NFC East: Marcus Spears


IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys' search for a possible replacement for Sean Lee has led them to Rolando McClain.

In 2010, the Oakland Raiders made McClain the eighth pick of the NFL draft. It never worked out for him with the Raiders for a variety of reasons, including some of his misdeeds. It never worked out for him in two short stints with the Baltimore Ravens that led to him retiring twice.

But he doesn't turn 25 until July 14.

The Cowboys are looking at a low-risk chance for a high-ceiling talent.

“He sounds as excited about football as I've ever heard him,” said McClain's agent, Pat Dye.

McClain
If that holds up, then the Cowboys might have found the guy to man the middle linebacker spot that opened when Lee tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in May. The Cowboys mostly worked veteran Justin Durant at Lee's spot in the organized team activities and minicamp, but dabbled with rookie Anthony Hitchens and second-year linebacker DeVonte Holloman at the spot.

Durant is an outside linebacker masking as a middle linebacker even if the coaches believe he can play all three linebacker positions. Holloman started two games at middle linebacker last year as a rookie out of desperation. Hitchens, a fourth-round pick, has a lot to learn.

McClain comes with a better resume than any of them, but his off-field issues -- a number of arrests since being drafted -- are a concern. The fact that he retired twice is a concern, but Dye's words offer encouragement that McClain, who ended Jason Witten's preseason in 2012 with a hit in a exhibition game that led to a lacerated spleen, knows this might be his last chance.

“I see, and Rolando sees, the Dallas situation as a great opportunity given Sean's injury, and you're talking about a great franchise and a great organization,” Dye said. “I've described to any of the clients we've had through the years there -- Emmitt Smith, Dexter Coakley, DeMarcus Ware, Marcus Spears, Keith Brooking, DeMarco Murray -- that playing for the Cowboys in football is kind of like playing for the Yankees in baseball. Just an iconic franchise. With kind of what he's done going back to his time with the Raiders, I think that all of this has led him to a point where he feels like the game is too important to him to give up. He's just 24 years old. He's very talented. He's very bright. Tough. Competitive. There's a reason he was a top-10 pick at a position that is almost impossible to be a top-10 pick. Hopefully this situation will go smoothly.”

Patience will be required. McClain has not played in a game since November 2012, after he was suspended for two games for conduct detrimental to the team. He has not taken part in a full offseason program. He will have to learn a new defense and a new team.

The Cowboys have taken these sorts of chances on former high draft picks before. In 2005, they signed Marc Colombo, who was the Chicago Bears' first-round pick in 2002, after he suffered a serious knee injury. In 2006, Colombo became the Cowboys' starting right tackle and held the spot through 2010.

Asking that of McClain is too much. He's on just a one-year deal and the Cowboys believe Lee will be 100 percent in 2015, but this is a chance worth taking.

And it falls in line with how the Cowboys have conducted their offseason business, spending wisely if not exorbitantly on guys such as Henry Melton, Terrell McClain, Jeremy Mincey, Anthony Spencer and Amobi Okoye.
IRVING, Texas -- There was a time when the way the Dallas Cowboys ran their draft room was the envy of the league.

One of those years was back in 1991 and Mike Tanier of Sports on Earth ranked the Cowboys selecting Russell Maryland and Alvin Harper that year as ninth best on the all-time list of teams with two first-round picks.

The Cowboys actually had three first-round picks that year thanks to a deal with the Washington Redskins, but traded Kelvin Pritchett to the Detroit Lions for picks in the second, third and fourth rounds.

In Maryland, the top overall pick, the Cowboys got a vital piece to their vastly underrated defensive line. In Harper, the No. 12 pick, they got a complement to Michael Irvin who Norv Turner knew how to maximize.

In trading Pritchett, who had a solid career, the Cowboys got linebacker Dixon Edwards, guard James Richards and defensive end Tony Hill. Edwards was a starter, but Hill lasted two seasons and Richards didn’t make the team.

The Cowboys had two first-round picks in 1992, 2005 and 2008 as well.

