Cowboys great DeMarcus Ware returned to AT&T Stadium Thursday night as a Denver Bronco – as a visitor – and hobnobbed with former teammates before the final exhibition game of the 2014 preseason. I was cool with it.
The aging rushman had 117 sacks in nine seasons as a Cowboy, but just 8.5 in the team’s last 24 games. Time and injuries had sapped Ware of his productivity. Nine years in the brutal NFL trenches had worn him down, and he was unlikely to stay healthy enough to return to his consistently dominant form. It was time to move on, and the Cowboys front office made the right call. I was cool with it.
Then the Cowboys defense took the field last night and, due in large part to an anemic pass rush, was carved up by the intrepid Brock Osweiler, who completed 70 percent of his passes in three quarters of work for 190 yards and 14.3 yards per attempt. And even though this was the final preseason game, and thus a meaningless match of backups against backups, it was more of the same that we’ve seen all preseason.
The offensive line that looked so dominant all throughout camp, spawning wildly premature features about the Next Great Wall of Dallas, didn’t play so hot on Saturday against Miami’s talented defensive front. The same big bodies who bullied the defense for weeks in Oxnard looked downright porous against actual NFL-caliber talent. At least we learned quarterback Tony Romo’s surgically repaired back can take a hit.
NFL games, on a very basic level, are won by pressuring the other team’s quarterback and protecting your own. This Cowboys team didn’t do a very good job of either during its dress rehearsal in Miami. And the uneasiness we took from Saturday’s game turned to panic last night. Seeing DeMarcus Ware smiling wide in his orange jersey on the visitors’ sideline, coupled with the tall, confident figure of Brock Osweiler standing calm and poised in a comfortable pocket, I thought: Oh no. What have the Cowboys done?
And upon reflection the answer of course is, the right thing. The smart thing. The ruthless thing. The thing they never did in years past and are still paying for in the form of dead cap money that limits their ability to build a perennial contender.
A good NFL general manager has to employ a balance of probability when making roster decisions. DeMarcus Ware may well notch 15 sacks this year, but he probably won’t. He’s a 32-year-old veteran of nine NFL seasons whose injury history the last two years includes problems with his hamstring, thigh, elbow, shoulder, back, and neck. Balance of probability – that age and injury history versus his $16 million cap figure in 2014. If DeMarcus Ware was still a strong probability to record 15 sacks, he’d still be a Cowboy. He most emphatically is not, so he was very rightly cut.
And nothing he does this year makes that the wrong decision. Last night I found myself very selfishly hoping DeMarcus Ware has a quiet year; this morning my mind is clearer, and I know that I would be genuinely happy for Ware if he broke the NFL sack record this season. Because, even then, cutting him was the right move by the Cowboys front office. In 1998, at the age of 36, Green Bay Packer defensive end Reggie White had 16 sacks. Ware’s up around that class. He could do that.
But he probably won’t. So even if he does, and even if the Cowboys defense is worse than it was last year, cutting Ware was the smart move. One can’t hope to be right 100 percent of the time when employing balance of probability, but one will typically hit more than miss. For an NFL GM evaluating talent against the cap, that’s good enough to build a winner.