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Yes, the Cowboys spent the least cash of any team in 2017, but it really doesn’t matter

Don’t get too worried when you see stats like the one below about the Cowboys spending habits.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys-Ezekiel Elliott Press Conference Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

So, Adam Schefter recently tweeted out a shiny, colorful table that showed how much cash each NFL team spent on their roster in 2017:

As we see, not only did the Cowboys spend the least amount of cash ($115.6M) among the 32 NFL teams, they were far outspent even by the second cheapest team, the Kansas City Chiefs ($142M). In fact, the Cowboys trailed the league’s biggest spender (the Detroit Lions) by a full $85 million dollars.

What in the name of Larry Ellison is going on here? When did oil-drilling, wildcatter, spare-no-expense Jerry Jones become penny-pinching Scrooge McJones? Some have speculated this lack of cash outlays was a reflection of the team’s more frugal attitude on free agent spending. And this is partially true, as the team has scaled back on the lavish free agent contracts over the last few years.

But the reality is this “cash spent” metric is meaningless; it does not, in any tangible way, reflect how much any one team is investing in the on-field roster. Notice that second column in the Schefter table, the one with the percentages? That’s the ratio between each team’s cash payments and the NFL’s 2017 salary cap. Based on this table, the Cowboys “spent” only 69% of the salary cap space available to them. By contrast, the Lions “spent” over 122% of the salary cap space available to them. How is it possible the Cowboys, always straining against the limits of the salary cap, spent less than seven of 10 salary cap dollars?

The answer is cash outlays in a given year don’t reflect how much teams have actually spent on the team’s roster for that season. Let’s look at Orlando Scandrick’s contract and see how this plays out (the following numbers come from Spotrac, so a shout out to the good folks who run that useful site):

I highlighted Scandrick’s 2017 numbers. There’s three key data points to note:

  1. Scandrick’s 2017 salary was $3.00M. That’s how much money he received from the Cowboys the entire season. That number represents the team’s cash spending on Scandrick in 2017.
  2. Scandrick’s salary cap hit, however, was $5.28M.
  3. That’s because Smith’s pro-rated signing and restructure bonuses counted $2.28M against the team’s salary cap.

Essentially, the bulk of the Cowboys cash outlays to Scandrick came in previous years in the form of his original signing bonus and his restructures ($13.3M in total).

The primary point here is the “cash spent” metric doesn’t represent how much the Cowboys are spending on the team’s roster because it doesn’t reflect how much may have been paid in previous signing or restructure bonuses.

Scandrick, of course, isn’t the only player whose 2017 cash outlays don’t reflect the team’s financial investment in him. In fact, Tony Romo didn’t get paid a penny by the Cowboys in 2017. But he counted over $10M against the cap last year because the Cowboys had paid the man his cash in various signing bonuses and restructures in years past. The Cowboys won’t pay Romo a dollar in 2018 but will still be paying off their 2014 Tony Romo purchase in terms of the 2018 salary cap ($8.9M).

In fact, virtually every player who has received a signing bonus prior to 2017 and didn’t restructure their contract had cap number that was bigger than the cash they received in 2017.

Remember the final column in Schefter’s tweet, the percentage of the league’s salary cap spent by each team? Notice the distribution is pretty much your classic bell curve, with most around the middle, some above, some below and a couple of severe outliers? That’s because that’s exactly the distribution you would expect to see as teams go through the cycle of cash spent versus the salary cap each year.

Some years, a team will spend more cash than the salary cap; other years they’ll spend less. Sometimes, when the various contract scenarios align properly, a team ends up a severe outlier as the Cowboys did in 2017. It’s representative of exactly nothing and Cowboys fans shouldn’t be concerned. It’s absolutely not an indication the team has suddenly become cheap.

A look at 2016 cash payrolls by team shows the Cowboys ranked 10th:

Does this mean the Cowboys are still a free-wheeling, wildly spending team? Of course not; we all know they’ve grown more circumspect in their spending. It’s clear the team has made the strategic decision to move away from the “credit card” approach that enables spending today at the expense of salary cap hits tomorrow.

Thus, we haven’t seen a restructure of Tyron Crawford or Dez Bryant, moves that could free up salary cap space for 2018 (but would hamstring the team’s future salary cap flexibility). That strategic decision manifested itself with the Cowboys ranking dead last in cash outlays in 2017.

It’s indicative of a more long-term salary cap approach; not a team that’s suddenly become cheap.

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