In 1992, they took cornerback Kevin Smith (No. 17) and linebacker Robert Jones (No. 24), who became starters on Super Bowl teams. In 2005, they took outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware (No. 11) and defensive tackle Marcus Spears (No. 20). Ware became the franchise’s all-time leader in sacks. In 2008, the Cowboys selected running back Felix Jones (No. 22) and cornerback Mike Jenkins (No. 25). Neither signed a second contract, although Jenkins had a Pro Bowl season.

Status has its privileges

April, 8, 2014
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IRVING, Texas – Back in the day American Express made famous the slogan, “Membership has its privileges.”

It was that iconic ad that popped into my head when I saw the picture of Tony Romo and Jason Witten in Jerry Jones’ suite at AT&T Stadium Monday night at the NCAA men’s basketball final with Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Running back DeMarco Murray was also in the suite, but not in the much-circulated photo.

I tweaked the ad some: status has its privileges.

New SEC Network hire and former Dallas Cowboys defensive end Marcus Spears sparked debate on Twitter Monday and it continued on Tuesday. Spears wondered if teammates of Romo and Witten would be upset to see them hanging with the presidents and celebrities.

Spears has a point, but if Cam Lawrence or Ronald Leary were upset Romo, Witten and Murray were in the suite, oh well. Should I be upset Chris Berman gets to play in the Pebble Beach Pro-Am every year and I don't? Oh well.

Status has its privileges in any line of work. Those three have status, especially Witten and Romo, and we don’t know who else was invited to sit in the power suite to see Connecticut beat Kentucky but unable to attend for whatever reason.

Witten and Romo have been with the Cowboys since 2003. Witten has been to the Pro Bowl nine times. He was named the NFL’s Man of the Year in 2012. Romo owns most of the Cowboys’ passing records and has been to three Pro Bowls. Jones has showed his faith in the quarterback by signing him to two big-time contract extensions. Murray is coming off his first Pro Bowl season.

As teams go, not all players are created equally. Jimmy Johnson didn’t treat Troy Aikman the same as he treated a third-string safety. Bill Parcells treated “his guys” differently than the other guys.

Too many people believe professional sports are entirely different than an office you or I may work in. There is office politics everywhere.

You like some people. You’re OK with some people. You distance yourself from some people. You loathe some people. But you do your job for the common good, be it winning football games or producing widgets.

It can be safely assumed Witten, Romo and Murray were invited by Jones to the suite. He’s the boss. He’s the guy who signs the checks. You have a chance to talk with Presidents Bush and Clinton and some other celebrity folks, would you say no to your boss because the guy in the next cubicle didn’t get invited?

Of course you wouldn’t.

To me, the question is should Jones have put those three guys in position to be perceived as above their teammates in a public way? I doubt the question even crossed Jones’ mind and I’m not sure it even needed to cross it. He was simply making a kind gesture to three of his top players -- and maybe more -- and they took him up on the offer.

If there are players that are upset, then, well, they’ll just have to get over it. But they should also realize Witten, Romo, who is also rehabbing from back surgery, and Murray have been working out at Valley Ranch well before the official start of the offseason program on April 21.

That’s what should matter most to them.

Like just about everything with the Cowboys, perception overrules reality. The perception of the photo might tell one story, but it doesn’t mean it’s the whole story.

Cowboys are getting younger

March, 12, 2014
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IRVING, Texas -- These are not your father's Dallas Cowboys, so to speak.

Once a team stocked with enough players to field a softball team in an over-30 league, the Cowboys are getting young.

With the releases of DeMarcus Ware and Miles Austin, the Cowboys have three starters over 30 years old in Tony Romo, who turns 34 next month, Jason Witten, who turns 32 in May and Doug Free, who turned 30 in January.

The only other thirty-somethings on the roster are backup quarterback Kyle Orton, who is 31, and long-snapper L.P. Ladouceur, who turns 33 on Thursday.

Not included on the list are free agents Anthony Spencer (30) and Jason Hatcher (31).

Ware turns 32 in July and Austin turns 30 in June.

The Cowboys have refused to use the word "rebuild" over the last three seasons but they have re-tooled their roster moving away from Leonard Davis, Kyle Kosier, Andre Gurode and Marc Colombo on the offensive line and Ware, Jay Ratliff, Marcus Spears and Kenyon Coleman on the defensive line.

