Project Rebuild: The Dallas Cowboys

building collapse

In this series, we here at Dubsism will investigate troubled franchises and assume the role of general manager in order to return these franchises to past glory. In today’s installment, J-Dub will tackle the challenges facing the Dallas Cowboys

For purposes of full disclosure, I am a Philadelphia Eagles fan, and the fact that the Cowboys have slid into such a dismal state brings joy to my heart. Jerry Jones has taken the luster off one of the NFL’s flagship franchises. While he has made them an economic juggernaut, that hasn’t’ translated to success on the field, which is really the point.

So, why would a guy who has been an Eagles fan all the way back to the Roman Gabriel days want to offer a plan to rebuild the hated Dallas Cowboys? It is because I happen to know all seven Cowboys fans who aren’t sub-literate mouth-breathers, and part of me feels a bit sorry for them.  They are the seven people who honestly don’t deserve to watch their team be to the NFL what the Muppets’ Swedish Chef is to hauté cuisine.  In fact, one of them is a fellow Sports Blog Movement member who also did a very good piece on this subject. 

The Problems:

Jerry Jones as the De Facto General Manager:

jerry jones nosepick

Jerry Jones has a God-given talent for making money. The man could piss on a fire hydrant and turn it into solid gold. His same approach to building a winning football team simply produces a lot of stinky fire hydrants. There’s no arguing with close to two decades of mediocrity as an indictment of his abilities to construct a winning football team. It hasn’t helped matters that he has let his idiot son Stephen, whose sole purpose was to manage the salary cap,  get the Cowboys into a situation where they face some serious personnel challenges and are going to be in the neighborhood of $23 million over that cap. You need to keep that salary cap issue in mind, especially as to how it forces many of the decisions which need to be made.

The Offensive Line:

The Cowboy front five is the biggest personnel train wreck they face. With the sole exception of Tyron Smith, the Dallas offensive line isn’t worth it’s weight in Spam.  However, this is also where the Cowboys would get the most bang for their problem-solving dollar; shoring up the line helps with many other problems. Luckily, the upcoming draft is heavy on offensive line talent, and there will be options in the free-agent market. but the Cowboys have to clear some salary cap space first. 

The Lack of an Effective Running Game:

Bad news for Cowboys’ fans. As he was reading this blog, Demarco Murray blew a hamstring…again. To be fair, Dallas does a terrible job of protecting their runners, but Murray is also made of glass. As far as running backs are concerned, there’s nobody on the Cowboy roster right now worthy of being considered a long-term solution.

The Misperceptions of Tony Romo:

1) That everything wrong in Dallas is Tony Romo’s fault

tony romo cologne

Cowboy fans have this bizarre love/hate relationship with Romo. They chant “Romo sucks” while wearing his jersey. They will in the span of two games tell you that Romo is the greatest play-maker since Troy Aikman, then demand he be chopped up for hot dog meat. Love and/or hate him, Cowboys’ fans need to realize they are stuck with Romo.

2) That the Cowboys can trade Romo

The funny thing about football fans is when they consider trade possibilities, they never seem to understand deals from the recipient’s point of view. Anybody who thinks Tony Romo is trade-bait is missing some crucial points, not the least of which that outside of draft day, you can count the number of trades that occur in the NFL on the fingers of one hand.  Particular to Romo, his contract situation and cap number makes trading him nearly impossible. I’ll explain that in detail later.

The Salary Cap:

This is really the crippling factor when it comes to dealing with any of the aforementioned problems, with the exception of Jerry Jones.  Also as stated earlier, the Cowboys look to be somewhere around $23 million over the cap. Without solving that problem, no other free-agent moves are possible, and this team can’t rebuild strictly through the draft.

The Solution: 

The General Manager:

Obviously, none of this ever happens with Jerry Jones continuing to function as the general manager.  That leaves us with the working assumption that using the fire department’s Jaws of Life to pry his wrinkled, spotted ass from the captain’s chair. Assuming that to be true, the first thing that happens is Stephen Jones is banned from ever having anything to do with the team again, unless he is willing to accept a position in custodial services.

To be fair, Jones has been given a bit of bad rap as a player personnel decision-maker; the Cowboys have always managed to come up with some pretty solid on-the-field talent. But when it comes to the decisions Jones has made in terms of his coaching staff, there is no such thing as a criticism that could be too harsh.

That being said, the real issue that needs to be addressed in this case is the salary cap. Without a solution to that, the ability to address any other problem remains as limited as Jason Garrett’s career options without Jerry Jones.

