Dallas Cowboys: Tough Choices for 2013

  • Shane Richardson
Romo, Tony4

Quarterback Tony Romo had more to do with the Cowboys 8 wins than their 8 losses (AP/Michael Keating)

The Dallas Cowboys entered 2012 with lofty expectations from their fanbase and sports pundits alike, much as they had entered 2011, 2010, 2009, etc. Each year, it seems the Cowboys enter the season buoyed by the expected deep playoff runs that never materialize. Are the fans expecting too much from an under talented team? The Cowboys have had the talent to succeed, but as was the case in previous years, the team fell well short of their projected finish this season. Heading into 2013, the franchise in Dallas will face tough questions on who they keep from their 2012 roster, who they select in the draft, and what free agents, if any, they bring in.

Per Todd Archer of ESPN Dallas, the Cowboys are hurting salary cap wise. They are $20 million over  the 2013 projected salary cap of $121 million, and they only have 44 players projected to be on the roster. Looking at their top 10 paid players, there are quite a few players who could provide some relief with renegotiation, while others should be targets for releasing depending on the amount of guaranteed money still owed.  The chart below breaks down each player’s salary in terms of base salary, bonuses, and cap hit (in millions). The contract information is pulled from http://www.spotrac.com.

Player Base Salary Bonuses Cap Hit
Brandon Carr $14.3M $2M $16.3M
Tony Romo $11.5M $5.7M $17.2M
Doug Free $7M $4.2M $11.2M
Miles Austin $6.7M $1.6M $8.3M
Jason Witten $5.5M $2.5M $8M
DeMarcus Ware $5.5M $6.7M $12.2M
Jay Ratliff $5M $2M $7M
Gerald Sensabaugh $3M $0.75M $3.75M
Dan Connor $3M $1.4M $4.4M
Marcus Spears $2M $0.7M $2.7M

Oft-criticized owner and general manager Jerry Jones does not have a whole lot of wiggle room in contract negotiations with his top paid players. Cornerback Brandon Carr, who did not play like the top paid cornerback in the

Cornerback Brandon Carr is the top paid quarterback in the NFL heading into 2013. (AP)

Cornerback Brandon Carr is the top paid cornerback in the NFL heading into 2013. (AP)

NFL, isn’t the teams biggest cap hit. Quarterback Tony Romo, who despite his misfires in key game situations, is still a top-10 NFL quarterback, but the Cowboys could generate some cap relief for 2013 by renegotiating his contract. The issue is that constantly renegotiating contracts to create cap relief in a current year simply “kicks the can down the road.”  At some point, teams who abuse this mechanism too often, they find themselves in dire straits when the debt comes due, because they basically have a salary cap time bomb ticking away. Teams who use this the most are ones who believe they are in “win now” mode, and for the Cowboys, it seems every year they believe they are close to winning it all. The reality is that the Cowboys have been futilely kicking this can.

The table below details how Pro Football Focus (PFF) graded out each player in their position and then displays where that player ranks in terms of salary cap hits for their positions. For example, Romo is the 11th highest salary cap hit among quarterbacks, but was graded out as the 7th highest rated quarterback by PFF. Whether you agree or disagree with how PFF grades players, they provide a valuable baseline for the purpose of this article.

Player PFF Rank Salary Cap Rank
Brandon Carr 57 1
Tony Romo 11 7
Doug Free 66 4
Miles Austin 29 10
Jason Witten 3 4
DeMarcus Ware 12 4
Jay Ratliff 46 12
Gerald Sensabaugh 73 22
Dan Connor 32 41
Marcus Spears 25 38

Taking a look at the Cowboys top ten salary cap hits, it becomes apparent that they have some pretty hefty rocks that are sinking the ship. Tackle Doug Free is the 4th highest paid tackle in the league, yet graded out as 66th out of 80 graded tackles, and that’s not even the worst news about Free. He signed a 4-year. $32 million contact with $17 million guaranteed, of which his signing bonus was $10.3 million. So if they were to cut Free, the remaining prorated cap hits over 2013 and 2014 of $4.175 million each would be accelerated against the 2013 cap, putting them in an even worse cap situation. The sites that suggest the Cowboys should cut Free are basing it on his performance, rather than looking at the cap ramifications. Their best bet may be to see if Carr would be willing to renegotiate part of his $14 million base salary into a signing bonus to spread that hefty salary across the remaining years on his contract, which already has $2 million each year weighted against it from the original signing bonus. Looking at the top 10 as a whole, it appears that the only realistic areas the Cowboys can hope to create relief is with Carr, Romo, and wide receiver Miles Austin, not counting a player they may outright cut in safety Gerald Sensabaugh.

Linebacker Anthony Spencer has likely played his way out of Dallas. (AP)

Linebacker Anthony Spencer has likely played his way out of Dallas. (AP)

The Cowboys have 18 free agents this year, and the biggest name on their keep list is linebacker Anthony Spencer. However, Cowboys fans should brace themselves for Spencer’s departure. Given their salary cap restraints and that PFF graded him out as the top 3-4 outside linebacker, it seems highly unlikely the team will be able to keep him. Other free agents they will likely keep include long snapper L.P. Ladouceur and restricted free agents in center Phil Costa and strong safety Danny McCray, who played well as a special teamer. As for other team’s free agents, the Cowboys will likely be looking for bargain players who can provide depth to their roster. In the draft, look for the Cowboys to go heavy on the defensive side of the ball, with perhaps a running back prospect thrown in to back up oft-injured running back DeMarco Murray. Drafting a nose tackle would allow them to push Ratliff to the outside and adding a safety would add depth to a position that was vulnerable after injuries.

If Jerry Jones wants answers to the Cowboys failures, he should ask himself the questions. (AP/Julio Cortez)

If Jerry Jones wants answers to the Cowboys failures, he should ask himself the questions. (AP/Julio Cortez)

There is no question the Cowboys have the talent on the field to make a deep playoff push; the question really comes down to play calling and execution. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan may be the wrong guy for the job, using aggressive packages instead of playing to the strengths of his unit. Head coach Jason Garrett is also under pressure to deliver a winning team to Jones, and 2013 will likely be the final season he gets the chance. However, Jones should be looking squarely in the mirror when it comes the team coming up short. In the last five NFL drafts, the Cowboys have drafted exactly two Pro Bowlers, corner back Michael Jenkins and now-Jet kicker Nick Folk. If Jones would appoint a general manager who has the time necessary to devote to analyzing college prospects, the Cowboys would likely have better results from their draft picks. Opening kickoff for the 2013, the Cowboys coaching staff is on the clock.

(I blogged last year about how the Dallas Cowboys and San Diego Chargers were the most underachieving teams of the decade. You can read about it here.)

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