They have made the decision to not restructure the contracts of Witten and Brandon Carr, who turns 28 in May, unless absolutely necessary so they do not push more money into the salary cap in future years.

For years people have called the NFL a young man's game. The Cowboys are moving to a younger man's team.
IRVING, Texas -- It should not surprise anybody if DeMarcus Ware has a Pro Bowl season in 2014 -- wherever he ends up.

[+] EnlargeDeMarcus Ware
AP Photo/James D. SmithDeMarcus Ware, impacted by injuries in 2013, still has a passion to play and let his "actions speak" for themselves -- it'll just have to be with another team.
He turns 32 in July, is coming off elbow surgery and a career-low six sacks in 2013, but he will have a motivation to prove the Dallas Cowboys and the rest of the naysayers wrong.

It will be hard for the Cowboys to stomach because there will be noise from here, there and everywhere if Ware has a 15-sack season and is as dominant as ever, but it would not necessarily mean they made the wrong move in letting their all-time leader in sacks go. If anything, the Cowboys decided to make a move a year too early rather than a year too late by releasing Ware.

"I want to be quiet," Ware said almost a month ago before undergoing elbow surgery. "I just want to let my actions speak for themself. But I do chuckle a little bit because I know there’s a tornado coming."

When he arrived from Troy in 2005, there were some doubts that he could not only make the jump from that level of football to the NFL but from defensive end to outside linebacker. Bill Parcells did not have many doubts, even if he wanted Marcus Spears with the No. 11 pick. Parcells quickly mentioned Lawrence Taylor after the Cowboys took Ware, so I wouldn’t say he didn’t want Ware.

He had seven straight seasons with at least 11 sacks. He had seasons of 20 and 19.5 sacks.

But injuries knocked him down in 2012 and ’13. The Cowboys did not view this from only a 2013 prism only. Even though Ware had 11.5 sacks in 2012, they felt the decline had started.

The move to the 4-3 might have quickened the fall, but there are images of Ware I can’t get out of my head.

It is of Ware in Oxnard, Calif., in training camp. Day after day he repeatedly beat Tyron Smith. He did it in one-on-one pass-rush drills. He did it in team drills. He was the best player in training camp almost every day. Better than Dez Bryant. Better than Sean Lee. Better than Jason Witten. Better than Smith.

He had four sacks in his first three games but then the injuries piled up. Ware's practice time became limited and his production sank.

There is good football left in Ware. He showed it last summer against one of the best left tackles in football.

The Cowboys will only see it if the next team he signs with his is on their schedule or if they pay attention to the highlights.
IRVING, Texas -- As thrilling as Sunday’s 24-23 win against the Washington Redskins was, it might have only delayed the inevitable for the Dallas Cowboys.

Ware
Ware
With a loss this week against the Philadelphia Eagles in a third straight NFC East championship game, there will be change. Actually, win or lose there will be changes, because that is just the nature of the NFL. How grand and how widespread are the questions.

Speculation abounds about Jason Garrett’s future. Twice in the past two weeks Garrett said he is focused on doing his job to the best of his ability. There is nothing else he really can say. Would Jerry Jones have the patience to bring Garrett back for a fourth season after three crushing Week 17 losses?

After last season’s loss to the Washington Redskins, Jones promised an uncomfortable season for everyone in the organization ... not named Jones.

Would it have made a difference if the Cowboys beat the Redskins last season? Would Jones have stayed with the status quo? They didn’t win, so changes were made.

Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was fired. So was running backs coach Skip Peete. Special teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis was allowed to leave for the Chicago Bears. Garrett’s brother, John, was allowed to leave for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Wide receivers coach Jimmy Robinson was named “senior coaching consultant,” however, he has not been seen at one practice the entire season.

Ryan’s replacement, Monte Kiffin, would appear to be on thin ice after this historically bad season as the Cowboys switched to the 4-3. He has consistently said retirement is not in his plans, but at 73 years old that could change quickly.

