Sign Him Or Let Him Go?

Part of the annual offseason routine for every team is evaluating which players with expiring contracts should be signed to extensions, and which should be allowed to leave, either to another team or to retirement.

One of the hardest such cases to predict is that of Dallas punter Mat McBriar, whose contract expired at the end of the Cowboys' season … which expired earlier than most expected when Dallas missed the playoffs.

McBriar is 32 years old. That's getting up there for running backs, but for punters, it's middle-aged, at best. Houston's Matt Burk is the grand old man of NFL punters, at 43 years old. Five more — Detroit's Ben Graham (38), Washington's Sav Rocca (38), Cleveland's Brad Maynard (37), Oakland's Shane Lechler (35) and Buffalo's Brian Mooreman (35) are at least 35 years old. Six more, including McBriar, are on the north side of 30.

So age is not an issue. What is an issue is McBriar's health. The veteran — who, when healthy, is one of the NFL's elite punters — suffered a case of "drop foot" in his left (non-kicking) leg that cost him two games, including the season finale.

How the condition affects McBriar is different than it would a player at any other position. He doesn't have to run or jump, and he doesn't need the explosiveness to drive through an opposing ball carrier on a tackle. But it does affect his balance when he plants on his left foot, and keeps him upright when he follows through on his punts. As he and his teammates cleaned out their lockers after the season, McBriar admitted that he couldn't punt right now if he had to, that he had been "getting by" before giving way to Chris Jones.

McBriar acknowledged that the timing of the drop foot was poor; even at a position that doesn't require running, it likely will be a hard sell for McBriar to convince teams to sign him to a long-term deal, whether his intent would be to go elsewhere or to drive the salary terms up should he choose to stay with the Cowboys. But he also doesn't sound like someone who is driven by money or the desire to be the highest-paid player at his position (healthy or not, McBriar wasn't going to exceed the four-year, $16 million deal Lechler somehow got from the Raiders, nor the $3.8 million salary Lechler is due to make in 2012).

For the time being, McBriar is more concerned about getting healthy than he is about his next paycheck, and acknowledged that surgery to help accelerate the healing process is a possibility.

"I have got to talk to some people," he said. "That (surgery) maybe something I have to consider down the line. I thought I could manage it better, but it was just too inconsistent."

McBriar said his removal from the lineup for the season finale was a decision made by Dallas doctors and coaches, but one that he accepted as the right thing to do because of how his punting was affecting the team.

"I didn't want to be responsible for letting the guys down," McBriar said. "I didn't exactly volunteer (to go on the injured reserve list for the final game). It was a conversation and we all agreed it was the right thing to do.

"Anyone who saw me kick the last 10 weeks or so saw me struggle. I went from a guy who was helping to the team out to … going the other direction."

Entering free agency with a medical red flag by his name is not ideal, McBriar said, but again, his next contract is not his first priority.

"It's not the greatest timing, that's for sure," he said. "But my focus is on getting healthy. Nerves can take a long time. I'm just trying to get healthy, and once I'm healthy, we'll see what's what."

McBriar said he will back off from training and testing the leg for a while, in the hope that the rest will accelerate the regeneration of the nerve that caused the drop foot.

If he can get healthy, the Cowboys need to re-sign him. Considering the length of some punters' careers, McBriar should have a lot of healthy years left in front of him. His average of 43.8 yards per punt was the third-worst of his career; his net average of 36.1 was the second-lowest total he put up in his eight seasons in Dallas. Those numbers aren't awful, except to a punter like McBriar, who has set the bar higher than many of his counterparts can imagine.

Punters are a little like long snappers, in that their value often isn't appreciated until a team lacks a good one. If he can regain full health, Dallas can regain a legitimate weapon in the field position battle by re-signing McBriar.

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