BTB Mailbag! "Cowboys In Awful Cap Situation: Same Story, Different Year?"

Jason Smith

It seems like every year there's a seemingly endless stream of stories about how the Cowboys are in salary cap hell. But are they really?

"It’s that time of year when we hear about how awful the Cowboys cap situation is, and I wonder, where were we on just after the season last year? Were we in the same kind of situation we’re in now? I must admit I do not remember. Seems like Stephen Jones does a pretty good job taking care of this when the time comes, so I wonder at all the angst that seems to come up over it. - Hobbes42"

In principle, BTB member Hobbes42 is right: It seems like every year there's a seemingly endless stream of stories about how the Cowboys are in salary cap hell. I'd have to think back pretty far to remember a year when the Cowboys were not reported to be in some kind of cap trouble.

At the same time, every year the highest-priced free agents are automatically linked to the Cowboys on TV, on the radio and on the internet. This year's Dwight Freeney and Charles Woodson are last year's Mario Williams and Cortland Finnegan - all of whom were linked to the Cowboys in one form or another.

And the reason why these two seemingly contradictory memes make their appearance year after year is that the Cowboys have traditionally tried to use every last dollar of the cap to their advantage. It is, if you will, part of the Cowboys business model. Because in contrast to many other teams who see skimping on player salaries as a source of profit (the less salary you pay, the higher your profit), the Cowboys generate enough profit in other parts of the franchise to not have to worry about turning a profit on player salaries.

A common mistake that many observers make when it comes to the Cowboys is they underestimate the lengths Stephen and Jerry Jones will go to if they want to get things done. The Joneses have repeatedly shown to be very resourceful when push came to shove, and regardless of how bad the cap situation was reported to be, they have always found ways to do as they pleased. Take the situation over the last couple of years:

The Cowboys were roughly $18 million over the 2011 salary cap when football officially reopened after the lockout in July 2011. The Cowboys released players like Roy Williams, Marion Barber and Leonard Davis (and later released Marc Colombo as well) to get under the cap and restructured the contracts of Tony Romo, DeMarcus Ware and Miles Austin to create a further ca. $18 million in cap space. All of these moves allowed them to re-sign free agents Doug Free, Marcus Spears and Jason Hatcher, as well as sign Jay Ratliff, Jason Witten and Gerald Sensabaugh to contract extensions.

In 2012, despite being weighed down by dead money of about $30 million from the previous year's releases, the Cowboys entered the season with $12.6 space under the cap. Said Jerry Jones:

"We've done an outstanding job. I give Stephen a lot of credit," Jerry Jones said. "This is a year we thought it would be Armageddon for us - this year. But we were able to do some things with the cap that gives us a chance to have some room to improve this team this year. And we will use it."

The team created even more space by releasing Terence Newman and Kyle Kosier and restructuring the contracts of Doug Free and Orlando Scandrick (both contracts had been constructed to allow for that eventuality), and went on to sign a record haul of seven free agents, including Brandon Carr, who got a $50 million, five-year deal.

This year, the Cowboys once again find themselves about $20 million over the 2013 salary cap, a figure they'll be able to significantly lower with a new contract for Romo, a few restructured contracts and a couple of judicious cuts, and which should allow them to do whatever they want in free agency.

I don't want to sound nonchalant about the Cowboys' cap situation, but it's important to keep in mind that the salary cap is just funny money invented for league accounting purposes, and free-spending teams like the Cowboys and Redskins have always found ways to do whatever they want, regardless of their cap situation. So worrying about whether the Cowboys will have enough money to spend is a waste of time - the Cowboys will always find ways to spend what they want to.

What you should worry about is what they spend it on, because the amount of money that teams spend has no impact on their amount of on-field success. None whatsoever.

And one of the main reasons for that is that free agency is an extremely inefficient talent pool, as we saw in our recent look at Five Common Free Agency Mistakes. Another reason why spending does not correlate with success is that quite often, the number of holes on a roster are inversely correlated to team success, meaning bad teams have more roster holes which they need to fill via free agency, which often makes the worst teams the biggest spenders in free agency.

In summary, it's funny how we as sports fans collectively get hung up so much on discussing accounting procedures. The salary cap is an accounting tool aggressively used by Cowboys, which often leads to the perception that the Cowboys are in "cap hell". They are not. What they are instead is a team that overspends but underperforms relative to its competitors. And that is the much bigger issue.

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