Players, like Gerald Sensabaugh, Marcus Spears, Lawrence Vickers and Dan Connor, were cut in the offseason. Doug Free had his base salary cut in half. Players like DeMarcus Ware and Miles Austin could be in the crosshairs this year win or lose to the Eagles.

A lot is at stake against the Eagles, and for some people it could be more than just a playoff spot.
Morning. Welcome to another offseason week in the NFC East. I'll be headed to Philadelphia Eagles minicamp later this week, but in the meantime it's business as usual, beginning of course with links.

Dallas Cowboys

Dwayne Harris came on strong as a good No. 3 wide receiver option for the Cowboys in 2012. But after the team drafted Terrance Williams in the third round, Harris is ready to fight for his job.

The Cowboys picked up $2 million in cap space over the weekend because the post-June 1 cut of Marcus Spears took effect. Calvin Watkins speculates that the savings could help lead to talks with Sean Lee about a new contract.

New York Giants

Aaron Curry says "proving people wrong is not a motivation," though he admits the motivations that helped him become a top college linebacker disappeared when he got his big first-round NFL contract with Seattle. Curry believes renewed focus and determination can help him be a help to the Giants, who felt his talent warranted taking a low-risk chance.

If fullback Henry Hynoski has to miss significant time with his knee injury, Bear Pascoe's value as a tight end who can line up at fullback will become even more obvious to Giants fans.

Philadelphia Eagles

DeSean Jackson has dropped agent Drew Rosenhaus and is the latest NFL player to be connected to Jay Z's Roc Nation Sports. Not sure what it all means for Jackson's future with the Eagles, as he got a long-term contract extension last year, but I know lots of people around the league are monitoring what's going on with Roc Nation and what effect its presence will have on the market.

The fact that Bennie Logan is new should help him as the Eagles' defensive coaching staff continues to throw ever-changing schemes and fronts at the players this offseason.

Washington Redskins

Mike Shanahan says Alfred Morris' success isn't a product of the Redskins' system and that Morris is a good enough back to gain yards in any offensive system. And that may well be true, but it doesn't change the fact that Morris' running style fits the profile of what Shanahan looks for in a back, which is likely why he was able to get him in the sixth round and why Morris was able to get the chance to be the starter in the first place as a rookie in 2012.

People often ask what the Redskins' plan is at inside linebacker when London Fletcher inevitably decides to stop playing. Keenan Robinson, who was a rookie in 2012, is part of the answer. And he says he's almost all the way back from the injury that ended his 2012 season and ready for more playing time.
I get the sense that Dallas Cowboys fans would feel better about the team if it signed one of these free-agent offensive tackles. Tyson Clabo and Eric Winston are the names you're hearing, and it's pretty obvious either would be an upgrade over Doug Free. Neither has yet signed elsewhere, so there's no real reason to panic. But with all of the salary cap problems the Cowboys have had this offseason it's understandable to worry whether they can afford to sign one of these guys.

Calvin Watkins reports, however, that the Cowboys have more than $5 million in cap room at the present time, not counting the $2 million they'll get in June when the release of Marcus Spears takes effect and not counting the $7 million (post-June 1) they could save by cutting Free. This would seem to indicate that they can sign someone like Clabo and still sign their draft picks (especially since their first-rounder ended up being No. 31 and not No. 18, a distinction likely to save them somewhere around $300,000 against this year's cap). The picks don't need to be under contract prior to June 1, so the Cowboys can wait until then to take care of that even if they sign Clabo in the meantime.

The issue appears to be Free, and how they handle his contract situation. It's easy for us to sit here and say they should cut him based on the way he's played since they signed him two offseasons ago. But the Cowboys don't like to give up on their guys, and it's likely they'd prefer to keep Free at a much lower salary and as a backup tackle. If Free would agree to the pay cut now, they'd add to their cap room and could make a move on a Clabo with more clarity about their overall 2013 cap situation. But if Free won't agree to the pay cut the Cowboys have in mind, then they're a month away from being able to cut him and things could get held up.

