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The Dallas Cowboys in 2014

If you are a baseball fan, you may have realized that the Yankees aren’t exactly running out a murderer’s row of hitters on opening day.  This is a problem first identified by Joe Posnanski nearly two years ago.  In this post, I will try to apply such wisdom to the Dallas Cowboys, and their precarious financial position.

A lot of source info in this post comes courtesy of OverTheCap.com  First things first: the Dallas Cowboys are going to make money in 2014.  They aren’t going to lose money.  The mismanagement described in this post is purely cap related.

Age is undefeated. That’s not true for some players. It’s true for all players. –Posnanski

Reading that line in May 2011 changed by focus as a sports analyst, probably shaping a lot of the analysis I do today.  You cannot bet on very much in sports.  You can, however, bet on age.

The Dallas Cowboys under Jerry Jones have never really tested the “age is undefeated” mantra.  They’ve never fielded a particularly old roster.  They will these next two seasons, because its unavoidable for cap purposes.

The projected ages of the oldest players on the Cowboys for the 2014 season:

QB Tony Romo (34) The Cowboys quarterback is the oldest key player on the roster and also now enjoys the security of the longest contract.

Romo is not getting released by the Cowboys at any time in the next four seasons, so long as he can play the quarterback position adequately.  Only severe decline in his performance will have the Cowboys looking for an out.  It will be costly whenever the Cowboys move on.

In the context of the payroll, this is the equivalent of the A-Rod contract.  It’s not that Romo (or A-Rod) was undeserving of an extension of this maginitude, it’s that the Yankees and Cowboys waited until the last possible second to make the decision to extend, well after the market had determined the absurd cost of business.  Neither team could walk away under the assumption of anything short of a roster overhaul and multiple (read: consecutive) losing seasons, so the teams paid out.

A quick word on market value: the market determines the price of a player.  It does not determine a team’s financial situation at the time of the contract.  The Yankees did not overpay for Alex Rodriguez any more than the Cowboys did for Romo.  But the market also determined in A-Rod’s case that the risk of a declining, injury-stricken player was a cost of doing business.  In the Cowboys case, it determined that the stigma of continuing on with the teams best player — saddled with the expectations and failures of the recent, dysfunctional Cowboy teams — at the market value of $17.5 million/year, was the cost of doing business.  Sometimes, teams aren’t in a position to pay market value for a superstar.  Sometimes, they do anyway.

Both teams had the option to rebuild and let their best player play elsewhere.  That happens sometimes, albeit rarely: the Colts let Peyton Manning walk, for example.  It’s not easy.  But let the Yankees and Cowboys be the example of what happens to teams that don’t make the tough decision in time.  And the Colts to be the example of the one that does.

NT Jay Ratliff (33) Ratliff is already past the point where his presence on the roster makes any fiscal sense.  The Cowboys just switched defensive coordinators and systems.  Ratliff had long been the point-man in the middle of the Cowboys three man defensive line.  But he’s 32 this year, right around the age where DTs begin to decline.

Thing is with Ratliff though that he was so good in his prime from 2006-2009, that he simply hasn’t been the same player these last three seasons.  If you want to argue that the Cowboys senselessly hold onto legacy players, Ratliff is a great example because he’s not exactly a legendary Cowboys player or lock for the Ring of Honor.  He doesn’t play a premium defensive position: defensive tackles are incredibly important to the success or failure of a play, but they are also abundantly available.  The Cowboys can replace Jay Ratliff in the fifth round of a draft.

Hell, they drafted Ratliff in the 7th round in 2005.

OLB/DE Demarcus Ware (32) Ware is already in decline, but unless the Cowboys follow the Colts example and move on with Anthony Spencer instead of Ware (another tough decision to extend Robert Mathis and not Dwight Freeney, though a pittance compared to the Manning decision).  If the Cowboys do that, then 2013 might be Ware’s final year in Dallas.  This would make contractual sense.  It’s also unlikely to happen.

