The contract extensions given out to Orlando Scandrick and Gerald Sensabaugh during the 2011 season have been decried by fans and media pundits alike, especially in the face of the Dallas secondary's decline over the latter part of the season. Certainly, there is ample reason for skepticism and dismay: neither Scandrick nor Sensabaugh acquitted himself particularly well over the last six weeks of the 2011 campaign.
This leaves us asking: why did the Cowboys front office dole out these contracts? Are they, as many have suggested, daft? Stupid? Myopic? Perhaps, but I think that's beside the point. The reality is that they had their hands tied. Let's begin by taking a look at all the players on the 2011 roster who are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents at the end of the season, as per the DMN:
Rabble tries to make sense of this list after the break...
Had they not been re-signed, both Scandrick and Sensabaugh would have been on this list. For argument's sake, let's imagine that the Cowboys brain-trust allowed them to hit the market. If so, then we'd be looking at following situation in the Dallas defensive backfield:
Mike Jenkins (under contract through 2012)
Terence Newman (almost certain to be cut this offseason, probably more for his bad contract than his bad play)
Orlando Scandrick (UFA)
Alan Ball (UFA)
Frank Walker (UFA)
Gerald Sensabaugh (UFA)
Abram Elam (UFA)
Barry Church (a Cowboy through 2013, when he'll be an RFA)
Danny McCray (also a Cowboy through 2013, when he'll be an RFA)
The key here is Newman. Last offseason, the Cowboys purged several bad contracts--wherein they were overpaying for veterans with declining skills. The one bad contract they kept on the books was Newman (who was the second highest-paid CB in 2011, at 8 million). Because they are rebuilding (and there is no disputing this), I'd bet the master plan was to release Newman at the end of this season, regardless of the level of his play. But imagine what their defensive backfield would look like had they done so: the only corner certain to carry over would have been Jenkins, and the only safeties we'd be certain to see in 2012 would be McCray and Church, who are probably career special tamers (albeit darned good ones).
In order to rebuild, then, they would have had to risk going into 2012 with a defensive backfield comprised of low-level free agents (going after pricey FAs when rebuilding is a recipe for disaster) and whatever draft picks they could muster. But they'd need to find six players, so would have to draft almost nothing but defensive backs just to fill out a roster. As O.C.C. wrote in his excellent Free Agent Primer for Cornerbacks:
Alan Ball and Frank Walker are free agents, and Terence Newman is likely to have played his last season as a Cowboys. The draft will not be sufficient to provide the type of depth the Cowboys will need at corner next season...
If you think watching Alan Ball get beat is hard on your heart, imagine an entire backfield of guys just like Ball. Just too horrible to imagine...and I'd bet that Jerry Jones, Jason Garrett and the Cowboys defensive coaches feel the same way--which is why they needed to extend offers to the two potential departees with the best games. For all their warts, both Scandrick and Sensabaugh are superb athletes (Scandrick has legit 4.3 speed; Sensabaugh set a combine record with a 46" vertical jump) who are superior athletically to the kinds of players who would be available on the market.
Speaking of the market, had either been allowed to reach free agency, they almost certainly would have commanded more than the Cowboys paid for their services. Sensabaugh's deal is for five years, with 8 million guaranteed; Scandrick's is also for five years, with 10 million guaranteed. In other words, both of these can easily be two-year deals, should the Cowboys be able to upgrade the position to the degree that we all hope they can.
A side note re: Scandrick: A lot of folks have complained that Scandrick will be receiving "starter's money," which, as a guy who looks every bit a back-up, he doesn't deserve. On one level this is true; judging from the top cornerback salaries in 2011, his new contract places him 31st, which is where starters live. That said, he'll be taking home just less than Jabari Greer, Sheldon Brown and Drayton Florence. When we think of starting corners, are these the kind of guys that leap to mind? Are they prohibitively better than Scandrick? Maybe I'm missing something, but I don't think so. Good third corners play a lot of downs and are very valuable commodities--probably worth the 5 million per that Scandrick has commanded. So, I wouldn't necessarily pencil Scandrick in as the starter just because of his contract...
What's the takeaway from this? We should look at the Scandrick and Sensabaugh signings not as further evidence of Jerry Jones dementia (there are plenty of other signs), but as a version of the Kyle Kosier re-signing last offseason. Last August, you'll recall, the Cowboys jettisoned several long-in-the-tooth O-linemen with pricey contracts and declining games--but had so many candidates that they couldn't get rid of them all. So, they kept the best and most mobile of them, Kosier, and gave him a contract that wouldn't hurt them if they had to dump him in two years. In other words, Kosier was hired to be a bridge to a better future. Scandrick and Sensabaugh serve the same purpose.
Let's just hope that Dallas can find the secondary's equivalent of Tyron Smith in the next couple of drafts...