As you know, I like the move the Cowboys made to take center/guard Travis Frederick in the first round last week. Along with fellow first-rounder Tyron Smith, he'll give the Cowboys at least two offensive line starters about whom they can feel good. Adding a veteran such as Clabo, whom they appear to like, would up that number to three, and then they could throw a bunch of Phil Costa/Mackenzy Bernadeau/Nate Livings types into the mix for the other two spots and hope that competition pushes two of them to play better.

The Cowboys have enough talent on their roster to be a playoff team in 2013, but they have to get better offensive line play in order to cash in on that. Step 1 was the first round of the draft. Step 2 remains up in the air. But it appears they do have the resources to pull it off.
Paralyzed in free agency, unable to get Tony Romo extended, and the hits just keep on coming for Dallas Cowboys fans, who are going to absolutely hate this story from Calvin Watkins about right tackle Doug Free. Calvin reports that, according to a source, Free's future with the Cowboys is "secure for now."
Earlier this offseason, executive vice president Stephen Jones said of Free's possible return: "I wouldn't rule Doug out."

[+] EnlargeDoug Free
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY Sports Tackle Doug Free is scheduled to count $10.02 million against the Cowboys' salary cap.
Free's status could again become tenuous if the Cowboys believe there's a tackle worthy of selecting in the first two rounds of the draft. If that's the case, Free could be sent packing, and Jermey Parnell or the draft pick would become the starter at right tackle.

Yeah, see, that's the whole thing. The phrase "secure for now" doesn't really mean much, right? You're either secure or you're not. If the status of your security can change, you're not secure. So I wouldn't worry too much. I still think there's a really good chance they designate Free a June 1 cut and save $7 million against the cap during the summer.

But the fact that they haven't done that yet speaks to their situation, and their lack of ability to find a replacement for Free. They literally can't sign a free-agent tackle (unless they get that Tony Romo deal done and reduce their quarterback's 2013 cap cost in the process), and picking 18th in the draft they can't be certain they'll find their answer at right tackle in the draft. They could find a very good guard at that spot, such as Chance Warmack or Jonathan Cooper, which might help convince them they can afford to give Parnell a shot. But six weeks away from the draft they can't possibly know.

So they will wait on Free. They cut defensive lineman Marcus Spears and designated him a June 1 release because they felt like they had enough depth on the defensive line to do that now. But obviously, and justifiably, they don't feel the same about their offensive line. And as bad as Free was last year, they don't feel as though they can let him go without knowing who's going to replace him. Add all of that to the Cowboys' famous tendency to hang onto their own players too long and refuse to admit mistakes, and you find yourself unable to say with complete certainty that they will part ways with Free. Even if it seems obvious to all of us on the outside that they need to do so.

This Cowboys' offseason is going to be like this -- slow and frustrating -- and they're going to need to have a very good, 2013-focused draft if they're to make the playoffs this year. Cowboys fans aren't used to Marches like this one, but they don't have much choice right now other than to deal with it.
Hey, did you see who the Dallas Cowboys picked up in free agency Wednesday? Yeah, that's right. Same guy they signed Tuesday. Nobody.

The Cowboys are stuck up against the salary cap, as we have discussed here many times, until they find a way to get a contract extension for Tony Romo and/or Anthony Spencer. And even the moves they're making to save cap room aren't helping them right away. They decided Wednesday to release veteran defensive lineman Marcus Spears, but even that move doesn't help them until after June 1. Spears is designated a June 1 cut, as right tackle Doug Free is likely to be, so the Cowboys can't get the $2 million cap savings on him until then.

That (along with the expected release of Free) is likely to help the Cowboys sign their draft picks, but not to be factors in this early part of free agency. As of Tuesday morning, the Cowboys were $175,000 under the cap, which is kind of the same as being $1 under the cap, and until they get Romo's extension done (or, less likely, Spencer's), they're not going to be able to do much of anything in terms of signing players. The $5 million in league-imposed penalties they're still facing this year are a large part of the problem.

Why cut Spears now when they can't get the savings until June? Basically, it's a courtesy to Spears that allows him to look for work elsewhere in the meantime. They feel as though they have enough depth on the defensive line that they don't need to keep him around if they've decided they don't have a spot for him. So why not let him go find a job? Free's case is different, I believe, because they don't have as much depth on the offensive line as they do on the defensive line and they don't want to get caught short if they're unable to find a replacement for him.

