If the Dallas Cowboys decide to move on from former All-Pro defensive end Demarcus Ware following the 2013 season, with a $16 million cap hit looming in 2014 and four years remaining on his contract, here’s what the press conference from Dallas GM Jerry Jones might sound like:
“This is a player and person I have immense respect for, and he meant a lot to this team and organization. Unfortunately he’s a casualty of the system. The timing is not good. We tried to find a way to make it work. In the end, we weren’t able to get to that point.”
Those exact words were uttered by Patriots head coach Bill Belichick following the release of safety Lawyer Milloy just days before the 2003 season opener. At the time the 29-year-old Milloy had been to four pro bowls and was a team captain three years running. He was a key defensive contributor to Belichick’s first Superbowl run in 2001 – a smart, hard-nosed player and natural leader who made his teammates better.
Exactly the kind of player a coach like Belichick could fall in love with. But a great NFL executive needs to be utterly ruthless in evaluating his existing talent and protecting his cap numbers. In the end, Belichick went with the math, Milloy went to the Bills, and the Patriots won the next two Superbowls.
Jerry’s tenure as Dallas general manager has been challenged by two major flaws: His cavalier treatment of the organization’s premium draft assets, which we chronicled here, and his propensity to sign existing players to huge contracts that they don’t live up to.
This year alone, Jerry is cutting checks to Bears defensive tackle Jay Ratliff, the retired Gerald Sensabaugh, and Bengals cornerback Terrance Newman. Check out the excellent deconstruction of the Cowboys cap problems by Grantland’s Bill Barnwell here.
Jerry’s insistence at this year’s trading deadline that the team wouldn’t trade premium draft assets for short-term help on a battered defensive line suggests the Dallas GM finally understands the long-term organizational value of the draft. That may hurt this season, but it bodes well for the team’s future.
The fact that long-time Cowboys defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, who is playing out of his mind in the midst of a pro bowl season, is also playing without a long-term contract extension suggests Jerry may have also turned a corner in evaluating his existing talent in conjunction with his cap restrictions.
Jerry’s doing the math. Hatcher is a difference maker and a leader who is outplaying his contract. He’s also on the wrong side of 30 and plays a physically demanding position better suited to young legs.
Strictly speaking, Hatcher represents a win for GM Jerry and the organization: Elite production on the cheap. In the past, Jerry would have “rewarded” such a player with a massive extension his aging body could never hope to play up to. Not now. Some other NFL GM will likely overpay for Hatcher this offseason, so his run is almost surely done in Dallas.
Why? Head coach Jason Garrett told us why after the release of Ratliff:
“Trust me, when we make decisions, we’re doing it on the information that’s in front of us and we’re trying to do it in the best interest of the Dallas Cowboys and that’s the way we’ll always make decisions.”
Belichick couldn’t have said it better. This is a franchise on the rise. The cap will be a problem for several years to come, due largely to GM Jerry’s decisions during the Wade Phillips era, but all signs are pointing to smart – and ruthless – personnel decisions moving forward.
Garrett makes Jerry better. How much better will be tested this offseason. The smart move for 2014 is to cut ties with both Hatcher and Ware, assuming they can’t be re-signed on the cheap. Hoard draft picks, identify and sign talent that will outplay a contract, and let some other GM dole out the rewards after this team has used them up.
Ruthless results in rings, and that’s all anybody cares about. The maturation of GM Jerry continues…