Did Cowboys Adhere To Offseason Guidebook?

IRVING - At the beginning of spring, we composed notes making up 'Your 20-Step Cowboys Free-Agency Guidebook.' Now it's time to grade Dallas on its ability, step-by-step, to adhere to it:

We begin "Your 20-Step Dallas Cowboys Free-Agency Guidebook'' with the way we conceived it in March ... and the way Dallas has handled its business from there:

1. Hey, I thought the Cowboys were in Cap Hell?

Right, and if they are what is the point of a Cowboys Free-Agency Guidebook? As astute Cowboys fans have come to realize yet again this year, there is no such thing as "Cap Hell.'' There are limitations, rules and budgets. Then there are more restrictions and limitations and tighter budgets that come with stupid spending. And Dallas has experienced every bit of that. But "hell" is something that is inescapable. And being under the $133-million cap by the March 11 deadline (even though a few days before that Dallas was $20 million over)? It's as easy as four strokes of a ballpoint pen.

ADHERENCE GRADE: A. They got under the $133 mil! More than that, as of June 1, they wre under by about $10 mil! It's a Cap Hell Miracle!

2. What moves did Dallas make to get under?

The Cowboys simply activated pre-existing clauses in the contracts of Tony Romo, Sean Lee and Orlando Scandrick, and then released Phil Costa. (More room was gained by an undo/redo of Mackenzie Bernardeau's contract.) None of the three players who were "restructured'' made a sacrifice or was paid more, and none of their contracts were extended beyond their existing amount of years.
ADHERENCE GRADE: B. Lee's injury points out the landmines in signing people early. But ... such is football.


3. Isn't there danger in playing the credit-card game?

Theoretically, yes. But Lee and Scandrick are still in their 20s and therefore giving them guaranteed money instead of bonus money comes with little risk.

ADHERENCE GRADE: A. We stand by this. As football-tragic as Lee's knee is, he'll be back in 2015. hopefully earning his paycheck.

4. Romo isn't in his 20s. Aren't the Cowboys overcommitted there?

Won't they have to pay the piper? Oh, and PS: Romo sucks, right?

It is difficult for Romo haters to grasp this, but dealing with quarterbacks under this CBA means they are different. Their talents are different, their market value is different and their availability is different. That's the way it is in Baltimore and New Orleans and Pittsburgh and in every NFL city where management views their veteran quarterback as "the big ticket," as Cowboys owner Jerry Jones recently called Romo.

They are paid differently. They are dealt-with differently. They are "big tickets.'' (Why did the Niners just give Kaepernick $61 mil guaranteed before they needed to? "Different.'')

This part of the NFL is just like high school: back then, they got the cheerleaders. Now, they get 20 percent of your cap.

Oh, AND the cheerleaders.

ADHERENCE GRADE: A. Oh, they adhered. So much so that they passed on Johnny Manziel. Which I view as a mistake. Read on.


5. Is there a cap-friendly solution at QB? You bet. Draft Romo's potential heir. Johnny Manziel in the first round, Aaron Murray in the fourth round, Garrett Gilbert in the seventh round. Whomever. Turn over every stone, this year and every year. Find that gem -- as Seattle was so lucky to do two years ago with Russell Wilson in the third round -- and you can eventually move on seamlessly from his highly-paid predecessor. The Cowboys can someday escape Romo's cap impact (with an eventual release) by replacing him with a quarterback who comes at such an affordable price that the two dollar figures balance each other out.

It's easier said than done. But that is the cap-friendly solution and it must be found.

ADHERENCE GRADE: F. The answer sat there at No. 16. And because he's "too Elvis,'' the Cowboys passed. ... knowing damn full-well that in the next few years they'll NEED an Elvis and one might not ever be there.

6. Why don't you just trade Romo for Manziel, like the newspaper says?

Why don't you quit celebrating April Fools' Day in the wrong month?

That fantasy concept would've caused Dallas to take a $38 million kick in the salary-cap crotch. Meanwhile, it was later explained away by a colleague of the author as a parody of some sort. ...

The DFW media would be wise to leave the football analysis to football analysts and to leave the sports-journo comedy to "The Onion." As you will soon discover if you are new to the way I do business around covering the NFL for the last 32 years and covering the Cowboys for the last 25, this ain't "The Onion.''

