Cowboys lose leader on and off the field

March, 11, 2014
Mar 11
5:05
PM ET

This is how important DeMarcus Ware was to the Dallas Cowboys:

Remember that Sunday afternoon in Detroit when Dez Bryant was yelling and screaming and the team was telling you it was all productive criticism? It was, and it wasn't.

Bryant was angry about what was happening on the field. He kept yelling and yelling until another of the Cowboys' leaders, tight end Jason Witten, told him to head to the locker room if he didn't like how things were going.

Bryant stepped up to Witten just as the tight end put on his helmet to get ready for work, but Ware -- who was sidelined by a quad injury -- jumped in. He grabbed Bryant and gave him that stare. It was the look your mom and dad gave you if you messed up.

Bryant shut it down, and after the game hugged Witten, and all was forgotten.

If not for Ware snatching Bryant and telling him to calm down, who knows what might have happened that Sunday afternoon at Ford Field.

The Cowboys lost one of their professional football players on Tuesday afternoon.

This is what Ware meant to the Cowboys. He was their elite pass-rusher, their top defensive player, and in some years their top player overall. He was also their leader in the locker room.

Ware would show the younger players about his pass-rush moves because that's what you do when you grow up under Bill Parcells. You teach the young players how to be a pro.

But the seven-time Pro Bowler, the franchise's all-time sacks leader, a man who never missed a game in his first eight seasons, is gone.

Ware took the correct stance by declining a pay cut. With his years of service, he didn't deserve one. Of course, the team thought differently and decided to release him. The team will save $7.4 million. A replacement isn't on the roster currently, the Cowboys need one, and this year's draft is not one where pass-rushers are a strength. Last year, they could have had one, but messed up in the war room.

Ware played with elbow, shoulder, quad, back and neck issues. Prior to the 2013 season, Ware wore a shoulder harness because of surgery. He played last season with nerve damage in his elbow that eventually forced him to get surgery.

Team officials are still stunned he continued playing.

In 2009, he was carried off the field at then-Cowboys Stadium because of a severe neck injury. There was no way Ware was supposed to play the next week at New Orleans.

But he did. He came off the bench and recorded two sacks as the Cowboys knocked off the then-undefeated Saints. Ware was so good in that game that his replacement, Victor Butler, was benched to start the second half.

Ware wasn't perfect; his body started to break down too much, he compiled just six sacks in 2013 and missed three games. At some point, veteran players become ex-veterans because the team needs to save cap space and find younger talent.

While owner and general manager Jerry Jones said it was extremely difficult to release Ware, he didn't believe it was important enough to have him retire as a Cowboy, the way the Pittsburgh Steelers are trying to do with Troy Polamalu and what the Baltimore Ravens did with Ray Lewis last year.

It's hard. I understand the salary cap has to be managed and sometimes there will be sacrifices to create room for other personnel. But I think somehow, the Cowboys should have made this work.

And because they didn't, they have lost a leader on and off the field.
Calvin Watkins joined ESPNDallas.com in September 2009. He's covered the Cowboys since 2006 and also has covered colleges, boxing and high school sports.

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