained the ship for the Dallas Cowboys since midway through the 2006 season. As he enters the final year of his deal the question has to be asked how much longer will the team build around him?
Last week, I kicked off this series of early offseason conversation with a primer on exactly how the salary cap works. It is probably one of the least understood, "important" aspects of team building. Time after time, you see people make suggestions or recommendations on how to fix this team, or keep it together, without consideration of the money factor. The NFL has rules in place to keep everyone on equal footing. The Cowboys have to adhere to a salary cap ceiling of which they have pressed their noses firmly against the glass. Dallas is in dire straits for 2013 and that brings up the biggest issue they have to tackle and no one is talking about it yet.
What do they do about Tony Romo?
Part II was originally going to look at roster keeps, discards and improvements as a whole, but the quarterback discussion deserved it's own article.
Romo has one-year remaining on his contract, 2013. In '13 he is scheduled to cost an astronomical $16.8 million against the salary cap, $11.5m in salary and $5.3m in prorated signing bonus. With Dallas already being almost $20 million above the 2013 cap with 44 of 53 roster spots accounted for, you can see where this is headed.
A contract extension for Romo will garner the team about an additional $8 million in cap space. While there are a myriad of other moves the team will have to make to gain maneuverability (which I'll cover in Part 3), this is clearly one of the most important options on the table. After all, this is your quarterback. The question is, should they take it?
This isn't going to be a stats-based, record-in-key-situation-based argument about what Tony Romo is capable of providing. We can have those until we are Cowboy Blue in the face. The facts of the matter are that this team has only achieved post-season success with Romo at the helm once in his seven years of leading this team. Whether you think that Romo is the primary culprit (which I don't) or that the team hasn't done enough around him (where I stand), the fact still remains that he is a (soon-to-be) 33 year-old quarterback with one playoff win on his resume. The question is, where do you go from here?
For me, the prudent thing is to start to look towards the future with an eye on the present. The Cowboys don't have an heir apparent to replace Romo. That is a key ingredient in why discussions about moving on from Romo (via trade) should be muted. You don't move on from a franchise quarterback without a succession plan in place. And no, the guy that couldn't unseat Rex Grossman and lost his job to Tim Tebow is not a succession plan. Kyle Orton is a top quality backup QB; no more, no less. Stop the insanity.
In last April's draft, I really wanted Dallas to pick up Kirk Cousins in the fourth round. Unfortunately, Washington scooped him up before we hit the clock. I thought he would be a great QB-in-waiting. I am not opposed to drafting Romo's replacement in the third round or later this Spring, but I would not use one of our first two picks there in any way, shape or form. I wouldn't use a third-rounder either, but this is where I start listening. I am not that enamored with this draft class of quarterbacks. There are also no real options on the free agent market for this season.
I think Dallas has to find a young quarterback to groom over the next two off-seasons.
Now back to the outstanding quarterback we already have. An extension for Romo means cap space for now, but most likely a heavy, heavy cap hit in future years and the possibility of having big money tied into a non-productive player. We can all guess as to whether or not Romo will still be a top-tier quarterback 5 years from now but the truth is there is a possibility that he isn't. We can only speculate on whether or not he can maintain his level of play into his late 30's because all we have is circumstantial evidence.
Do I think that Romo has at least five years left? Yes. Do I think Romo has what it takes to lead this team to a championship? Again, yes. However, my opinion has been wrong occasionally. Very rare, I know, but it happens. You cannot run a front office on blind faith and circumstantial support. Well, you can... but you shouldn't.
Does the Cowboys front office allow these dire financial straits to dictate how their future plays out? One of the many complaints about the Dallas front office is their bad financial planning; giving contracts to players that will no longer be useful during the latter parts of the deal. It has stung them time and time again. It's the reason we signed guys like Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings instead of Carl Nicks or Ben Grubbs last Spring. Read "Part 1" about the impact of dead money. They have to stop doing the "restructure shuffle." Have to.
This is where the difficulty lies though. I don't think Jerry Jones has done enough to help Tony Romo reach his pinnacle. This offensive line has been bad since they headed into the 2009 playoff game in Minnesota and Flozell Adams was injured. Dallas had made the playoffs in three of four seasons at that point and the only miss was a year that Romo was injured. Since then, they have trotted out subpar protection units and the team hasn't been able to reach the postseason since.
You cannot move on from Romo without seeing if he has what it takes with a competent team around him. It would be so foolish to do so, in my humble opinion. Yet, there is no guarantee Romo is capable of making it to a division championship or Super Bowl if they do. That's the rub; that's why doing that GM job is a lot harder than people think.
My suggestion? Do whatever you have to in order to be under the cap WITHOUT extending Romo if at all possible. Next year, slap the franchise tag on him and make him one of the five highest paid QBs in the game. By the end of 2014, you'll hopefully have a successor in place. You also have the option of franchising him again in 2015. That gives a one to three-year window to see if the young player you drafted has what it takes to move into the big chair. It also gives you time to decide on offering him a three or four-year deal should you achieve ultimate success with him at the helm.
Franchising Romo for 2014 would (currently) cost $14.7 million, an average of the Top 5 quarterbacks salaries for the previous (2013) season. That's less than his cap hit for 2013 so in theory there would be cap savings on the position even though Romo would be getting a $3m raise.
Will some of these moves make Romo uncomfortable? Sure. So what? Many of us live our day to day lives uncomfortable about our situations and a lot of us perform better because of it. While I've clearly stated that the team hasn't done enough to help Romo, I'm not going to pretend like he hasn't made bad decisions in key situations that lead to doubts. Quarterbacks shouldn't be immune from the same uneasiness that every other position has. Myself personally, I think Romo will thrive because of it. If he doesn't, at least our transition will already be under way and we won't face a similar abyss like the fiasco in between Aikman and Romo.
Coming Soon, Part III: Early Offseason FA & Draft Wish List With Premature 53 Man Roster