The Dallas Cowboys would be foolish to allot Calvin Johnson-type cap space to free agent wide receiver Dez Bryant. Bryant isn’t worth it. For that matter, neither is Johnson. For my money Bryant is the best receiver in the NFL, but he isn’t worth “market value” because the market was set by two desperate franchises making poor personnel decisions for the wrong reasons.
The high end of the wide receiver market was first set in 2011 by the Arizona Cardinals when they wildly overpaid Larry Fitzgerald. The team’s top pass catcher signed a 7-year, $113 million deal. At the time, an average of $16.1 million per season was unheard of for a receiver.
But the Cardinals were a franchise in decline. In 2008 they lost the Super Bowl, after 2009 they lost All Pro quarterback Kurt Warner to retirement, and in 2010 they lost 11 games and all semblance of relevance.
Leading up to the 2011 season, Arizona ownership was conscious of its well-earned public reputation for apathy toward winning. Al Davis’s Raiders: “Just win, baby.” Bill Bidwell’s Cardinals: “Just field a team, baby, and pocket millions in revenue sharing while providing jobs for my incompetent progeny.”
The Cardinals’ brass recognized fans was near revolt after decades of futility, coming so close to a Lombardi Trophy, then returning to the all too familiar furnishings of the NFC West cellar. So they offered Fitzgerald silly money to show they were committed to retaining the team’s top-end home grown talent.
In doing so, they electrified the fan base and duped local media. With TV and talk radio heaping praise on the organization, the Bidwells could get back to the family business of not caring whether the team won or lost. True to form, the team won 13 games over the next two seasons. That ridiculous misappropriation of cap space would have remained an outlier, dismissed as a mistake and irrelevant to present-day contract talks, if Johnson hadn’t become a free agent the next season.
The Detroit Lions were an even worse franchise than the Cardinals at the time, still groggy from seven years of GM Matt Millen making personnel decisions and without a playoff win since 1991. As a generational talent on a team with little else to excite its fan base, Johnson demanded to be the highest-paid wide receiver in football to stay in Detroit.
Eager to show fans they were committed to keeping what little elite talent they drafted, the Lions complied. Now there were two NFL receivers earning an average of over $16 million per season – Johnson at $16.2 million and Fitzgerald at $16.1 million.
Thus the market for elite receivers was set. It was set by desperate franchises with losing traditions that span decades. It was set by teams concerned more with the fickle, short-term perceptions of their fan bases than with fielding consistently competitive teams.
Years later reality sets in. Fitzgerald was to count more than $23 million against the 2015 cap, and recent reports are that he’ll take a pay cut to stay in the desert. Even he recognizes he was overpaid. Fitzgerald’s average line in the four seasons since blowing up the market: 15 games, 74 receptions, 987 yards, six touchdowns. Brandon LaFell notched a similar line as the No. 3 option in New England, working on a 3-year, $9 million deal he signed in 2014.
Johnson turns 30 this season and his contract still carries over $20 million in dead money. Johnson missed four games due to injury in his first six years in the league. He’s missed five games in the last two seasons. Each season takes its toll, and the circle of life for an NFL player has a notoriously small radius. Johnson will count more than $20 million against the cap in each of the next three seasons. His time for a pay cut or release will come, and when it does it’s going to hurt the team that made such a short-sighted investment in him.
Both Detroit and Arizona made the playoffs in 2014, but the irony is their success had little to do with their high-priced receivers. Detroit’s offense ranked 22nd in points scored and Arizona ranked 24th. Each team fielded a Top 5 scoring defense that propelled them to Wild Card berths. Each exited the 2014 postseason one-and-done. Each faces big cap questions in 2015.
Don’t blame the Cowboys if Bryant doesn’t finish his career in Dallas. Instead, praise them for their foresight, and damn the morons in Arizona and Detroit for hysterically goosing the market.