For most of the season, and now the off-season, the story around the Dallas Cowboys has been what the future will hold for former starting quarterback Tony Romo. By now, for fans who pay attention, the options are pretty clear: the Cowboys would love to trade Romo to a contender, preferably one in the AFC, and receive some draft capital in return, but for a variety of reasons, player trades in the NFL are a rarity, meaning that a release or retirement are both probably more likely options.
The salary cap implications of each are also familiar" any transaction that takes place between now and June 1st lowers Romo’s cap number from $24.7 Million to $19.6 Million, saving the team $5.1 Million in 2017, while leaving no costs for him in 2018 or beyond. Any transactions after June 1st (or given the designation as such) will lower his 2017 cap cost to $10.7 Million in 2017, saving them $14 Million but leaving $8.9 Million in “dead money” on the 2018 cap. However, the $14 Million for this year would not be available until June 2.
There’s been a lot of talk about how, if Romo decided that retirement was his desired option, he could “restructure” his contract to help out the team, and open up additional cap space. This isn’t actually true, as the $19.6 Million mentioned before is a result of money that Romo has already been paid, and unless Tony writes Jerry Jones and the team a refund check, that money will have to be accounted for.
We, along with our friends at overthecap.com have talked about the possibility that Romo, heading into retirement, could agree to lower his 2017 base salary from $14 Million, to the league minimum of $1 Million, immediately opening up $13 Million in cap space, before officially retiring on June 2nd, opening the additional $1 Million in 2017 space.
But is there another way, that Romo could, as CBS' Jason La Canfora reported this weekend, “massage” his contract to facilitate a trade.
A team that acquired Romo in a trade would also acquire the remaining three years of his contract, including base salaries of $14 Million in 2017, $19.5 Million in 2018, and $20.5 Million in 2019, with zero guarantees.
A team that makes the move to trade for Romo is likely looking at a two-year run, and the average cost for 2017-2018, $16.75 Million, would be the third lowest average salary for a starting quarterback on a non-rookie contract. Only Robert Griffin III ($7.5 Million), and Andy Dalton ($16 Million) have contracts with lower averages than the next two years on Romo’s deal.
Guys like Brock Osweiler, Sam Bradford, Tyrod Taylor, and Alex Smith have average salaries of $17 Million or greater.
This is evidence that Romo, if healthy, is a bargain at his current base salaries. However, that caveat, the one revolving around Romo’s health, is a big one, and one that is likely the biggest hangup for potentially interested GMs in cities like Houston, Kansas City, or Denver.
The “massaging” that La Canfora is referencing is likely a way not to lower Romo’s overall cost, but rather to provide some injury assurance for the team in case Tony makes it to opening day but fails to remain healthy for the entire year.
Romo and his new team could rearrange his base salary into a few different categories to make the contract match the possible scenarios. First they could convert a portion of his base into a roster bonus to be paid on some date in the spring or summer, which would provide Romo with some up-front cash in exchange for the next item.
Additionally, a portion of his salary can be converted into per-game roster bonus tied to being on the team's 46-man roster on game days. That number: $375,000 per game, totalling $6 Million if he plays the full 16 games, but protecting the team in case he were to wind up injured again. The additional benefit of this move is that, because Romo was inactive for seven of Dallas’ 16 games in 2016, only about $3.4 Million of that $6 Million would be considered “likely to be earned” and count on the cap until Romo played his eighth game.
The second year of the contract could be arranged in a similar way, with a large roster bonus due in the summer effectively acting as a team option for the 2018 season.
I’ve put together some hypothetical numbers to help illustrate what the math could look like, and how the team could protect themselves from the risk of injury.
Using this method, the team that acquires him can give Romo the upside for the full salary from his 2013 contract, while still protecting themselves in case of injury. If Romo plays eight or more games in 2017 his cap cost would increase by $375,000 a week for each additional game he plays.
There’s also the possibility that the team could offer Romo the opportunity to make even more in the event that he stays healthy in return for a willingness to provide the team with a sort of a safety net.
Having said all of this, we'll repeat our overriding CowboysHQ.com view regarding Romo (and you can read all our Romo-related material here): Many of these stories about how one day "nobody will trade for Romo'' and the next day "Romo is massaging his contract for a trade'' are not only conflicting, but are to some degree red herrings. Trade offers will likely be the result of a bidding war (and we might as well toss the Redskins' name into that one.) Yet ... The simplest and most likely outcome remains an outright release ... though we'll continue to monitor every aspect of this offseason angle.