Ware does play the position on defense that you can feel good not bad about having a lot of dead money tied up in.  Ware may still have multiple good years left as a transcendental type talent, but in the division sit Kyle Shanahan and now Chip Kelly, and those guys are learning how to use option schemes to make life living hell for defensive ends.

The practical value of Ware going forward is that he’s the kind of player who you can call the best defensive player in the division, while he plays on the 25th rated defense because offenses know how to marginalize defensive studs like Ware.

TE Jason Witten (32) Witten is probably the one guy on this list I would say that you pay and keep, no matter how bad the cap situation gets.  He’s a hall of fame tight end who is taking full advantage of the fertile offensive environment he lives in.  Witten is not an ascending player, but his numbers seemingly get better each season, and he’son pace to blast through all of Tony Gonzalez’ tight end records.  And, if it’s even possible to be a better player than that, he’s versatile and a quality blocker.

Tight end salaries are very reasonable and Witten transcends being a tight end in most cases.  Consistently Tony Romo’s best season would be an understatement — Witten is the league’s best tight end.

An $8.4 million cap number in 2014 is manageable, but he’s the kind of player you can keep extending and giving bonuses to: he’s just the best bet on the roster to be a quality player at age 35.

G Nate Livings (32) Livings was a free agent signing prior to last season.  He’s on a reasonable contract and is still a good guard, but he’s an excellent example of the kind of quality role player who gets the axe/replaced by a rookie because his team is mismanaging the cap.   A $4.1 million cap number for a 32 year old guard is manageable if he can play, but the Cowboys can’t pay hardly ANYBODY a $4 million cap number because of their deadcap.

T Doug Free (30) Free is a good talent paying a premium position at a premium price — the Cowboys have never been the best at this gauging the market thing — but his level of play is inconsistent.  The Cowboys didn’t think they could replace him this season, but the fact that he’s like the only veteran on the team that they haven’t slashed the base salary of means that they think his days are numbered.

Also: Doug Free will have an $11 million cap number next year, so he’s playing out his last season in Dallas this year.  Theres a small chance might not make the roster this year, but the Cowboys would have to fall face first into his replacement at no cost for that to happen.

WR Miles Austin (30) This is the big one.  Austin restructured his deal to stay with the Cowboys this year, but underachieved expectations (slightly) in 2012.  Austin’s spot on the 2013 Cowboys will be determined exclusively by his play this season.  An $8 million cap number isn’t that bad for a receiver, even for a team in the Cowboys’ cap situation.  But Austin is going to be an extreme dead cap contributor on the day he is released, and this only gets worse the further the Cowboys go with Austin.  At this point, the Cowboys will be paying Austin like a starter one year longer than he is on the roster.

With that said, he’ll be back if he’s productive.  But that age in the box says 30, which is what Austin would be in 2014.  And wide receivers are typically in decline at age 29, so there’s no guarantee he bounces back this season.  Only that he’ll be paid like a Cowboys starter each of the next two seasons, no matter who he plays for in 2013.

The bigger issue may be how small the core of the Cowboys is beyond 2013.  There are six cornerstone players on the Cowboys who will be 28 or younger in 2014: RB Demarco Murray (final year of contract), WR Dez Bryant (final year of contract), LT Tyron Smith, LB Sean Lee (scheduled unrestricted free agent), CB Brandon Carr, and CB Morris Claiborne.  Add a draft class to that, and it’s not a team that would be described as talent void in the future.  The Cowboys haven’t drafted poorly, and their 2010 draft was quite good, by any standard.

However, the Cowboys are going to be stripped of their ability to use the franchise tag by cap restraints for the foreseeable future, and here’s the big issue: the team is committed to $147 million in salary for 2014.  That’s 24 million over the cap.  That doesn’t include LB Anthony Spencer, who the Cowboys may still extend here shortly.  And it doesn’t include salary cap space for 1/6 of that young core, LB Sean Lee, perhaps the most important part.

