League Restrictions Impacting Dallas

There's no debating the fact that the National Football League wants parity for its teams.

The teams with the poorest record gets the first draft pick, and now the league is affecting which teams can sign which free agents … and Dallas already is feeling the effects.

A comment that slipped under the radar for most people was made last week when Arizona Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby said he had reduced his list of for which he would like to play to four: the Washington Redskins, the New York Giants, the San Diego Chargers and the Miami Dolphins.

Considering the fact that Dansby is one of the NFL's elite linebackers, that statement alone made the announcement newsworthy. What many media outlets didn't report was that Dansby said his top choice would be … the Dallas Cowboys.

The Cowboys aren't in the market for a starting linebacker — the team's starting quartet of DeMarcus Ware, Bradie James, Keith Brooking and Anthony Spencer is one the best foursomes in the league. But when a talent like Dansby makes it known he's interested, the team has to do its due diligence and at least explore the viability of adding him. Could the Cowboys afford him? Yes, but it would require some shuffling of the roster, which might make the team choose to go in another direction. Dansby earned $9.7 million last year, and has given no indication that he is interested in making offering any discounts, either to the Cardinals or to his team of choice, the Cowboys.

But the NFL now has a rule in place that limits the ability of teams that finished in the final eight playoff spots. The nutshell version is that those teams have to lose free agents to contracts of comparable value before they can sign marquee free agents — a category into which Dansby clearly falls.

This is not just a matter of a rule dictating that a season being played without a salary cap means teams with aggressive, deep-pocket owners — like Dallas owner Jerry Jones — can't go crazy and buy up every free agent on the market. In this case, it hampers the Cowboys and potentially could help one of their rivals. Should Dansby sign with either the Giants or the Redskins, that would basically mean Dallas loses twice — the Cowboys are unable to improve with the signing of Dansby, who then would make an NFC East rival stronger.

It's not even clear if this would be a moot point if Arizona wanted to bring Dansby back, but it's clear that's not in the cards for the Cards (sorry). Arizona has applied its franchise tag on Dansby in each of the last two seasons, and doing so again — which would require the team to pay him at least the average of the top five highest-paid linebackers in the league would run the team somewhere in the neighborhood of nearly $17 million per season. The Cardinals have had a nice run of success over the last couple of years, but owner Bill Bidwill — notoriously one of the NFL's cheapest owners — is not going to venture into that economic stratosphere for a linebacker. Even if he wanted to, there's no indication Dansby even would be interested in staying; he sounds almost eager to get out of town.

The NFL wants parity through the league. That's not to suggest it doesn't want its marquee teams — Dallas, Indianapolis, New England, now New Orleans — to win a lot of games — but the more teams that have a chance to contend for a championship, or at least a playoff spot, the more money the league makes, and with the unsettled labor negotiations notwithstanding, the league still makes a fortune.

So while the league office would love to see star players like Dansby end up on high-visibility teams like the Cowboys, it is more interested in seeing the lesser teams have a chance to sign top talent. Sure, Dallas could still go after Dansby, but it would take the team watching other free agents walk out the door. To make the numbers satisfy the league office, what would that be? Miles Austin and Gerald Sensabaugh and Marcus Spears? Losing all three of those players could make the idea of taking on Dansby's salary almost palatable.

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