Amari Cooper, Blake Jarwin, Ito Smith, Greg Zuerlein, Reggie Robinson, and now La’el Collins. The list of players the Cowboys have cut (or traded) for extra cap room continue to grow. However, the list of players signed in the wake of these roster moves remains stagnant.
And as a result, the Dallas Cowboys are sitting favorably at $29.6 million under the cap, the seventh most room in the NFL. The shift from $21 million over the cap to $30 million over bring up the question, is it better to have more cap space if you aren’t going to use it? It might sound like an obvious question but there are countless teams that prepare for the future by freeing up cap space in the short term.
Does such a strategy have any merit?
Saving extra cap space rarely works out
While Stephen Jones was previously terrified of being over the cap, he should be equally terrified of being under it. Because good teams inevitably pay good players. And outside of a few exceptions, there is no benefit of being in a favorable cap situation going into the season.
There have been 106 teams since 2011 that entered the season $10 million or more over the cap. Of those teams, only 36% finished with a record over .500. The average win percentage of those 106 teams was 44%. Contrast this with teams that end the offseason with less than $10 million in cap space, where 49.5% end with a record above .500 and finish with an average win percentage of 52%.
While an 8% swing in win percentage isn’t drastic, the relationship between less money in cap space and more success is even stronger at the end of the spectrum. So, what if the Cowboys were to only burn $9 million, and walk into the season with $20 million in cap space?
Since 2011, there have been 48 teams to walk into the season with more than $20 million in cap, including the Cowboys twice. These teams average a 40%-win percentage and 67% finished at-or-below .500. The two seasons the Cowboys had more than $20 million in cap room led to an 8-8 year in 2011 and a 6-10 finish in 2020.
Okay, so more cap space is worse. This shouldn’t come as a massive surprise. A cheaper roster is presumably going to be weaker than a high-priced team.
But these teams don’t just perform worse because they have a weaker roster, they have a strong tendency to disappoint as well. In fact, 78.7% of teams that walk into the season with $10 million or more in cap room finish less than .500 against the spread over the season. That would suggest if Dallas doesn’t start spending money there is only a 21.3% chance they exceed Vegas’ expectations in 2022.
But another argument for the Cowboys to retain a sizable portion of the cap room relates to their 2023 outlook, specifically in recruiting one former-New Orleans Saints head coach. Is retaining cap room for the future a good idea?
Well, not really. The 106 teams that save more than $10 million in cap space increase their win percentage by .8% on average (the equivalent of .1 wins) in the year after they save the money. Meaning that even if the Cowboys tuck money away for 2023, there is no guarantee the team will be better one and a half years from now.
In fact, 48 out of the 106 teams regressed the year after they walked into the season with a favorable cap situation. From 2011 to 2020, it was equally common for a team to decline by four or more wins the year after saving more than $10 million as it was for them to improve by the same amount.
Now there are two exceptions when entering the season with a decent amount of cap space is favorable (or at least acceptable):
- When the starting quarterback is on a rookie contract. Teams such as the Chargers, Eagles, Patriots, Texans, and Jets all had excessive cap room in 2021 since they weren’t spending a lot on the QB position.
- If the rest of the team is young enough and still on rookie contracts, thus canceling out the price of the quarterback.
Dallas is clearly not in situation one. During the final year of Dak Prescott’s rookie contract, they were eating a $10.3 million dead cap hit from previous disappointing contracts. It is best to take advantage of a rookie QB contract and spend big while you can. Using those four years to just eat the other bad contracts Dallas agreed to is about as bad as it gets. Another disappointing era in Cowboys’ history.
But maybe the second statement applies to Dallas, right? They have several young defenders and a young receiver, so maybe the rest of their team is just cheap. This is also not the case. While Dallas doesn’t have an old team, their average age of 26.2 years old in 2021 was the 17th lowest in the NFL. They were essentially middle of the road by age.
So, if you are keeping track, walking into the offseason with room to move in the salary cap isn’t advisable because it doesn’t help in the short term, it consistently leads to a disappointing season, and it doesn’t noticeably help in the long term. And the two scenarios where such a move is acceptable doesn’t apply to Dallas.
Jerry and Stephen Jones, what are you doing? Cowboys fans didn’t expect much from the front office but the disappointment seems to have hit an all-time high. And if the situation doesn’t change and Dallas walks into 2022 with a lot of cap space, there is reason to be upset because more cap money provides zero noticeable benefit.