7. So Shaun Hill? Is that the best free-agent the Cowboys can sign?

That name is viable. But otherwise, this is yet another Cowboys myth foisted upon the LCD (Lowest Common Denominator of the Dallas fan base). As a prominent agent told me this week, "Any team can find the money to sign any player it wants. There are always ways. And that's especially true of Dallas."

Remember, two years ago, the Cowboys were $20 mil over the cap one day and pretty much the next day signed Brandon Carr to a $50-million deal. And last season, the supposedly "cap-strapped" Cowboys found the cash to sign perennial Pro Bowl guard Brian Waters.

The end doesn't always justify the means. But there are always means.

ADHERENCE GRADE: B. Instead of Hill, it's Brandon Weeden. The Cowboys graded him as a second-round talent coming out of OK State. He is a viable backup, if that's what's demanded of him.

8. So they have the means to keep DeMarcus Ware?

Shockingly to some, they can sit on Ware's existing deal - which allots him $16 mil, $17 mil, $14 mil and $14 mil over the next four seasons - and not sweat it right now. But both sides are sweating. The Joneses love the future Hall-of-Famer and Ware has no desire to leave.

What Ware will discover here is that the leverage in negotiations to get Ware to undo-and-redo his deal – if Jerry can harden his heart enough to use it -- belongs to Dallas. Ware will ultimately be told to take a "paycut or be cut." (Maybe in softer phrasing than that.)

If Ware senses there is a monster deal waiting for him on the open market, Dallas will endure that pain and watch somebody else overpay this iconic talent.

And then, regardless of whether he finished his career in Buffalo or Oakland or Kansas City or Denver or New Orleans, a few years down the line he will be inducted into the Cowboys Ring of Honor.

ADHERENCE GRADE: A. In re-reading that, I've impressed myself. We pretty much nailed it.

9. Can Dallas keep Ware and remake this defensive line?

That is the optimal plan. Chase Henry Melton, the 27-year-old Chicago Bears stud who is coming off a knee injury but has Texas connections. He is a valued 3-technique guy, as is Cowboys free-agent Jason Hatcher,. You don't want to pay age (Hatcher is 32) but you certainly approach your discussions with him with an open mind. There is talent along the defensive line in this free-agent class (Michael Johnson, Michael Bennett and Dallas' own Anthony Spencer, coming off an injury that could make him even more available to the Cowboys). And there is talent in the draft, starting with Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald, an obvious Cowboys target.


In short, there is a way to assemble a group of "Rushmen'' under defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli without all of them being billionaires. Last year, off-the-couch Cowboy George Selvie was paid $700,000 and recorded seven sacks.

There is a way to get production out of defensive linemen without paying them $16 million a year.

ADHERENCE GRADE: A. Melton. And bodies. And a cheap dice-roll with Spencer (which is going to take a long, long time to ever pay off, if it ever does). And no Donald but instead Lawrence. I don't know if it'll work. But Dallas certainly stuck with the blueprint here.

10. Will the Cowboys explore wide receiver help?

Priority No. 1 is crafting an extension for Dez Bryant. Before that figures to come the release of Miles Austin, which will be a June 1 deal that give Dallas $5.5 million worth of room. The Cowboys are not opposed to spending a high pick on a receiver but can also scan free agency and see names like Robert Meacham, Lance Moore and Nate Burleson. ... And Dallas' depth is such that even that sort of signee might just be the fourth receiver in the Cowboys rotation.

But I cannot stress enough: There is another Nate Burleson (a third-rounder in 2003) in this draft.

ADHERENCE GRADE: A. Devin Street, meet "Another Nate Burleson.''

11. Do they need a running back?

Not in free agency, they don't.

Uninformed speculation connects Dallas to the marketplace here.

Ignore uninformed speculation.

There are are extremely affordable ways to back up DeMarco Murray without chasing, say, Darren Sproles. The Saints (in cap hell!) released their scatback this week. He's about to turn 31 and will want, say, $5 million. (Who wouldn't!)

Dallas already employs in Lance Dunbar a kid who makes one-tenth of that.


