QUICK OUT: Cap Scratch Fever


Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys started this off season nearly $20 million dollars over the expected $121 million NFL Salary Cap.  Fans and pundits alike listened to weeks of speculation as to what moves the Cowboys would make to first and foremost get under the cap and then try to fill the obvious talent gaps.  Don’t forget they started the conversation $5 million dollars in the hole thanks to the penalty allotted to them by the NFL last season (loss of $10 million dollars in salary cap to be split between last season and this season a a result of the Miles Austin contract in 2010).

Lots of potential holes to fill and lots of predictions about who might stay and who might be cut.  Everyone expected the Cowboys to start with Tony Romo with him in the final year of his contract and due to eat up $16.8 million dollars in cap room this season.

Instead, the Cowboys head faked and reworked the contracts of first DeMarcus Ware and then in short order, Brandon Carr, Miles Austin, Ryan Cook, and Jason Witten.  Suddenly the Cowboys were not only under the cap but had cleared enough room to generate hopeful rumors among their fan base about a “big move” that must be in the works – they had accomplished all that with Romo’s contract still untouched.  For sure, Jerry “the deal maker” was up to something, right?

But, then the Cowboys’ brain trust we know and love showed its familiar face again.  Most people expected the Cowboys to part ways with Anthony Spencer – he would just be unaffordable.  Despite his most productive season in 2012 in an injury-riddled defense, tagging a player in 2 consecutive years gets mighty expensive under the current CBA.  The Cowboys clearly couldn’t afford the 120% price tag of his $8.8 million 2012 salary – roughly $10.6 million dollars and facing free agency again in 2014.  If the Cowboys were to try and tag him a third time, the cost jumps to 144 percent of the prior years’ salary.  Spencer would cost them $15.3 million if they tagged him a third time.  Not smart for a good player, but one not worth nearly that much.  But, the Cowboys were one of 8 teams using the franchise tag this year placing it once again on Anthony Spencer.  The incentive is now all on the Cowboys to work out a long-term deal.  It will cost them some serious guaranteed money to get that done.

Of course, there may be more to come on Spencer.  Those trying to give Jerry and company some credit speculate that they will try to work out a long-term deal that will spread the cap charge out over a number of years instead of having it all hit this year.  That’s by no means a lock.  What is Spencer’s incentive to do that?  He doesn’t really need to do anything and he collects his tag money.  His interest in signing a long-term deal is simply to get the guaranteed bonus money and a somewhat higher level of job security.  He’s guaranteed the cash this year now no matter what.  If he has a down year or is injured, the Cowboys can cut him loose in 2014 with no cap impact.  But, now they’ve tipped their hand and it will cost them to get a long term deal.  Is it a better move than letting him walk and having to replace him in free agency?  Maybe.  But, a free agent would have cost them much less this year and potentially in subsequent years depending on how this plays out.

Another possibility is that the Cowboys sign Spencer and then try and deal him to another team.  That could make sense as the Cowboys have a lot of needs, but is the demand really that high for Spencer outside of Valley Ranch?  They probably could not get much more than a third or fourth round pick and the new team would still need to work out a long-term deal with him.  And, they just raised the cost to any other team for Spencer.  A quick look at the free agent defensive ends (where Spencer is slated to play in the new 4-3 defense) and there are some quality players out there that would have been worth considering.

Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The other issue tagging Spencer creates is now the team is right back over the cap.  That forces them to re-do both Doug Free’s contract and Tony Romo’s contract now.  They need to get below the cap and save room for their draft picks too.  Once again, most of the leverage is on the player’s side.  I’m beginning to wonder if Jerry Jones is really as good of a negotiator as people think – or has he just been lucky?

Clearly, they have room to maneuver still and will get where they need to be this year.  But, this over utilized strategy is one of desperation and is crisis management by definition.   Don’t worry about the future, burn the furniture!!  Every one of these deals they have reworked has a consequence in subsequent years.  The money doesn’t go away, it just gets converted to a bonus increasing that player’s “cap cost” in later years.  If the player gets cut, the guaranteed money still counts against the cap.  It’s known as “dead money” and the Cowboys are already carrying nearly $3 million dollars of it in this years cap.  The total potential “dead money” on the current roster (guaranteed money) is a staggering $142.5 million today – before Romo, Free, and potentially Ratliff’s contracts are reworked.  We’re going to need a separate “debt clock” for the Cowboys soon.

Where Romo is concerned, let’s not lose sight of the fact that the Cowboys have gone to the “Bank of Romo” several times already.  The Cowboys let Romo play in the final year of his contract once before in 2007.  They signed him during the season that year to a 6 year contract valued originally at $67.5 million dollars including an $11.5 million signing bonus.  They then came back and restructured his contract in 2008, 2009, and again in 2011.  His last deal included back loaded voidable years in 2014, 2015, and 2016 if he were still with the team in 2013 (which he obviously voided).  Each time they went back, they converted more base salary to bonus.  Now, they want to kick that can down the road again this time signing him to an extension so they can again split the total over multiple years.  It’s okay to do once in a while when it is absolutely necessary, but the Cowboys are repeatedly mortgaging their future on a team that to date hasn’t been able to finish above .500.

Brandon Carr’s contract is another example of lack of foresight.  They just signed him last year to a 5-year, $50 million dollar contract.  One year later, they slap themselves on the back for handing over more guaranteed cash to a guy that got $26.5 million guaranteed already.  Shouldn’t they have been able to have the foresight to look ahead to their 2013 and 2014 contracts and worked out a deal that would at least “work” for a couple of years?  I’m not an NFL general manager by any means, but I just don’t see other teams doing this on such a regular basis.

It’s been an eventful off season so far and clearly we’re not done yet.  But, instead of a sense of excitement, I am filled with dread for what head-scratching move Jerry is going to make next.  If a man who can’t swim falls in the ocean, he can flail around mightily, but it ain’t swimming and he’s eventually going to drown.  Jerry is flailing.  That provides us some entertainment value, I guess, but I’m not yet convinced it will result in a winning football team now or in the future.  Maybe Jerry and his boy Stephen are idiot savants…  They appear to have the first part down cold.  Go Cowboys!