Tuesday was a different kind of "Doomsday" associated with the Dallas Cowboys. A day many began speculating was coming in November of last year, but chose to ignore because its possibility seemed unfathomable. Following the paths of former greats Don Meredith and Don Perkins, DeMarcus Ware is the latest Dallas legend facing the heartbreaking reality that, unlike in the movies, not all great Cowboys ride off heroically into the sunset. As the franchise’s all time leader in sacks (117) and forced fumbles (32), Ware will undoubtedly be enshrined in the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor, joining Meredith and Perkins as the only members that didn’t play on a Dallas Super Bowl team. As a fan who’s been donning a #94 jersey since his rookie year, the only thing more painful for me to admit is that cutting Ware was the appropriate move for both sides.
In the Cowboys case, they have been struggling to meet the NFL’s salary cap requirement year after year, especially after being penalized $10 Million in 2012 for front loading contracts during the 2010 season. Before Ware’s release, Dallas was less than $1 Million over the cap, and by cutting Ware, they saved $7.4 of the $16 Million that was scheduled to count against it. For Dallas, being able to create cap space is huge considering they trotted out one of the worst defenses in NFL history in 2013, and Ware’s release should enable them to fill a couple of gaps via Free Agency and the NFL Draft.
The other key factors to consider are age, health, and production. Contrary to popular opinion, the Cowboys have a younger roster than people realize. And while I don’t dare call Ware "old" as he nears the age of 32, it’s unquestionable that he hasn’t aged well since spraining his neck in 2009.
From 2006 to 2012, Ware etched his name in NFL history alongside Hall of Famers John Randle and the late Reggie White by becoming only the third player ever to record 10 or more sacks in seven straight seasons. However, the injury bug began to bite him in 2012 as he dealt with nagging nerve injuries in his neck, shoulder, and elbow, which ultimately resulted in two separate offseason surgeries.
In 2013, Ware missed multiple games for the first time in his entire career with a quadriceps injury that lingered throughout the season, and finished with his worst career single-season totals in sacks (6) and tackles (28). Some of the decline in production can be attributed to a change in defensive scheme, but if you watched the games you could tell he wasn’t the same Ware we were accustomed to watching slap the turf after sacking NFL quarterbacks every Sunday afternoon. So if the Cowboys were planning on starting a youth movement in an effort to rebuild, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, cutting Ware to free up some much needed cap space made sense.
As I alluded to, the release made sense schematically for Ware. I’ll spare you by not attempting to delve into the brainlessness behind replacing Rob Ryan with Monte Kiffin after two seasons, but the fact is that the coaching change didn’t play to Ware’s strengths. As a converted high school wide receiver before enrolling at Troy University, it should come as no surprise why Ware possesses the ability to run a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash. But when you couple his exceptional speed with his 6’4", 265 pound frame, you have a hybrid outside linebacker that was bred with the sole purpose of wreaking havoc on opposing quarterbacks, and has no business putting his hand in the dirt as a down lineman. So in 2005, that’s what Ware, along with Marcus Spears, was drafted by Bill Parcells to do as "The Big Tuna" intended to set the foundation for the first ever 3-4 defense in Dallas Cowboys history.
Another reason you could argue that Ware needed to make a move in free agency to a team that runs a 3-4 is his injury history. In recent seasons, Ware has been pulled from games due to recurring neck stingers. If Ware were to stay in Dallas as a true defensive end in their new 4-3 defense, he’d be taking more frequent blows to his shoulders, which would cause these stingers to become more common than if he were to make the move back to outside linebacker in a 3-4. And at this point you’ve got to think he’d like to give himself the chance to play as long as possible, and with as little pain as possible, as he pursues a title in the final years of his career.
Finally, the issue comes back to money. The Cowboys had no choice but to ask for a pay cut from Ware given their salary cap woes. So in his case, if you’re an aging All-Pro knowing you’re going to have to take a pay cut just to stay with the epitome of mediocrity that is the Dallas Cowboys who just happened to undermine you by changing defensive schemes, of course you’re going to test the waters of free agency. You’ve broken franchise records; you’ve accumulated Hall of Fame worthy numbers. The only thing you have left to do is pursue the Lombardi Trophy, and Jerry Jones has proven that it damn sure won’t be coming back to Dallas any time soon.
Listen, could Ware have come back to Dallas for $250,000 per year less than what he was offered by Denver? Absolutely. But should he be questioned for bolting to the Mile High City just a day after his release? Absolutely not. Cowboy fans, it’s not your right to request a hometown discount from a future Hall of Famer who would essentially be setting himself up for failure, just like it’s not your birthright to win Super Bowls. Ware served his time in Dallas, he provided us with nine years of highlight reel football. And when he’s eventually enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, hopefully you’ll be able to look back at all the greatness he achieved as a Cowboy and appreciate it. It’s not his fault that Dallas didn’t make a deep playoff run during his tenure. Football is the ultimate team game and he’s just one man.
Super Bowl or not, Ware was a winner on and off the field in Dallas, and he proved it time and time again. He’s been to seven Pro Bowls, he’s one of eight players in NFL history to lead the league in sacks in two separate seasons, he was named the NFC’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2008, and he was named to the NFL’s 2000s All-Decade Second Team, despite having only played five seasons in said decade. Along with the numerous contributions he made off the field, you couldn’t have asked much more from him.
Let me be clear, I was just as depressed as anybody when I read the news of Ware’s release, regardless of the fact that it was the right move. For at least eight years, he was one of the few constants in an otherwise erratic and dismal era of Dallas Cowboys football, and will always be defined in my mind by his infamous game-ending sack-fumble of Drew Brees that sealed an upset victory over the 13-0---and eventual Super Bowl Champion---New Orleans Saints in 2009, just one week after suffering a neck sprain in a loss to the Chargers. But as depressed as I am that he’s no longer a Cowboy, I’m twice as excited for him that he’ll be competing for a title with a legitimate contender. I’ve owned his jersey since his rookie year when I was in the 8th grade—damn, do I feel old saying that---and as far as I’m concerned, if he wins a Super Bowl with the Broncos, it’s a partial win for Cowboys fans. The man’s a warrior who’s earned a shot at the Lombardi Trophy, and I’d love nothing more for him than to get a chance to hoist it before returning to take his rightful place in the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor.
From a lifelong fan, thanks for the memories, DeMarcus.