Cowboys just barely under the cap

March, 12, 2013
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My friend and colleague Calvin Watkins reports that Monday's moves got the Dallas Cowboys $175,000 under the salary cap in advance of today's 4 p.m. ET start of NFL free agency. This, as Watkins points out, leaves them no room to sign anyone, even their draft picks. So don't expect a lot of Cowboys news at 4:01 p.m. ET, is I guess the point we're trying to make here. They have more work to do before they can really get their offseason humming.

With significant needs at offensive line, safety, backup running back and other positions, the Cowboys will have to find a way to add pieces this offseason. (Or at least pay their draft picks.) Getting in compliance with the cap by 4 p.m. ET today was merely a necessary first step. In the coming days and weeks, I'd expect news on at least one of the following fronts, and probably both:
  • A contract extension for quarterback Tony Romo, which would drastically reduce his 2013 cap number and offer the added benefit of locking up their franchise quarterback beyond 2013. (Watkins also thinks it's possible they could reduce Anthony Spencer's cap number with a long-term deal, but I find that less likely.)
  • The release of some more veterans, such as defensive lineman Marcus Spears and fullback Lawrence Vickers.

Now, a lot of people are asking about right tackle Doug Free -- specifically, why they haven't cut him yet. Cutting Free would save the Cowboys $7 million in cap room. The problem is, in order to get that savings, the Cowboys would have to designate Free as a June 1 cut. So while they could technically cut him any time they like, they wouldn't see that savings until June 1. That's the move that likely helps them sign those draft picks and/or allows them to carry over extra cap money into 2014, when they won't be operating under a $5 million penalty anymore and they might need help paying off some of the restructuring they did to get under this year's cap.

The Cowboys' Anthony Spencer problem

February, 12, 2013
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The Dallas Cowboys franchised Anthony Spencer last year in the hopes that he'd have a big contract year and they'd get the best out of him. They got their wish. Unfortunately, because of that, they may not be able to keep him.

Spencer
Stephen Jones offered this not-overly-optimistic analysis of the team's chances to retain Spencer, who is eligible for unrestricted free agency while the Cowboys are projected to be about $18 million over the salary cap. Per the Dallas Morning News:
“Unfortunately you’ve got to make difficult decisions,” Jones said. “What that will entail we don’t know quite yet. We’ll be moving forward in a quick way. But obviously Anthony Spencer represents everything we want to be about. He plays hard. His leadership is tremendous. And then on top of that, he’s a great football player.”

The Cowboys can do some things to clear cap room. They can extend Tony Romo's contract, restructure the deals of Brandon Carr and Miles Austin. They can cut some players, like Marcus Spears and Doug Free. They likely could, if they wanted to, clear enough room to allow them to re-sign Spencer to play defensive end in their new 4-3 scheme. The problem is, they likely wouldn't be able to add any other pieces of significance, and they need help on the offensive line as well.

Spencer is going to cost. He made $8.8 million in 2012 on the franchise tag and is likely looking at an eight-figure average salary on the open market. He has the ability to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 or defensive end in a 4-3, which increases the size of his market and likely will lead to a bigger deal. He's not likely to do the Cowboys any favors by taking a below-market deal to stay in Dallas, and he shouldn't. The team-friendly way in which NFL contracts are structured takes loyalty almost completely out of the equation. These NFL careers are short, and Spencer needs to get the best possible deal for himself. No one will or should begrudge him that.

So while the Cowboys may want to keep Spencer and he may, in a vacuum, want to stay, I don't see how they can field a competitive offer to keep him. They can't afford to franchise him again. Their only hope of fitting him under this year's cap, even if they did all of that aforementioned work, would be a long-term deal with a prorated signing bonus and a low 2013 base salary. The franchise tag is the opposite of that.

