At first glance, it might appear that the Dallas Cowboys are facing a lot of salary cap-driven issues this offseason. We all know about the need to get a long-term contract done for Dez Bryant, and the possibility and wisdom of signing DeMarco Murray to a new deal is a constant topic of debate. And because of the rather high number of free agents from last year's roster, there are still a lot of cap related decisions to be made as the team works toward the 51 man cap limit it has to meet by March 10th.
For several years we have been bombarded with reports of how the Cowboys were in "salary cap hell", only to see the team make a few contract adjustments and forge ahead with what it needed to do. Most of those discredited analyses were based on looking at things in isolation, and not taking a broader look at how other teams were simply making different (and not necessarily more effective) trade-offs to make their own cap figures. These analyses also tended to discount the fact that many NFL teams are just cheap and make their cap and payroll decisions based at least partly on making sure the owner has more money in his bank account in the short term.
In looking at cap issues, it is better to take a more global look at the situation all teams are in. A good compilation of this is one at Spotrac. Although it is based on the site's evaluation of who is involved, it is a good working list of all the players who it terms restructure, cap casualty, and roster bubble candidates, all driven of course by the cap. It includes players on 29 of the 32 NFL rosters who are facing some action by their team because of the limitations under the cap, including one, the Indianapolis Colts' LaRon Landry, that has already been released by the team.
This includes some players that were pretty major parts of rosters, including Larry Fitzgerald of the Cardinals, Andre Johnson of the Texans, Greg Jennings and Adrian Peterson of the Vikings, Danny Amendola of the Patriots, and Troy Polamalu of the Steelers. The list is heavy on wide receivers, perhaps because they tend to command high salaries, but does touch on most positions in its entirety. The worst situation, at least in terms of volume, is for the Miami Dolphins, who have seven players on this list.
Dallas is one of the teams with a low number. Only two players are on this list, Brandon Carr and Henry Melton. Carr is termed a risk to be released, although most who watch Dallas closely think the team will actually try to get him to renegotiate a new, lower price contract the way Doug Free did in the recent past. And Melton is the only name on this list with "option declined", reflecting that the team signed him to a deal that basically bet he would not be able to justify the big numbers in the option. He signed his contract knowing that the onus was on him, and that the odds were long. He will have to seek a new deal at a lower cost if he wishes to continue to play. The Cowboys were certainly playing hardball with him, but it was done openly and intelligently by Dallas. Carr is simply a case of never providing adequate value for the $50 million deal that the Cowboys invested in him. It is a rough decision for him, but he had $25.5 million guaranteed. He is not exactly going to be destitute if he has to take a lower salary or try to find a new team.
This reflects a couple of things. First is that the Cowboys are doing a pretty good job of managing the cap, given the timing involved in players who have worked out for the team, and also in only having one contract, Carr's, that is really a bad deal right now in light of what they have gotten in return. This is a far cry from when Jason Garrett took over as head coach with a roster laden with players who were no longer worth what the team was paying them.
The other point is from the tweet that brought this Spotrac post to my attention:
This is an absurdly long list of potential CAP Casualty Candidates. Bad culture of NFL teams not honoring contracts. http://t.co/p0gv8iOrdo— Mike McCartney (@MikeMcCartney7) February 13, 2015
This is an ongoing sore point with the NFLPA. The NFL, unlike the other professional leagues, does not guarantee the entire contract. This is strictly for the benefit of the owners and is tied to the whole concept of the salary cap. The owners put the cap in place to limit the percentage of the income of each team that goes to the players, and to prevent any owner from trying to spend his way to a star-laden roster to dominate on the field. The NFL was looking squarely at Jerry Jones when it did this after he demonstrated that he would spend whatever it took to win in the early 1990s. In order to maintain the parity that the league has decided it wants, it went with what can be described as a semi-socialist model, where the bulk of revenues are shared equally among teams, regardless of success or its lack on the field, and upper and lower limits are placed on how much of that income can then be spent on players. It is designed to restrict franchises that have large additional streams of income, such as Jones has with the revenue he gets from AT&T Stadium outside of NFL games, so those owners can't leverage that extra money into a better roster than other teams can afford.
Jones has instead used his money to build his coaching staff, since there are no limits on those salaries. With the performance of Rod Marinelli, Scott Linehan, and the rest of the coaches, his investment seems to be paying off well. And the Cowboys will continue to be one of the teams that works to use as much of the cap space as they can to make the roster as good as it can be. With only Carr's contract having to be addressed as a bad return on that investment, the Cowboys look better on the Spotrac list than many of the other teams in the league.