Something smells rotten. As the Dallas Cowboys, led by EVP Stephen Jones, continue in their quest for salary cap space, they have reportedly asked DeMarcus Lawrence to take a pay cut. Quite reasonably he rebuffed them. Now that will undoubtedly be used as evidence he is not a team player and to potentially justify his release for those cap considerations. Arguments for why the team was forced to do so will also include how he has not performed up to the level of his contract. But if the organization was sincerely looking to get some money and cap space back from a player with a huge deal that has underperformed, they should have started with someone else. Namely, Ezekiel Elliott.
In terms of return on investment, Elliott’s is arguably the worst contract on their books. Among all rushers who had more than 100 attempts last season, his 4.2 yards per carry had him tied for 28th in that category. Despite that lack of effectiveness, he still was seventh in attempts. That is very disappointing for the running back playing on the biggest overall contact among his peers, with the second-highest yearly average salary and the most overall guarantees. (All contract details are per the Over the Cap website.)
While both Lawrence and Amari Cooper have bigger cap hits this year, Elliott still has a very large one at $18.22 million. Of that, $12.4 million is his guaranteed base salary, with the rest coming from his prorated bonus. This is the final season his base is guaranteed, which is why it is unfeasible to consider releasing him until after this year. But he could agree to give back some of that salary to help the team. That is exactly what the Cowboys were quite willing to ask of Lawrence.
Of course, they have zero leverage with Elliott, while making it clear that a release is a very viable option with Lawrence. This suggests the latter was more of a negotiating tactic to sway public opinion. It paints Lawrence as selfish and not a team player. That is a ridiculous but still successful myth that the NFL has created. Players are all disposable resources for teams and they have extremely short careers. The franchises are the selfish ones in asking them to give back money that was contractually negotiated. If a player is overpaid, the team is the one to blame. They are responsible for evaluating needs and projecting performance. The player can only put in work and come to play.
In Lawrence’s case, there is no evidence whatsoever that he has in any way shirked his responsibilities. Neither has Elliott. Still, it seems to make sense that he should be considered just as readily for a pay cut. And based on his actual value on the field, he should have been the first they approached. He has long been painted by the staff as a true team player, so it would just be logical to check with him. Further, running backs are much more replaceable than defensive ends. The effectiveness of backs is far more dependent on the blocking they have and the way they are utilized than talent. It has been shown repeatedly that teams are more able to overcome the loss of a star back than they can a stud pass rusher. Lawrence is that, even if his sack total is not what many fans want. His effectiveness extends far beyond that.
Should the team have approached Elliott about a cut, the proper response would have been the same as Lawrence’s. Many fans and media alike point to the millions the players in these situations still have, but that doesn’t make giving up other millions in any way smart. It’s a job, and few of the rest of us are going to take a pay cut to help our employer, especially employers making as much money as NFL teams. Loyalty and being a team player stops at the negotiating table. If a player is offered less than they can get on the open market, they would be irrational to take the lesser deal. The team is not going to show them any loyalty, as the Lawrence case demonstrates.
But the entire point of asking for a pay cut is to provide cover for the team as it makes decisions that don’t seem sensible from the stance of fielding a winning team. The possible release of Lawrence, like the even more likely one of Cooper, are all about the bottom line. What is even worse is that this is being driven by the salary cap for Dallas. The actual money that flows from the teams to the players is mostly determined by the CBA, with the cap a way of keeping the numbers in line with the agreement. There is also a minimum percentage of revenues paid to players that has to be met under the CBA, which is a little discussed thing. It exists because there are some owners who would go cheap and field less competitive teams just to have more money in their pockets.
That is a bit of a digression. The main point of this is to show how the request for Lawrence to take a pay cut is just theater for the media and the fans. It is being presented as justification for what now feels like an inevitable release. The truth is more likely that the team had decided they were going to get out of the contract, and are now using the media as a way to fool the public into thinking they had no choice because of the tyranny of the salary cap. It was always possible to manipulate things to be able to keep both Lawrence and Cooper, but the ownership has made the decision that they prefer younger, cheaper players rather than proven but expensive veterans. If it was truly about looking for someone who was willing to give back some dollars because they did not play up to their paycheck, they would have looked to Elliott. They didn’t, which gives the game away.