“There is no question we’re going to have our challenges with the salary cap.”
“We’re going to have to make some tough decisions. We’re not going to be able to keep everybody we’d like to keep. That’s part of it. The cap is a real thing.”
“The salary cap is real. Certainly, when you get to paying these quarterbacks, it’s a quarterback-driven league. Dak deserves every penny he gets. But once you get into that league with these $40 million quarterbacks then things have to give and take.”
All three of these quotes have been uttered at various times by Stephen Jones in the month since the Cowboys’ season ended. They all have the same sentiment in common: the salary cap is real, and it’s tying my hands. That’s why many expect at least one of the Cowboys’ top free agents-to-be - a list that includes Michael Gallup, Dalton Schultz, Randy Gregory, and Connor Williams - to end up elsewhere this summer. More than that, rumors persist that the team could cut either Amari Cooper or DeMarcus Lawrence, or both, in an effort to clear up space.
Because the salary cap is real, folks.
Generally, in my experience, when something is real you don’t have to keep reminding people of that fact. Nobody has ever insisted that the sun rose up in the sky this morning, or that said sky was blue. Those things are self-evident. The reality of the salary cap, on the other hand, is not.
In a literal sense, Stephen Jones is correct: there is, indeed, a salary cap that exists and is enforced. But the idea that the salary cap is a crushing force that restricts good teams from staying good and keeping their best players is, and always has been, a myth.
We know this because we’ve seen so many teams manipulate the cap for so long while remaining successful. How many times have the Saints been firmly in cap hell, only for them to restructure a few contracts and field another competitive team?
Both the Eagles and Rams were in similar situations just a year ago after taking on record-breaking amounts of dead money when they traded away their quarterbacks they once felt so strongly about. But the Eagles ended up signing 26 free agents (with eight of them becoming starters or key contributors) en route to a playoff appearance. The Rams, meanwhile, managed to extend edge rusher Leonard Floyd in addition to signing starters in DeSean Jackson and Odell Beckham Jr. while also trading for both Von Miller and Sony Michel. Now, they’re in the Super Bowl.
Even with all that dead money, neither team was stopped from both keeping and adding talent on their way to successful seasons. These teams aren’t the outlier, either, as NFL teams have become increasingly better at manipulating the cap in order to field competitive rosters. Perhaps the reason Jones keeps insisting the salary cap is real is because it’s becoming so obvious to everyone that it’s not and, instead, Jones is just not very good at getting around it.
This is also evident in the way Jones effectively blames the Cowboys’ current cap situation on Dak Prescott’s contract. Of course, he makes no mention of Ezekiel Elliott’s albatross of a contract, which is still the highest running back contract by total value and second-highest in average annual value. Jones also chose to ignore the fact that Prescott could have been signed for much less had Dallas not waited an additional year to get the deal done. But it’s easier to make excuses when your job isn’t on the line.
It’s also easy to see through the flimsy logic Jones is using. He refuses to be active in free agency or the trade market because he feels comfortable with the team’s ability to draft well. Jones’ logic, which he’s stated many times, is to avoid big free agency spending sprees so they can afford to keep their own guys.
That approach makes sense, but it hasn’t actually happened. Dallas let Byron Jones walk in free agency and immediately had a terrible defense. They made a similar decision with Chidobe Awuzie this past year, and now he’s playing in the Super Bowl after having a career year. Gallup is probably about to walk too, and Schultz, Williams, Gregory, and any one of the team’s three safeties could very well join him. Now we’re talking about adding Cooper and Lawrence to a list of high-profile players getting cut loose that already includes Dez Bryant, DeMarcus Ware, Terence Newman, Miles Austin, Flozell Adams, Leonard Davis, and, yes, even Jaylon Smith.
While the Cowboys are busy cutting some of their most productive players and looking for the NFL equivalent of Scott Hatteberg in free agency, other teams will continue handing out prorated bonuses to their current players in order to bolster their rosters and enjoy sustained success. In fact, six of the ten teams that spent the most in free agency this past year made the playoffs; three of them reached their respective conference championship games. That doesn’t mean you have to spend big in free agency to be good, but it does mean that spending big doesn’t preclude a team from having success.
This is especially true for an organization like the Cowboys, where money has never been a problem. Jerry’s hands have never cramped up from writing a check, after all. Someone should let his son know that. The most well run organizations in football employ clever cap specialists who help them navigate this beast and ensure their hands are never tied by it. It’s a clear model that’s proven successful, and it’s also proven the salary cap as a myth.
Unfortunately, the Cowboys don’t appear to be a very well run organization, and instead of employing a brilliant salary cap guru, they just have Stephen Jones handling it.