Well, that escalated quickly.
Impending doom, approaching with rapid velocity. That's pretty much the picture painted whenever ESPN, or those that follow their lead, discussed the Cowboys salary cap management process. Since 2010, people have been waiting, predicting, begging for the Dallas star to implode upon itself in the same fashion which scientists wait to watch Eta Carinae go supernova. Sorry Jimmy K's and Evan Silva's of the world. It ain't hapnin.
On Friday, we received word from ESPN's Adam Schefter that the salary cap for the NFL over the next few years would be as follows: $133 million in '14 (known for about a week), $140 million in '15 (say what?) and $150 million for 2016 (Bwahahahahaha!)
For the past few weeks, I've had the crux of this article on hold, just waiting for the official announcement of the 2014 salary cap. The original projection was that it would climb to about $126.5 million and at that point, I was still prepared to show the world that the constant concern and consternation over how the Cowboys do "their thing" was much ado about nothing. Now? The concept of "Cowboys Cap Hell" is laughable.
It's almost disappointing to me, as the narrative will undoubtedly become, "Dallas sure did get bailed out by that surprise cap increase!" You've probably already heard it. Unless it's your momma, slap whoever is saying it. Dallas would have been fine. Now? Sweet Baby Jesus In The Manger!
For clarity purposes, allow me to sidebar. When I penned the road map to Dallas blowing up their roster back in December, not once did I use the cap situation as a reason for the team to make such maneuvers. That was a plan laid out for those that think Dallas' roster incapable of providing a championship contender as constituted. These are two different conversations. This exercise is assuming Dallas plans to move forward with it's roster's core, while building around instead of outright replacing.
How Did We Even Make It This Far?
Just so people don't try and change the narrative, let's review the back story behind this incorrect sentiment. For the last three years, we've heard how Dallas has completely screwed up the management of their cap. They'd sign people to ridiculous contracts that pay them for years of service that will never be fulfilled. They ‘kick the can down the road' by converting base salaries into signing bonuses and that does nothing but put money on the books for years after said player will be in their prime. This keeps Dallas from being able to walk away from players that under-perform, because the cap hits would be too prohibitive to release them. Doing these things will lead the Cowboys to at some point have to walk away from young stars because they will not have the cap space to pay them what they are worth.
In Jason Garrett's first full year as head coach, 2011, Dallas and the NFL were coming out of the lockout and working under the brand new CBA. A CBA that included new provisions on how the cap would work (a percentage of total revenue that would now account for player benefits) with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones being an integral part in it's development and negotiation. A CBA that reduced the total amount teams could spend from $123m to $120m.
The Cowboys were approximately $18 million over the cap with a bunch of players with lots of money remaining on bad deals. They kicked them all to the curb to start the rebuilding process under Garrett: Leonard Davis, Andre Gurode, Roy Williams, Marion Barber, Marc Columbo. Dallas miss any of these guys? Did any of them go to another team and rock out? Was Dallas forced to walk away from any players strictly for cap reasons? No? Oh.
But surely, this way of managing their cap would keep Dallas from pursuing free agents that it would have liked to bring into the fold! Never mind the fact that Dallas offered free agent corner Nnamdi Asomugha a four-year, $40 million contract that had all of Cowboys nation in a tizzy over a couple days. This all happened after Dallas signed Doug Free to a four-year, $32 million contract two days earlier. Don't let that enter into the narrative.
To top it off, Dallas went ahead and handed defensive tackle Jay Ratliff a five-year, $40m, $18m guaranteed extension two years before his current deal would expire. We'll get back to that in a second.
Turn the page to 2012, who did Dallas lose from '11? Laurent Robinson and Terrance Newman. Many wanted Newman gone from the Dallas equation at the time. He got targeted and hurdled down the stretch of the season, his PFF grades were sub-par, but most were frustrated with his constant face-guarding and dropping interceptions when he was turned around. Yes, he has played at a pro level since being in Cincy, but that doesn't change the situation then.
Laurent Robinson cashed in on his one season of greatness with a ridiculous contract from Jacksonville. Dallas would have been fools to match the 5-year, $32.5m deal with $14m guaranteed. Oh, Robinson lasted one season before being released. Tony Romo made that man $14 million.
The also walked away from Bradie James, Keith Brooking and Kyle Kosier. Any of those moves greatly regretted?
Who did Dallas add? Only Brandon Carr with a 5-year, $50 million deal. Oh, they also just signed the most expensive backup quarterback option in Kyle Orton. Oh, and they signed Mack Bernadeau and Nate Livings en route to a record haul of seven (seven!) free agents within three days after the stat of free agency. Oh, they also franchise tagged Anthony Spencer for $8.8m to start it all off. Not bad for a cap-strapped team. Oh yeah, the NFL also hit them with a surprise $5 million cap penalty for 2012 and 2013.
