Anthony Spencer's career with the Dallas Cowboys has been quite a saga. A first-round draft pick in 2007, he was for years a disappointment. He was a starter to open his rookie season, but was demoted when Greg Ellis recovered sufficiently from injury. It was 2009 before he regained the starting role, playing as an outside linebacker opposite DeMarcus Ware. The nickname "Almost Anthony" was hung on him for all the times he nearly got to the quarterback. In 2011, he finally showed enough that the Cowboys decided to use the franchise tag on him. The $8.856 million in guaranteed salary for 2012 paid off, with him recording his first double digit (11) sack season while leading the team in tackles and becoming the only player in the league with 90+ tackles and 10+ sacks.
Because of his age, Dallas elected use the franchise tag on him again in 2013, now at a cost of $9.6 million. He and Ware were converted to defensive ends under the 4-3 defense Dallas went to under new coordinator Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli, then the defensive line coach. Things did not work out nearly as well, as he injured his left knee before the season, and only played in one game before going on injured reserve when he had to have microfracture surgery to repair his knee. (While the team did not get anything for the cost, it did show that using the tag instead of working out what would have been an expensive long-term deal was the right decision based on his age and the likelihood of injury problems.)
For most players, microfracture surgery is the beginning of the end. Although many try to come back from it, very few are ever able to play well enough to be competitive in the NFL. But after releasing Ware and not trying to beat Washington's offer to tackle Jason Hatcher, Dallas was without its two best defensive linemen from 2013. They decided to offer Spencer a one-year deal worth $2 million, that actually is worth just under $1.3 million after you take out the incentives. Since he didn't make those incentive (it is hard to get to 65% of the defensive snaps in an eight-man line rotation), that is what the team wound up paying him. Even if he had made the entire $2 million, that still would have had him making less than 36 other players on the roster.
In Spencer's case, it turned out to be money well spent. He missed the first three games of the regular season, but still was contributing by providing valuable leadership. And once he was able to play, as the season progressed, so did he. He was only credited with half a sack and one forced fumble all year, but he was beginning to show up more and more in the games.
And in the Wild Card playoff game against the Detroit Lions, he got a sack and forced fumble on Matthew Stafford. It was almost the decisive moment in the game, until rookie DeMarcus Lawrence fumbled the ball back to Detroit, prolonging their misery another minute before Lawrence took the ball away again and this time managed to hang on to it.
It is appropriate that Spencer and Lawrence were both involved in the first Stafford strip sack, since they have had similar seasons. Both were out to start the year due to injury, both have been coming on slowly, and both look to be peaking just when the Cowboys need. Each recorded their first solo sack of the year in the Wild Card victory.
Of course, the big difference in the two is that Lawrence is a 22-year-old rookie, and Spencer is a 30-year-old, eight-year veteran. But Spencer at least feels a lot like Lawrence.
"It feels good, definitely," Spencer said. "I spent the whole year off so I feel like a rookie all over again. I feel good right now. Just to be back in this situation, it's a blessing."
It gives Dallas a classic good news/bad news situation. The good news of how well he is playing in the postseason is balanced by the bad news that his contract is up. The front office will certainly be considering a cost efficient offer to him, but now other teams may be interested in him as well, leading to a lower-priced version of the conundrum that saw Hatcher depart last season. Two different Cowboys beat writers were pondering the same thing.
Spencer has a unique ability to get sacks late in games. He showed that during his big season in 2012. The way he's come on you'd have to figure the Cowboys would try to re-sign the free agent this offseason. But other teams could push up the price, especially considering the way Spencer has played late in the season, showing he can be effective again following serious knee surgery.
The Cowboys were patient and Spencer was patient. Now, it appears to be paying off. So I wonder what the Cowboys do with Spencer in the future. He turns 30 on Jan. 23. Can the Cowboys sign him to a short-term deal with decent pay? I'm not talking about a big payday, but a modest one. He cashed in with two franchise tag years for nearly $20 million. Could be the perfect transition type player, like Jeremy Mincey perhaps, where the Cowboys are able to rebuild the line through the draft while having competent veterans on hand?
Spencer is not the only player who is a free agent after the season but who is suddenly looking like a keeper. Bruce Carter is playing perhaps the best football of his career right now. With what seems like half the roster going into free agency this year, Dallas has some real decisions to make. But having too many good players is one of those problems you kind of want to have.
The market will probably determine what happens with Spencer. It would be nice to have him back with the Cowboys on a short-term, team-friendly deal (sort of as payment for that second tag, maybe). However and wherever Spencer's career plays out, it is at least good to see him having more success late in his career.