The cap does not allow you to have "famous'' players at every position, especially at backup running back, where productive "cheap labor'' can always be found. Somebody on the roster has to play well and make $500,000.

Dunbar is an example of how this must work. Dwayne Harris as the return man (no, Dallas is not calling Bears discarded legend Devin Hester) is another.

Saints tight end Jimmy Graham this week tweeted, "Wow unbelievable. Shocked and disappointed on everything that's gone on this offseason."

Graham apparently doesn't understand that other Saints are getting shuffled so he, Graham, can get paid. It's not unlike old friend Deion Sanders, who tweets with outrage every time he reads about the release of an older player Deion has heard of getting released.

Don't look for Jimmy or Deion getting hired as anybody's GM any time soon.

ADHERENCE GRADE: A. Ryan Williams off the street, hoping to play more than five games in three NFL seasons, as he's done so far. And Dunbar excelling in OTAs, mimicking a poor man's packaged-plays Reggie Bush. Those are the results and they are positive ones.

12. Is there a singular key to doing it right in free-agency shopping?

Yup. Let somebody else set the market.

Adam Schefter notes that of the 2013 free agents who signed with new clubs, none of them finished in the top 10 in passing, rushing, receiving or interceptions. So while it is fun for the Cowboys fan to dream about a collection of Christmas gifts under his March 11 tree …

"If he is free, he is flawed," one GM tells me, repeating his longtime mantra.

ADHERENCE GRADE: A. The Cowboys were no non-set-the-market-minded that Henry Melton agreed to a deal while Jerry Jones wasn't even in the state. Dallas let the deals come to them -- assuming any of them actually work out to be "deals.''

13. Are the Cowboys wrong to be traditional "spenders"?

It is a funny thing; Dallas gets killed for being "dumb spenders'' while some clubs who stay way under the Are credited with being "wise managers.'' Truth? If you don't use your money you are a cheapskate and doing so is as football-foolish as not using any other tool to improve. It is akin to keeping a third-round pick in your pocket and not using it. No football credit is due organizations who opt for such frugality.

One report, by the way, suggests the cap could jump to $145 million and $160 million in the next two years. And in those seasons, there will be a few owners who still stay under the cap and do you know where that unspent $30 million or whatever goes?

Not into the assemblage of a roster, but rather, into the owner's construction of a second vacation home in France.

Owners who spend are the football fan's friend. (That's poetry!)

ADHERENCE GRADE: C. Dallas gets a middling grade here because there is still so much ground to be made up from years of F's.

14. Once the dust settles, will Cowboys be able to retain Dez Bryant and Tyron Smith?

It is preordained. Every single dollar the Cowboys have used and every single dollar the Cowboys have saved have been part of a design to re-up those two before they hit free agency.

ADHERENCE GRADE: A. I'm told the goal is to get Tyron done first, and Dez after that. Both before the start of 2015 business, and ideally much sooner than that.
15. You are throwing around very specific names and very specific numbers. Why, in the face of that, do so many people say Dallas can't be a player in free-agency?

As Jason Garrett started telling me 20 years ago, "I only concern myself with things that are within my control."

Seriously there is headline-grabbing attention and click-calling attention to be had by mentioning the Cowboys in any context long – positive or negative.

Mention LeBron, the Yankees, the Cowboys, Hitler or Jesus and you get yourself clicks. Mention the Cowboys in anything other than a positive light (as I have done for years in attempting to explain their cap-related options) and I am labeled a Kool-Aid-guzzling homer.

But my views about the Dallas cap are not about the Dallas cap. They are about the NFL cap. The same concepts that I'm applying to the Cowboys work for the Saints and Steelers and Lions, too. But nobody gets clicks and headlines for trashing (or even analyzing fairly) the Saints and Steelers and Lions.

So the networks create huge "special programming'' to detail how Dallas is in "Cap Hell'' (by beiung an astronomical $30 million, according to one recent breathless report) and devote substantially less effort to noting that, one day later, Dallas is under the cap.

Oh well.

