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Breathing Much Fresher Air Columnist 
Feb. 22, 2004, 8:56 p.m. (CST)   

Cowboys will be shopping for defensive ends in free agency and chasing defensive ends in the draft. 

But the good thing about Tuesday's moves: These were not salary-cap mandated. Unlike Tennessee, forced to release such productive players as leading receiver Derrick Mason, top corner Samari Rolle, top-flight defensive tackle Kevin Carter, kicker Joe Nedney, starting offensive tackle Fred Miller and fullback Robert Holcombe, the Cowboys didn't * have* to do this. They chose, too. 

Tennessee had no choice. The Titans were more than $20 million over the cap. 

''It's a difficult day for us and a difficult day for the players,'' Tennessee head coach Jeff Fisher said. ''For Kevin and his family, for Derrick and his family and of course Samari and his family, Fred, Joe and Robert. 

''It's a difficult day, but . . . fortunately in a couple of weeks we'll be heading down the right path.''  

Seattle was another team scrambling right up to Tuesday's 3 p.m. (CST) deadline to announce franchise players. The Seahawks managed to get quarterback Matt Hasselbeck signed, probably the top "potential" free-agent quarterback, and when doing so were able to tag running back Shaun Alexander the franchise player to reserve his rights. 

There are some hard decisions having to be made in Tampa Bay, where the Bucs are fighting the cap, and considering parting ways with the likes of Brad Johnson or Brian Griese, Mike Alstott, Mario Edwards, Ian Gold and Shelton Quarles. 

Same in our nation's capital. While Washington wide receiver Laveranues Coles might want out, he is due a $5 million deferred signing bonus payment on April 1, which can't be handled by the Redskins or any potential trade partner. If the Redskins trade Coles without him agreeing to forgo the deferred money, they will have $9.3 million accelerate into their 2005 cap. 

Gosh remember those days of salary-cap hell? 

You had better hope the Cowboys do, and from all indications last year, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and vice-president son Stephen Jones most certainly do. Because even though the Cowboys do have some free-agency stash to spend, the last thing they need to do is try to right this ship in one year by spending irresponsibly. 

That will get you in trouble faster than anything else, especially if you are spending on older players, overbidding for their services and then in like two seasons they are making more than they are worth. That just creates a prorated signing bonus lunch, having to eat those charges. 

So remember that when you inspect the free-agency market here over the next week. Don't be shortsighted, thinking, oh boy, sign this guy and this guy and this guy, and everything will be fixed in 2005. The Cowboys have to make sure whatever they are fixing, it stays fixed for 2006 and 2007, especially with the young base of talent they have assembled with the likes of Roy Williams, Terence Newman, Jason Witten, Julius Jones, Al Johnson, possibly Drew Henson and Patrick Crayton, and who knows, maybe even youngsters such as Bradie James, Quincy Morgan, Jacob Rogers, Stephen Peterman, Nate Jones, Bruce Thornton and Frazier if they ever turn the corner. 

But when - and if - they do, the last thing you want is for free agents signed next week to be on their way out the door. Can't do that. 

Is there such a thing as being aggressively prudent in free agency? No sense buying today what you have to pay for tomorrow. And I know that is against the impulsive American way these days of buying today on credit or payment-free plans and worrying about paying tomorrow, tomorrow. 

But do that, and the air is not so fresh this time of year. Ask Jeff Fisher.    


!   If the Cowboys indeed sign Bledsoe, keep an eye on the signing bonus, and that should tell you what they think of Drew Henson possibly becoming the quarterback of the future. A high signing bonus means they expect Bledsoe to be here for several years, and high base salaries at the end of the deal would indicate he's not here to eventually become the backup

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