It’s not that the Cowboys can’t sign Sean Lee here, they absolutely can, but from this point forward, a rule of thumb is that for every rookie contract the Cowboys want to extend, they’re going to have to release a veteran contract plus one.  As the dead cap hits pile up, the inefficiency of the cap management of the Cowboys will begin to swell.  Right now, they are unable to fill holes with quality free agents.  In the near future, they’ll have to cut large veteran salary just to extend their own players.  Eventually, the deadcap rollover will be such an ingrained part of the Cowboys cap culture that they will come to a decision that a rebuild is necessary.  During the time leading up to that decision, teams that are managing the cap better right now will be surpassing the Cowboys’ “talent” on the field.

The draft may also be affected.  The Cowboys are going to be hit with a significant mitigating factor in their draft classes.  If the Cowboys continue to draft the best players available, there is a high percentage chance that players they draft will spend their prime years elsewhere after signing away in free agency.  So rather than draft the best player and load the roster with talent as they have done in the past, significant incentive may be present to use the draft to fill roster holes cheaply instead.  This is a different variety of mortgaging the future.

And while Romo, Witten, and probably Ware are going to see this rebuild through to the end, second tier veterans like Jay Ratliff, Miles  Austin, Nate Livings, and Doug Free are all likely entering their last years in Dallas, as their contracts will need to be trashed so the 2014 Cowboys can continue business as normal.  Can the Cowboys use the 2013 draft to pick a right tackle, a guard, a defensive tackle, and a no. 2 receiver?  Sure.  You can conceivably get all of those pieces in one year if you have a great draft.  But the Cowboys are already deficient at safety and linebacker, and are likely looking to the draft to become less deficient at those positions — positions a team in a better cap situation would have addressed in free agency.  By releasing the contracts of those four veterans, the Cowboys can free up about $8 million.  But they will also start the dead cap cycle, creating $23.8 million in deadcap, or about 19.3% of the cap dedicated purely to contract inefficiency.  Or in other words, a 19.3% competitive disadvantage.

And $8 million isn’t nearly enough to merely get under the cap.  The rest will have to be done through restructurings (pushing more dead money into future years) and use of the June 1 cap designation (pushing more dead money into future years).  It is already too late for the Cowboys to avoid starting this cycle: that decision would have been made before starting this offseason.  And although owner Jerry Jones hinted at possibly going that direction with his “window is closing” statements from before the 2012 season, they decided that 2013 will be the pinnacle year of this core of talent.

So how dire is the cap situation?  It’s probably not dire enough to cost them Sean Lee, although if the Cowboys don’t win in the next two years, you can easily see Dez Bryant — currently the most cost efficient player on the Cowboys — playing the prime years of his careers in Philadelphia or Washington, against the Cowboys instead of for time.  It’s probably not dire enough to cost them Romo or Ware, but if Jason Witten reaches a point in his career where he values getting paid over loyalty, the greatest TE in Cowboys history could finish his career as a New York Giant or Tampa Bay Buc.  And that’s just 2014.  By 2016, the Cowboys could be choosing between Brandon Carr (running a $12 million deadcap) and Morris Claiborne (no deadcap).  They could be choosing between Lee and members of this draft class.  They could be choosing between Tyron Smith and multiple members of the rest of the O-line.

Romo is the only one who is likely above the mess, because he’s the one — even at ages 35-37 — who can keep the Cowboys winning.  But his supporting cast will likely consist mainly of first through fourth year NFL players, because those are the players who fit the Cowboys salary structure the best.  But when Tony Romo signed his monster extension this week, I don’t think he could fathom the kind of scorn he will be receiving from his own fanbase this far in the future because he won’t have enough talent around him to break the string of mediocrity the Cowboys are already in.

By all means, the New York Yankees decided now was as good a time as any to rebuild their roster, to promote youth, and prepare the roster for it’s future free agency acquisitions.  The Cowboys in 2014 & 2015 do not have the option to go back over the luxury tax that the Yankees do.  In 2014, the salary cap is going to start dictating the Cowboys roster moves.  I will be able to sit here at my desk and predict who the Cowboys will keep and not keep, based purely off finances.  The football operations department will be largely limited in it’s ability to do anything.

Rebuilding is the only logical option for the 2014 Cowboys.  It just can’t start any sooner than next year.

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