The Salary Cap:

To understand what effects the NFL Salary Cap has on player personnel decisions, you have to understand it is far more than a simple limit of player payroll. It is actually a twisted combination of Keynesian accounting nobody understands, and Robin Williams comedy that isn’t funny. Listening to somebody explain it to you is like having Mrs. Doubtfire as your ninth-grade algebra teacher.  Even if you learned something, you were still creeped out buy a big, hairy drag queen.

In any event, the point isn’t that my junior high years were dark and twisted, it’s that the NFL salary cap is a convoluted, complex formula which even the biggest eggheads at NASA don’t really understand. Despite that, there are some easy-to-grasp facts in play with the Cowboys’ situation.

FACT: The NFL salary cap for 2013 is going to be right around $121 million, and the Cowboys are going to be roughly $23 million over that.

FACT: There’s only two ways to deal with salary cap problems: cut players or restructure deals, and there are provision under which cutting/trading players doesn’t help reduce the cap numbers.

FACT: The cowboys have over $92 million in salary cap liabilities wrapped up in 10 players, which is a major part of the problem.

FACT: The Cowboys have another 20 players who are set to receive at least $1 million in salary in 2013, which leave another 20 who also need to be paid, and there’s only $10 million in cap room left.

Having said that, let’s look at some options the Cowboys may or may not have.

Looking at a list of Cowboy salaries, there are four players who each account for at least $10 million against the salary cap; quarterback Tony Romo, cornerback Brandon Carr, linebacker DeMarcus Ware, and offensive lineman Doug Free.

Forget that Jerry Jones looks at Tony Romo and sees Troy Aikman,  Forget whatever you may think of Romo as a quarterback. The nature of Romo’s back-loaded contract means he has a $17 million cap number in 2013 and 2014 is his walk year. That makes him radioactive to any other team in terms of a trade.  The Cowboys are stuck with that contract, and the only way they can avoid that crippling cap hit is to restructure his deal.

The same situation applies to Brandon Carr. The Cowboys can lower his 2013 cap number by $10 million dollars by restructuring his back-loaded $14.3 million salary

DeMarcus Ware isn’t going anywhere either, because the Cowboys are going to do what they’ve done before with him.  A big chunk of Ware’s salary will be converted into a bonus in a restructured deal design to lower his $12.2 million cap figure.  It will be tricky to do it because they’ve done this shell game before, but the Cowboys don’t really have a choice.

This means there is almost no choice but to set Doug Free free. First and foremost, he deserves to be released; he’s been making All-Pro money for delivering All-Upchuck performances. Ditching him also makes cap sense because he is set to count $11.175 million against the cap, but $7 million is non-guaranteed base salary, which means that if Dallas cuts him, that $7 million suddenly becomes a full third of the cap liabilities they need to dump before the new league calendar year begins.

While some aggressive restructuring and by releasing Doug Free, it is possible the Cowboys could get under the cap in 2013 with just these moves alone. But if they expect to sign anybody, or keep some of their free-agents, they are going to have to clear even more space under the cap.

That’s brings us to the next salary band, the ten guys between $3 and $10 million. This is where the Cowboys really got themselves in trouble with the NFL in an uncapped year in 2010 leading up to the lockout.

If you recall…the Cowboys and Redskins were both penalized a combined $46 million in salary cap space after they spent freely during the uncapped NFL year in 2010, which also happened to be the final season of the league’s old collective bargaining agreement.  This gets complicated, so let me start with a time line of events, because this was four years in the making.

  • 2008:  Owners agree to opt out of the collective bargaining agreement and agree play the 2010 without a salary cap.
  • 2010: The Redskins spend $178.2 million on salary;  The Cowboys spend $166.5 million.
  • 2011: The NFL brokers a new collective bargaining agreement with the player’s union (NFLPA), which just so happens to include a “secret” provision where the NFLPA agrees to a punishment for the Cowboys and Redskins in order to avoid a league-wide reduction of the salary cap number.
  • 2012: The NFL slaps the Redskins with a $36 million salary cap reduction and similarly hits the Cowboys for $10 million, citing “competitive balance” concerns over the amount of money the teams spent in 2010.

Those bullet points don’t really do justice to the double-ended screw job Goodell laid out for everybody. Let’s walk through it in detail, and as we do, don’t forget that there was no salary cap in 2010, which meant there was no limit as to what team’s spent on salary.

In other words, Washington and Dallas are being punished now for “breaking” a rule that didn’t exist at the time.  They took advantage of a situation not of their creation by front-loading player contracts (paying the bulk of money in the uncapped year in exchange for paying less in later years which would be capped).

Wide receiver Miles Austin is the poster child for these sort of deals because it’s tied mostly to base salaries and not bonuses. It’s one of the contracts that got Dallas in trouble with the NFL during the uncapped year in 2010, because they dumped a lot of the guaranteed money into the uncapped year.  Despite that, the Cowboys can shed another $8.372 million in cap room by cutting the oft-injured receiver. 