ADHERENCE GRADE: A. True story: One national outlet very specifically tells it's national NFL beat guy to come up with a "lead story'' on the Cowboys every day. Thirty-two teams. But one of the 32 pushed into the "lead.'' This is how "Cowboys Cap Hell'' became a meme. This is how "Brian Urlacher to Dallas'' lingers nationally for days, despite people inside Valley Ranch laughing it off. This is how "Jerry Jones shouldn't attend the Oscars'' becomes a national debate.

16. How about a Dion Jordan trade?

Dallas will make that call to Miami for its young pass- rusher. He was highly regarded by the Cowboys in last years draft. But at this time of the year, picks are golden. Dallas might give up A pick for Jordan, but it won't give up THE pick for him.

ADHERENCE GRADE: C. No traction here, as near as I can tell.

17. How much does what Dallas accomplishes in free agency impact its draft selections?

Simple formula: You fill needs in free agency with known quantities. In the draft, you are dealing with unknown known quantities, so you take the best available player who fits.


The two must be meshed, of course. If Dallas is able to sign a standout veteran 3-tech defensive tackle, it is less likely to draft Aaron Donald, the Pitt standout who plays that same role.

But as a rule:

In free agency you are paying retail.

In the draft you are paying wholesale.

The NFL teams that master the concept of asset management get this.

ADHERENCE GRADE: C. It was a mesh. First-round offensive lineman Zach Martin represents a value as a BAA; second-round defensive lineman DeMarcus Lawrence represents an overpay for need.

18. Will the Cowboys do something quickly?

The sooner they get their own house in order, the better off they will be in terms of shopping space. They will enter free agency with about $2 million of room. A release of Ware will give them $7.5 million more – and if they can undo/redo his deal, maybe that same amount.

If Dallas has $9.5 million worth of spending cash, it will not burn a hole in Jerry's pocket. But remember, this race goes to the smartest, not the swiftest.

ADHERENCE GRADE: A. Who was the "smartest'' in Dallas' free-agency shopping? Personnel boss Will McClay teamed with defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. Working together -- not with Jerry's money as the top resource but rather with their judgment and connections -- they tracked down Melton, McClain and Mincey, all three of whom should be key components in Dallas' rebuilt D-line.

Somebody pull out a calculator: Did Dallas just sign an entire room-full of defensive lineman for the same price it would've cost them to sign Ware?

19. Do the Cowboys have system tricks – or system flaws – other teams don't have?


Jerry Jones' sometimes comical involvement is the only major difference between Dallas' approach and the rest of the league's. Managing the cap, dealing with free agency and executing on Draft Day requires each team to reach into the same silverware drawer and to employ its knife, fork or spoon. Maybe sometimes, publically or even privately, Mr. Jones grabs the wrong end of the utensil, yeah. But for the most part, the offseason game is universally understood. The options are shared. Oh, and NFL management is very much a place of cross-pollination. Guys who used to work in that organization now work in this organization. That guy's former assistant is now his friendly foe.

If over the course of two decades Dallas once upon a time had a clever edge, it's gone now. And, if Dallas once had a repeated pitfall, it should be gone, too.

ADHERENCE GRADE: A. I'll tell you the best "system trick'' change at Valley Ranch this year: On draft week, Jerry didn't allow one of his civilian buddies to snap a photo of the Big Board. That's progress.

20. So there isn't really a "Cap Hell.'' What is the Cowboys' problem, then?

Going 8-8 every year is the Cowboys' real ailment, not cap management.


The Seahawks winning the Super Bowl justifies every single thing they did. (Remember when they had a PED problem? Nope. Nor does anyone else.) The Saints and Steelers and Ravens having won Super Bowls more recently than Dallas won one arguably allows them to be cut more slack in this department by some critics. … even as they (and really, all 32 teams) wrestle with the exact same issues at one level or another.

ADHERENCE GRADE: A. I admit this is a non-linear thought, especially when "Cowboys Cap Hell'' is such a handy Google search. But stick with me here: A "budget'' is not an excuse to fail. A budget is not the reason Dallas has failed to be a playoff team.

The cap didn't preclude Dallas from executing smart offseason moves. The cap won't preclude Dallas from lining up 11 guys on offense and 11 guys on defense in September. The cap isn't creating any "hell.''

For three straight Cowboys seasons, that ninth win being so impossibly elusive is what creates the hell.

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