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Are bad free agent moves pushing the Cowboys out of playoff contention?

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Just when things were getting better, bad signings are starting to hurt the Cowboys again.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

One of the things to admire about the Cowboys organization in recent years is how well they’ve been able to sidestep some of the financial minefields that Jerry Jones has left for them over the years. There was a time not so far back that Jones was handing out lucrative deals to players he fell in love with. Even more troublesome was the fact that these deals were back-loaded so Jones could enjoy immediate cap relief at the expense of the team’s future. Well, the piper eventually needed to be paid and that meant that the Cowboys were left with aging players who were nowhere close to providing the on-field performance that their price tag indicated. The result - players were released and the Cowboys took a huge dead money hit. Here are examples of some of the more notable deals from the past that hurt their cap and inhibited them from doing much in free agency in subsequent years:

Looking back at many of these names and their wasted costs probably makes you grimace and I apologize for opening up these old wounds. But it’s important to understand that teams cannot absorb these types of dead money hits and still expect to be competitive. Jones himself has acknowledged that head coach Jason Garrett has been put into a difficult situation having to work with a team that has such a financial disadvantage compared to other teams around the league. It didn’t stop Garrett from patiently making changes and it didn’t stop the Cowboys from putting together competitive seasons for five of the six years of his coaching tenure in Dallas.

Lo and behold, the Cowboys would change the way they did things. With the combination of the influence from Garrett, de-facto general manager Will McClay, and the responsible son, Stephen Jones - the Cowboys were able put a halt to throwing out huge stacks of cash to retain their own players when they hit the free agent market. And after the Brandon Carr mishap in 2012, this business strategy would also extend to backing off of going crazy over other team’s free agents. In short, the Cowboys got cheap with their free agent spending.

And it worked.

After years of so much of their financial resources being spent on dead money, the Cowboys had the lowest dead money hit of any team in the league last season at a measly $3.24 million. The Cowboys strategy was simple. They would become extremely frugal in free agency to avoid the unnecessary risks of overpaying for a product that is likely to not provide adequate returns. Instead, they would invest that money towards second contracts for all the quality draft picks they had been making. The old adage of “building through the draft” was taking place in its truest form in Dallas.

For this approach to work, the team has to do two things well. First, they absolutely must draft well. Second, the free agents they do go after have to be worth their weight in gold. When you look at low-cost, unsexy names like Jeremy Mincey, Terrell McClain, and Justin Durant - the team had done a fantastic job getting good bang for their free agent buck.

But all of a sudden, the front office has started misfiring on free agent acquisitions and it’s has wasted a good chunk of change. The Cowboys signed Cedric Thornton to a four-year, $17 million deal last year and he hardly did anything in 2016 and was cut before this season began. Then, Nolan Carroll was signed this offseason to a three-year, $10 million deal and he only played in two games for the Cowboys before being released earlier this week. These two collectively essentially did nothing to help the team, yet they will count as a dead money hit of over $10 million.

After being the best team in terms of dead money hit last year, the Cowboys are third worst this year at $23 million of wasted money. Only the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers have more dead money than the Cowboys this year and they are a combined 0-10 on the season. Dead money equals big losers.

Granted, a big part of the Cowboys dead money hit comes from Tony Romo and the team will soon get out from under that contract. But you can’t sweep the Thornton and Carroll deals under the rug as if it’s just a minor miscalculation. The team could do a lot with $10 million. For example....

There is no crystal ball that tells you what each player is going to do and I’m not going to hindsight criticize the front office for not offering up sizable contracts to players that produced at mediocre levels throughout their stay in Dallas. That’s what got them into so much trouble in the past. But I am going to criticize them for messing up with Thornton and Carroll. That hurts. And when you throw in the fact that another 2017 free agent, Stephen Paea, just retired, the Cowboys are coming up empty on their free agent purchases.

The Cowboys are already sitting as the worst dead money team in 2018 so far with $13.6 wasted. Remember, some of that is still Romo, but some of that is Thornton and Carroll as well. Something needs to change when it comes to how the team is using free agency. When you look a the returns the Philadelphia Eagles are getting on the $775,000 investment they made on free agent corner, Patrick Robinson, it adds to the frustration.

These are the types of moves that help teams have playoff success.

Instead of filling holes, the Cowboys are digging more of them when it comes to their cap space. And with the 2017 draft class not making much of an impact thus far to help with these voids, it puts an additional burden on the team. If the Cowboys can’t get this corrected and fill these holes, history has shown us it’s going to be a bumpy ride.