Besides Austin, there’s a bunch of guys in this price range I’m cutting for cap reasons. I can hear the gasps already:

  • Tight end Jason Witten – counts $8 million against the cap
  • Nose tackle Jay Ratliff – counts $7 million against the cap
  • Linebacker Dan Connor - counts $4.35 million against the cap
  • Safety Gerald Sensabaugh - counts $3.8 million against the cap
  • Makenzy Bernadeau -counts $3 million against the cap

These are all good players (except for Bernadeau) but the Cowboys need to shed cap room desperately, because this team is going to be really old really soon. Don’t even start crying to me about Witten; there’s a world full of tight ends out there at a far-more reasonable salary.

Down the list, there’s more savings opportunities:

  • Defensive tackle Marcus Spears – counts $2.7 million against the cap
  • Defensive end Jason Hatcher – counts $2.6 million against the cap
  • Quarterback Kyle Orton* – counts $2.3 million against the cap
  • Fullback Lawrence Vickers – counts $1.3 million against the cap
  • Center Ryan Cook – counts $1.25 million against the cap

*I am looking to trade Orton, not release him, The NFL needs quarterback, and his numbers both under the  cap and as a starter work just fine.  Orton is the quarterback to trade, not Romo.

The Plan:

Now that the short-term salary cap issues have been addressed, there’s a long-term component. Obviously, the Cowboys need to end their love-affair with the back-loaded deal, at least until they get out from under some of the heavy future liabilities they have, such as Romo, Brandon Carr, and eventually what they will do with offensive tackle Tyron Smith. There’s also a component staked to trimming the mid-range contracts that are going to mushroom in terms of cap liabilities over the next few years, such as that of guard Nate Livings, whose cap number grows from $2.4 million this year to $3.4 million in 2014.

The second part of the plan is a dose of self-actualization for Cowboys’ fans. Like it or not, Tony Romo is your quarterback. It’s a fact, and it’s going to be such for at least four more years, barring a career-ending injury. God help me, I can see this Salvation Army-like campaign springing up around Dallas taking up a collection to pay the bounty for somebody to take out Romo.  Frankly, they would be better served to spend that money on an offensive line, so the Romo isn’t always having to bail out the Cowboy offense from a never-ending series of third-and-long  plays.

tony romo salvation army

The salary cap makes the Cowboys relationship with Romo is akin to a married couple who simply can’t afford the divorce and they don’t have the stones to kill each other.  Not to mention, Jerry Jones is that father who thinks his son-in-law is the greatest thing since discovering that oil well in his back yard, no matter how many times he bitch-slaps his daughter.

Speaking of Jerry Jones, we all know none of this will ever happen as long as he is running the Cowboys. And for that, I don’t care how many more gallons of children’s blood he drinks, I hope Jerry Jones lives forever.

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3 responses

  1. Feeling sorry for Cowboys fans? You’re getting soft in your old age, brother.

    And I want to be able to piss on a fire hydrant and have that hydrant smell like something other than stale bourbon.

    Look, O-lines aren’t fixed overnight, even if a team owner is a multi-trillionaire. Maybe it’s time for Tony Romo to look to play elsewhere… for his own sake.

    1. While it is true that O-lines can’t be fixed overnight, this year’s class in the draft and in free agency is the perfect opportunity to make massive improvements in a hurry.

      And like I said, Romo’s contract and $17 million cap number in 2013 makes him untouchable to other teams.

  2. The thing that sticks out to me the most here is the ball seems to really be in the players’ court. It seems to me like they have management in a vice grip, and there’s just simply no way that Jerry or his idiot son can work their way out of it.

    I do understand the point about Romo. That offensive line is abysmal, and if they wanted to rebuild from scratch, building an offensive line that can work together well may take so long Romo could be at the tail end of his career by the time that happens.

    Nobody is going to sign or trade for Romo not just because of that $17 million cap number, but also because a lot of that mystique that surrounds Tony Romo (I feel gay even typing that) is the fact that he came out of nowhere that first year AS the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, which is this sort of mystical job in the NFL. If Tony Romo isn’t in a Dallas Cowboys uniform, his marketability drops substantially. Put him in an Oakland Raiders unifrom and we may never hear about him again, and other teams and their management are well aware of this.

    Which leads me to another point…although Al Davis’ death is recent at the moment, the Raiders haven’t turned into an AFC juggernaut in his abscence. The same is the case for the Cowpokes. If Jerry happens to fall through the hole in his liver, it’s not like his abscense is going to immediately cause the Cowboys to make the playoffs.

    I have more on this, but damn…Kyle Orton is still alive? Holy Lord…

    Meehan

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