If they do lose Spencer, the Cowboys are likely going to be on the hunt for a pass-rushing defensive end, and those are hard to find. They might end up needing to take one in the first round of the draft. There's some thought that Jason Hatcher could play that spot, and it's possible he can, but he's not a prototypical 4-3 pass-rushing end, and a move like that could leave them thin on the interior of the defensive line. Tyrone Crawford likely isn't ready to be a starter at that position. Losing Spencer could alter the Cowboys' offseason priority list in a major way.

But they and their fans need to be prepared to lose Spencer. Because the right thing for him to do is to hit the open market. And when he does, I think he'll quickly work his way out of the Cowboys' price range.
Here at the NFC East blog, we appreciate the extent to which ESPNDallas.com's Jean-Jacques Taylor has been helping us out with provocative Dallas Cowboys columns during a slow time. The ability to link to and discuss Jacques' work has helped carry us through a few days recently, and today is no different. Today Jacques writes that, rather than extend Tony Romo's contract this offseason to create salary-cap relief and ensure that they're not left without a quarterback a year from now when Romo's deal expires, the Cowboys should let Romo play out the final season of his deal.
[+] EnlargeTony Romo
AP Photo/Tim SharpTony Romo threw for 4,903 yards and 28 touchdowns this past season.
The Cowboys should let Romo play out his deal just as the Baltimore Ravens did with quarterback Joe Flacco. Make Romo play his best football for himself -- and the team -- next season. And if Romo still hasn't earned a contract extension with his performance, Jones should place the franchise tag on him in 2014. And 2015 too, if necessary.

The Cowboys could absorb Romo's salary this season, but it would mean saying goodbye to players such as nose tackle Jay Ratliff, Doug Free, Marcus Spears, Dan Connor and Anthony Spencer. Then the Cowboys would have to restructure the contracts of Brandon Carr, DeMarcus Ware and maybe, Miles Austin. Bottom line: It could get done without too much pain.

Now, I am a great fan of Jacques personally and of his work, but I could not disagree with him more on this particular point. While the premise isn't a bad one -- the idea that the Cowboys would like to see more from Romo than they've seen to this point in terms of his ability to deliver big wins -- waiting a year is completely impractical.

First of all, I fail to see how losing Ratliff, Spears, Connor and Spencer and then working to restructure Carr, Ware and Austin isn't "too much pain." That sounds like a lot of losses on defense and a lot of work on deals (Carr's in particular) that may not be as restructure-friendly as the cap-strapped Cowboys would like them to be.

Second of all, there is the persistent problem of the lack of strong alternatives to Romo should they lose him in a year. Say Romo plays great, as he did in 2011 and for most of 2012 (the final game notwithstanding), and the Cowboys continue to struggle to put a representative offensive line in front of him. Maybe he doesn't want to come back. Maybe he wants to go to a team that can protect him better, where his reputation as a big-game flop isn't as integral a part of the way the team's fans feel about him. Maybe he'll want out of the Cowboys circus completely. And if that's the case, woe to the Cowboys trying to find a solution on next year's market without a decent candidate already in the fold. Look around the league at teams like the Chiefs, Browns, Jaguars, Jets and the Eagles for goodness' sake. You don't want to be the team looking for a quarterback on a market that might not have any. That's not a fun place for a franchise to be.

The Flacco comparison fails because it's not as though Flacco outperformed his prior résumé this season. He muddled through an up-and-down regular season and played well in the playoffs, as he always does. The Ravens lost last year's AFC Championship Game to the Patriots because of a dropped pass and a missed field goal that weren't his fault. This year, they won that game and the next one. Yes, the Super Bowl MVP award will help Flacco make more money on this next deal, but it's not as though the Ravens saw anything from their quarterback this year they didn't already know or believe he could do. Flacco didn't have a prove-it year. He just had a better ending than he's ever had before. If that's what the Cowboys need to see from Romo, then as we have discussed at length, they need to get him a lot more help.

But in the end, the biggest reason to extend Romo is the fact that it makes too much financial sense. The Cowboys have major salary-cap problems. One of the easiest ways for them to get relief is to give Romo an extension that his performance relative to his peers says he deserves anyway and which would save them cap space they'll need over the coming months. Standing on principle and saying Romo has to win a big game before he can get his money simply isn't the best thing for the franchise right now. Warts and all, Romo as the quarterback now and for the foreseeable future is.