That brings us to 2013's cap management. Thanks to the second $5m penalty, Dallas entered last offseason $18 million above the cap of $123 million. There was talk that Dallas would have to release Doug Free and Jay Ratliff among others in order to just make it to the season. Now, there were definitely two camps of thought over whether or not Jay Ratliff was a needed talent. Plenty argued he had never played up to the extension Jerry Jones gave him. Other's argued that although he didn't get the accolade stats, Ratliff was still plenty disruptive. Regardless of which was correct, Dallas didn't have to release Ratliff to get under the cap. They also were able to reduce Free's contract, which was most deserving based on Free's egregious efforts over the first two years of his deal.
The guys Dallas did walk away from heading into 2013? Dan Connor, Mike Jenkins, Gerald Sensabaugh, Victor Butler, John Phillips. Any major losses there? No? Okay then.
Dallas didn't have the cap space to sign anybody in free agency for 2013 however. Except for making $10.6m in space to franchise tag Anthony Spencer for the second year in a row! After they had restructured enough contracts to make that happen, Dallas went ahead and inked their franchise quarterback to a six-year, $108m extension with $55m guaranteed.
The real issue though, like what was discussed earlier, is that Dallas wouldn't be able to keep their young stars in tow. That's why they had to give up on Sean Lee. Wait, they signed him to a six-year, $42m extension in August. They also had enough spare change in the cushion to sign G Brian Waters in-season. There goes that meme.
Or did it? After all of this evidence, year after year, we are still reading tweets and articles, seeing stories on national sport shows about how Dallas is mismanaging themselves into oblivion.
No one is trying to paint a picture that Dallas hasn't made mistakes in dealing with the cap in the past. However, the idea that they have handcuffed themselves is pretty short-sighted. Have they built a winner? No. Did they give extensions to players that might have been risky investments? Yes. Did they do it without forethought? Absolutely not.
All of this brings us to the offseason leading into the 2014 offseason. Dallas once again finds themselves over the cap with a lot of work to do over the next week to get things in the right place. Each NFL team has to be under the cap with their Top 51 by the beginning of the new league year, March 11th.
Dallas is so concerned about their ability to do this, they went ahead and signed RFA super kicker Dan "Split'Em" Bailey to a six-year extension through 2020 back in January. The deal averages $3m per season.
That was when everyone expected the cap to come in around $126.5 million. Well, publicly, everyone.
What Did Dallas Know?
Here's what the naysayers want you to believe. Because of the fact that Dallas mismanaged the salary cap back... when it was first invented, they have been unable to develop any sort of feasible plan since then. Because Dallas hasn't been able to build a consistent winner on the field, they could not possibly have any financial acumen in the front office.
Despite the fact that Jerry Jones has built the Dallas team into the most profitable NFL franchise and second-highest earning sports franchise in the known universe, their ability to comprehend the rules of the salary cap is nil. Despite the fact that Jerry Jones was highly instrumental in negotiating and building the framework of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that contains the revised salary cap and benefit rules, they would have no clue how to approach it.
How would that even be possible in a land where deep thought isn't outlawed?
It is my contention, that not only did Dallas have a good plan in place for the incremental increases of the last few seasons, they also saw this balloon jump coming a mile away.
The newest TV deal was signed back in December of 2011. It bumped the annual rake from $1.93 billion to $3 billion. You know when the old TV deal expired? After the 2013 season! The initial response was that salary caps would take a huge jump in 2014, but that was squashed because, well, the media doesn't take the time to understand the cap.
Everyone instead has been working off of the word of Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who warned that the salary cap would only be making incremental increases even after the new money kicked in.
"I don't think what happened in 2006 will happen in the future here, because if you understand the labor agreement and the long-term part of this, there will be a smooth growth."
He's a freaking owner people! It's in his best interest in negotiating contracts to have the other side believe that there would be limited growth! As our own Tom Ryle pointed out in his quest to get to the bottom of things back in 2012, the NFLPA was not buying Kraft's public stance.
But league sources told NESN.com the NFLPA has advised players and agents that the salary cap will see "significant growth" in 2014 "and beyond." So, there's a stark difference between Kraft's quote and the NFLPA's message.
But everyone fell for it and now that the new TV deal has kicked in, flanked by the new CBS Thursday night game package, we're seeing that Kraft was completely full of it. If you want to believe that the Cowboys just got really, really fortunate with these unanticipated jumps, so be it. I'll look at things a bit differently.
Coming Up in Part II: A Detailed Look at how and how far Dallas can get under the 2014 cap, as well as how they'll retain their upcoming free agents.