It’s week two of the NFL season, and despite losing three starters and a key rotational player to injury in their first game, the Dallas Cowboys are still only looking inward to address the sudden roster holes. Despite having the fourth most cap space according to Over the Cap, the idea of using that to try and sign an outside free agent is still seen as distasteful.
As can be expected after a humiliating loss like the team suffered at the hand of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, there is quite a bit of grumbling and criticism floating around the media, both traditional and social.
While the Jones family can be incredibly stubborn in doing things their way, they do notice what is being said about them. Just like most humans, they don’t like it when the discussion is mostly negative. It has been very much so after the way the team did far too little during the offseason to prepare the roster for the regular season. Recently, Stephen Jones, who holds the main responsibility for handling the cap and contracts, made a statement about the strategy for using the cap. It perhaps didn’t accomplish what he wanted.
As is usual for him, he opened with one of his rote phrases. “At the end of the day” is basically saying that this all will work out in the end. This way of thinking is one thing that truly rankles fans of the team. It makes future years at least as important as the current one, and in context this statement seems to put more value on what the team wants to do later than what it needs to do now. The idea of moving the cap forward fits right in with another way of expressing things that he brought up earlier in the year, “dry powder.” The statement also reflects his idea of “pie” and how there is only so much to go around.
What is completely missing from his thinking is how the NFL is a win-now league. Planning for the future should always take a back seat to figuring out how to get to the ultimate prize now. His statement also communicates a desire to not have to restructure contracts to manipulate the cap to build the team. Yet every year, teams go into the year with little to no cap space and still manage to manufacture it by doing just that. That includes teams like the Los Angeles Rams, who used the technique to build the team that won the Super Bowl in February.
What is striking is that the Cowboys basically invented that. Jerry Jones was instrumental in creating the salary cap as well. He was notorious for his free spending during the championships of the 1990s. In essence, he came up with the idea of the cap to stop owners from doing what he had just done to create those winning rosters. It was also a way to keep the league from being dominated by the most wealthy franchises and forcing the other teams to spend more to keep up. While the cap is a completely artificial constraint, player contracts directly affect the bottom line for teams.
With all those teams now multibillion-dollar enterprises, it seems an oddly frugal way of thinking to worry about having to pay more. It also contradicts the way the league now sees the revenues only going up outside of aberrations like the COVID year when so much stadium revenue was lost across the board. At the root of putting the cap in place was Jerry’s desire to have something to control his own spendthrift ways.
Even more puzzling is that Dallas basically invented the whole idea of restructuring things to keep signing players. There was a time just a decade ago when media and the fans alike worried about how they were “kicking the can down the road” to have space for big contracts, including free agents. However, that can create problems with dead money caused by making a large part of compensation bonus money that could not be recouped if the player was released, traded away, or retired. That dead money came out of the cap in future years, which could force still more restructuring. The Cowboys also had a bad run in free agency when big dollar signings did not pay off for them. All that has apparently combined to put Stephen off on the whole idea. Now he is telling us he wants to avoid those cap problems entirely whenever possible.
Stephen’s remarks look suspiciously like a two-, three-, or even five-year plan. It is building for the future. The problem with that is teams never know how long the players they have will be able to perform. The Cowboys have already seen key players like Dak Prescott, Tyron Smith, and Michael Gallup missing time due to injuries, which are the most random event that can happen to any team. Sometimes careers are cut short, as we saw just a few years with Travis Frederick. He was on track for a HOF career when disease forced him into early retirement. The chances of a multiyear approach for roster building ever working out are just not good. The way you build a winning team is to focus on what you have to put on the field right now, not next year or the one after that.
But building a roster in the out years is exactly what Stephen is telling us he wants to do. He has been taking this approach for years. It has failed to pan out, yet he continues to plow ahead doing the same thing and expecting different results. There is a saying about that.
The Cowboys have a ton of problems this year, and to a great extent, they can be directly linked to this approach. They went cheap in relying on the draft, UDFAs, and players that had little experience while sticking to their bargain bin approach to free agency. What the team needs is a new way of looking at the cap and using it. The best way to do that is to hire a full time GM and give him or her the reins. Jerry and Stephen are not going to fire themselves to do that. The future looks like it is just going to be a repeat of the last several years, and that future is not likely to change as Jerry has made it crystal clear he is not selling the team, either. All we can do is get used to it or just walk away.