Dealing with Cowboys cap problems

January, 15, 2013
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Todd Archer's figures basically match up with the figures John Clayton had last week when he estimated that the Dallas Cowboys would be about $18.2 million over the salary cap right now assuming the cap is roughly the same as last year's. This creates a significant problem as the team begins to assess its needs in advance of free agency, and as Todd points out, the Cowboys are not denying this. But there are moves they can make, and Brandon Carr's contract in particular is built to help them out:
The Cowboys have a built-in trigger in Brandon Carr’s contract that will lower his $16.3 million cap number and save about $10.5 million based on how they structured his contract when he signed last year. They can re-work the deals of DeMarcus Ware, Jason Witten and Miles Austin to roughly save another $11 million.

The restructuring does not add money to a player’s pocket, nor does it take any out of it. It’s simply an accounting tool to help teams with the cap.

The downside of these moves is that it adds to the cap charges in future years. And from all accounts, there will not be a significant bump even when the new television deals kick in next year, so the Cowboys will have to figure out if they're worth doing.

To that end, Todd names a few players, including Jay Ratliff, Marcus Spears and Doug Free, who are candidates to be cut. Free would have to be a June 1 cut in order to avoid a massive cap hit, which means they wouldn't see the savings until well after most of the league's free-agent money is spent. And if all of these moves are made in an effort to fit Anthony Spencer under the cap, you're left to wonder what the Cowboys then do about their needs on the offensive line and elsewhere on the roster. So there are no perfect solutions here, and there's bound to be some pain. Unless Spencer's going to give them a discount because he wants to stay, it's still hard to see how they keep him and simultaneously address their other needs. And after the year he just had, I don't see Spencer doing that.

There's also the likely Tony Romo extension to help free up 2013 cap room, but at the expense of future years. So you get the sense of what the Cowboys are facing this offseason, and it's not pretty.
First thing I want to say is this: If the Dallas Cowboys fired defensive coordinator Rob Ryan because they wanted to switch from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 defense and they don't already have Ryan's successor lined up, I think they're nuts. I don't think you decide as an organization to switch to a 4-3 and then decide you're just going to go out and hire the best 4-3 guy you can find to run it. Not all 4-3s are created equal, and I think the better way is to find the coordinator you like and involve him in the process of making the switch, right from the start. So my first thought here is that, if the head coach and/or owner have decided to make this switch, Cowboys fans should hope they've already been in touch with whoever's going to be in charge of actually implementing it.

But you know, there were performance-based reasons to fire Ryan if that's what they wanted to do, and obviously teams don't always operate with common sense as their guiding principle, so it's possible that Jerry Jones and/or Jason Garrett have decided to go to a 4-3 without thinking it through to that extent. I actually think it's possible that they're doing it for economic reasons. John Clayton has the Cowboys projected $18.2 million over the salary cap, which means there are a lot of people on the current defense who don't fit into the budget. Switching to a 4-3 could help that.

Think about it. If they can't afford to keep Anthony Spencer, Jay Ratliff and Marcus Spears, they could move to a 4-3 alignment with DeMarcus Ware and Tyrone Crawford at the ends and Jason Hatcher and Sean Lissemore at tackle. Sean Lee plays the middle linebacker, Bruce Carter the weak side and you go out and find yourself a strongside linebacker, which would be easier and cheaper than keeping or trying to replace Spencer as a 3-4 outside linebacker. Crawford, last year's third-round draft pick, is probably better suited to be a 4-3 end anyway, and the price is right on him.

Financial reasons might not be the most sound or inspirational motivation behind a change like this, but they are a facts of life, and I suspect they're at play in this decision here. I have little doubt that Ware could handle rushing from a three-point stance or that Lee would be an excellent middle linebacker. And if they were able to keep, say, Ratliff, he might benefit from being one of two 4-3 defensive tackles instead of a single 3-4 nose. So you can make this make sense in your head, which is what the Cowboys may be doing. I just feel like they need to figure out who's in charge of the thing before they start making offseason decisions based on some significant new framework.

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