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Are Cowboys Really "Playing Hardball" With Doug Free?

Some recent reports about Doug Free and the Cowboys suggest that there may be some level of acrimony between the two sides, as words like 'playing hardball', 'ultimatums' and 'deadlines' are being used to descibe the status of the taks between the two sides. But is that accurate?

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports's Ian Rapoport reported on Tuesday that the Cowboys are "playing hardball" with RT Doug Free, and are requesting a "substantial" pay cut.

This report, while it seems to indicate some development in the Doug Free situation, left me scratching my head a little bit.

For one thing, I had never expected the pay cut to be anything less than substantial. Doug Free is due $7 million in 2013, which would make him the highest paid right tackle in the league. The average right tackle makes about $3.5 million per year. $3.5 million would be a generous offer from the Cowboys, and I think Free should take that money and run. Confirmation came yesterday from Mike Fisher, who reported that the Cowboys were negotiating Free down to a '$3-3.5 M' range. Tyson Clabo just signed in Miami for that exact amount, and no way, no how is Free going to get a similar offer from anybody else with the tackle-needy teams all but extinct by now. In fact, there's a reasonable chance Free wouldn't make much more than the vet minimum of $715,000 as a backup tackle somewhere.

The other thing is that for all this supposed acrimony between the two sides, of the Cowboys supposedly "playing hardball" with Free, do you know who showed up for the Cowboys homerun hitting derby yesterday? Doug Free, that's who. Do you know who has been diligently working out at Valley Ranch the last couple of weeks? Doug Free, that's who. There's more to this than meets the eye.

Jason Fitzgerald of gives a level-headed summary of the situation so far:

For all the grief I have given the Cowboys and their cap management I actually think their handling of the Free situation has been very well done. They allowed to let the market dictate a price for Free and by waiting have limited Free’s options if released. If Dallas would have approached Free earlier in the year the likely response would have been “why would I take a paycut”. Dallas was not in a great position to release him and Free could always have a chance of earning money elsewhere. For it to be worth Free’s time Dallas would have probably needed to meet in the middle, going for a $2 million dollar paycut. In essence Free is going to get paid extra money than he would earn on the market by agreeing to help the Cowboys salary cap.

Now Free’s options are less appealing. Teams have drafted tackles. Clabo just signed with Miami. Eric Winston is still floating around in free agency. This isn’t a scenario where Free can say “Ill just sign elsewhere rather than cutting you a break” anymore. $3 million is probably the most money Free can now get from anyone in the NFL. You may even be able to say that it’s a generous offer for Free to get this much money. So he is almost in a position where he is stuck to take the paycut because he has almost no leverage anymore.

Fitzgerald suggests the Cowboys should make Free a June 1 cut and sign OT Eric Winston in his place. The Cowboys would get a one-year upgrade at the position that would result in roughly the same cap charges as Free taking a pay cut now and then being cut next season.

And the idea of Eric Winston as a viable alternative seems to be gaining some traction at Valley Ranch (though you may need to be careful about taking things at face value in this situation). As reported by the Dallas Morning News, former Cowboys scout Glenn "Stretch" Smith recently told 103.3 KESN-FM that the team likes Winston better than they did Tyson Clabo.

"What I’m hearing out there is that they really didn’t want Tyson Clabo," Smith said. "A lot of people had him as the highest-rated tackle. The people at Valley Ranch think Eric Winston is the more athletic of the two tackles that were available through free agency."

Smith, who worked for the Cowboys during the Chan Gailey and Dave Campo eras, told the station that Cowboys personnel thought Clabo wore down during the end of his last season with Atlanta and that he looked "old" and "slow." The team liked Winston better as a result, and Winston's Texas roots make him a good fit for Dallas.

So what now?

Joel Corry of the National Football Post outlined "A potential solution for Doug Free's situation" yesterday:

The best situation for everyone may be finding some sort of middle ground on a pay cut. [...] Jordan Gross’ pay cut with the Carolina Panthers could be used as a guide with Free. He was scheduled to make $8.7 million in 2013. [...] Gross took a 36.8% pay cut by reducing his salary to $5.5 million.

Free would be making a fully guaranteed $4.425 million in 2013 by accepting a similar salary percentage pay cut as Gross. Such a pay cut would be $925,000 more than Clabo’s 2013 compensation and would create $2.575 million of cap relief for the Cowboys. A pay cut to this level could be characterized as generous especially considering Free’s underwhelming 2012 performance and the average salary for starting tackles in 2012 was approximately $3.5 million. Free could also be given an opportunity to earn the majority of the money back through incentives.

The interesting thing that Corry argues here, apart from a (for me) surprisingly high salary, is the option of allowing Free to recoup some or all of the pay cut via a heavily incentivized contract that would reward Free for an improved performance in 2013.

Corry goes on to point out that those incentives may not be as easy to define as you'd think, but the underlying premise here is noteworthy. The Cowboys have repeatedly stated they want to keep Free in 2013 despite what you may have read or heard elsewhere. At the same time, the Cowboys obviously don't think that a repeat of Free's 2012 performance is worth $7 million, and there's probably some haggling going on about how much a repeat of that performance is worth. $3 million, $3.5 million, $4 million? That's anybody's guess at this point, but once the two sides agree to that number, they've only talked about the base value of Free's contract in 2013.

The next question both sides then have to agree on is how much an improved performance is worth. If Free plays like he did in 2010, a performance that earned him his big contract in the first place, how much is that worth? $5 million, $5.5 million, $6 million? And how would you measure and quantify that?

To Doug Free's credit in this whole process, he has been nothing less than a team player throughout, he has not once spoken up about the issue or in any way voiced any kind of displeasure at the situation. The Cowboys in turn, while they have spoken to the agents of some of the available free agent tackles, have not brought any of those tackles in for a visit yet, something they could easily have done had they wanted to increase the pressure on Free and his camp.

Nobody is playing hardball here. There are no ultimatums. There are no deadlines.

If anything, the Cowboys have been extraordinarily circumspect in handling the entire situation. But it is true that Free doesn't really have a lot of options left. And as the two sides work towards an agreement, vice president Stephen Jones summarized Free's status with the franchise in the only way possible: "To be determined.

More reading:

Cowboys 2013 Offseason: Assessing Roster Changes

In the Film Room: JJ Wilcox and the "Jump" call

Who Will Be The Cowboys' 2013 Breakout Player?

Tony Romo Cuts Back On Golf

Draft Grade: Safety J.J. Wilcox

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