As the Dallas Cowboys continue to bargain shop in free agency, many questions persist about whether the team is making the right decision by eschewing big money acquisitions outside of the franchise tag for star wide receiver Dez Bryant. The loss of DeMarco Murray to the Philadelphia Eagles, hated NFC East rival, has generated the most controversy. The lack of a long-term deal with Bryant also has many asking if the team should be so hardheaded in its commitment to financial responsibility. Meanwhile, the failure to address the need to improve the pass rush is making many fans downright queasy as the best free agents have all gone elsewhere, leaving only players of questionable value to the team outside of Greg Hardy, who has a whole van full of baggage that makes him a doubtful target for Dallas.
Rainer Sabin of the Dallas Morning News addressed this in an article that proposes that the team is being handcuffed by the huge contract of quarterback Tony Romo. It talked about how Romo really wanted the team to step up to the plate and pay what it took to keep Murray.
Ironically, Romo's 2015 salary-cap number of $27.8 million, the highest in the league, has been a major obstacle in the Cowboys' ability to actualize the kind of go-for-broke plan the quarterback was pitching to Jones. Sabin: How Tony Romo's contract is getting in way of QB's desire to win now | Dallas Morning News
The premise behind the article is, on the surface, correct. Romo's cap hit of $27.8 million this year has a $17 million base ($15 million guaranteed) and the rest is prorated money from the repeated restructures to create cap space in past seasons. That is money that cannot be allocated to big contracts like one to match the Eagles' offer unless the team restructures him yet again.
But when looked at from the larger perspective, this is a fallacious argument. Although the Cowboys might have manged the cap better to keep his hit down, they really had no choice.
First, the Cowboys have been having to use the tool of pushing cap hits back in order to remold the roster into the one that went two rounds into the playoffs last season. When Jason Garrett took over as head coach, the team was a mess, to put it simply. It had too many players with shrinking production but big contracts based more on past performance than expected contributions. From the beginning of Garrett's notorious process, the team started biting the bullet by cutting out the deadwood. This meant eating a lot of dead money then, forcing the constant restructures. Now, with a light at the end of the tunnel that is not attached to an oncoming locomotive, the team is working hard to stick to the plan. Avoiding another restructure of Romo's deal, which would be costly in the coming years, is part of that plan. This rules out spending big in free agency, outside of the calculated need to pay Bryant.
Bryant and Romo are both players in the five key positions that are the key places successful NFL teams should invest their cap space and real dollars. The five are quarterback, wide receiver, left (or blindside) offensive tackle, edge pass rusher, and cornerback. Add Tyron Smith into the mix, and the Cowboys have the three offensive components locked down. They tried to do the same at corner with the acquisition of Brandon Carr, but that did not work out. This is a clear example of the risk entailed in any outside free agent you spend a lot of money on. You never know nearly as much about them as you do about your own players, and the history of the league as a whole shows that the rate of return on signing your own top talent back is usually much better than for those big, flashy deals that put teams on lists of those that win free agency, but who seldom wind up with a lot of playoff success to show for it. Up until 2014, Dallas also had the edge rusher accounted for in DeMarcus Ware, but made the hard decision to release him. This was also driven by the remolding process as well as the switch from the 3-4 defense where he thrived to the 4-3, and given that the team went on to win the NFC East without him, it apparently worked out. Now the team is hoping to grow that next edge rusher from within, and has placed a lot of chips on DeMarcus Lawrence, as evidenced by the trade up to get him in the 2014 draft.
It is a patient, methodological approach. That doesn't sit well with many fans, but it is a proven way to win a long term winner.
Only one player on entire Green Bay Packers roster has ever played a snap for another team.— B Fojtik (@PositiveEnerG) March 15, 2015
It is also not an approach that many NFL teams have embraced.
The Cowboys, in swimming against the tide, are clearly looking more to the example of the Packers than, say, Chip Kelly's free spending ways in Philly so far this offseason. But there is another bit of data to glean from looking at the Packers. Their quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, has the biggest average salary of all NFL quarterbacks at $22 million. On that list, Romo only comes in at number nine. Included in the quarterbacks that make more on average per year: Matt Ryan, Colin Kaepernick, and Jay Cutler.
The rarest commodity in the NFL is the franchise quarterback. That scarcity is reflected in the nine figure contract a player can receive by showing he can lead his team to success, or in the case of player like Ryan and Cutler, at least convince the owner and GM that he can. Based on the play of Romo in 2014 and the fact that he is healthy for the first time in recent memory, Dallas may have done a superb job of both projecting his productivity and structuring his contract. 2016 is the magic year in his contract, when the team has the ability to move on from him and save cap space without crippling dead money. If he still has some seasons he can perform at a high level, he continues to amass a fortune and the team will gladly cut the weekly checks during the season.
That supply and demand factor, far more than the cost of Romo, is why Dallas did not see fit to lay out the money it would have taken to keep Murray in the backfield. Twenty-five years ago, when Emmitt Smith was part of what was to become the famous Triplets and Barry Sanders was almost single-handedly making the Detroit Lions somewhat competitive, the running back was also a position where teams wanted to invest a lot of payroll. But those days are long gone, and with the occasional rare exception like Adrian Peterson, a running back can no longer carry a team without a franchise quarterback, and even the superb AD has not helped the Minnesota Vikings to any playoff success. Like it or not, the quarterback is where almost all successful teams have to have a top talent. Those that don't find one are stuck in the lower reaches of the standings, and those that invest in the wrong player are in a real hell. Forget cap hell, quarterback hell is what kills NFL teams.
The high cost of Tony Romo is necessary for Dallas, no matter how big his window. $8.4 million for a running back in today's NFL is unwise. Foolish is probably more accurate, although only time will tell in the Eagles' case. If the Cowboys had judged Murray to be worth the cost, they would have paid the price. But the well-documented statistical evidence that running backs start to decline around 27 years old (Murray's age) and also that 370 plus carries in a season almost inevitably leads to a significant drop off in production the following year were too much to ignore. Recent history also shows that it is far, far easier to find a successful running back right out of college, and 2015's crop of prospects at the position look very deep. Add in the comparatively limited amount of cap space the Cowboys have if they leave Romo's deal untouched, and it made no financial sense to keep Murray. That would have handcuffed the team much more severely than Romo's deal does, with far less chance of succeeding in keeping the team on a winning track.
There is another reason that locking up the top talent at the key positions in long term deals is a good idea. As the list of top quarterbacks show, the price tags keep going up. Russell Wilson is expected to be the next quarterback to move into the upper reaches of that salary list. The cap keeps going up in leaps and bounds, and what looks like a huge salary now will appear much more reasonable as the numbers continue to climb and record deals like the one Ndamukong Suh got from the Miami Dolphins keep proving that many NFL teams have more money than good judgment.
The NFL is a win now league, but spending lavishly in free agency makes it hard to win later. Dallas is using a strategy that is designed to do both. You should have a little faith in the management team that got Jerry Jones named NFL Executive of the Year. Or you can continue to take a superficial view of things and try to revive the meme of Dallas bumbling.
That is not the way we are looking at things around here.