IRVING, Texas -Eleven years ago the Dallas Cowboys were in the same boat as the Indianapolis Colts, certainly no luxury yacht.
They were trying to divorce themselves from a longtime franchise quarterback, the guy who had taken them to multiple Super Bowls, the guy who had become the face of the organization.
It's never easy and always messy.
Today the Colts wrestle with Peyton Manning. Keep him. Cut him. Delay the decision. Each choice greatly affected by finances and salary cap implications.
Yesterday – gosh, it seems longer than 11 years ago, doesn't it – Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was going through the same angst as Colts owner Jim Irsay. Keep Troy Aikman. Cut Troy Aikman. Delay the decision for salary-cap ramifications.
And as is the case currently with Manning, there was a 10,000-pound boulder slipping out of the noose hovering over the head of the Cowboys: A roster bonus due Aikman the beginning of the league year.
Jones knows exactly what Irsay is going through, having to divorce yourself from the emotions tied to the guy who brought the organization – and you – unbridled success to make a sound business decision, and not just from a financial money-out-of-pocket standpoint, but also from efficiently operating your franchise into the future.
The biggest difference? The Colts have the first pick in the 2012 draft, meaning the ability to select a potential franchise quarterback replacement in Andrew Luck. The Cowboys? They didn't even have a first-round pick, having traded that away along with their first-round pick in 2000 for wide receiver Joey Galloway.
(By the way, in case you need a reminder, the first pick in the 2001 draft was also a quarterback, a guy by the name of Michael Vick by Atlanta in a trade with San Diego. The second quarterback taken? Drew Brees by the Chargers, but not until the first pick of the second round. The third quarterback taken? Yep, Quincy Carter by the Cowboys with the 22nd pick in the second round. Just the Cowboys luck, no ammo and slim pickings. Of the 11 quarterbacks drafted that year only Vick and Brees have been successful.)
So let's go back to that 7th day in March, 2001, one with huge ramifications in Cowboys history.
Aikman was scheduled to receive a $7 million roster bonus on March 8, the last portion of his $15 million signing bonus from his contract extension three years earlier. The NFL surprised the Cowboys by informing them on March 7, 90 minutes before the end of the business day, that this was the D-Day for Aikman's bonus decision. If he still was on the roster at 3:01 p.m., he was owed the money.
Well, all along Jones had no intention of funding the roster bonus. The Cowboys had decided, and more so for health reasons than anything else, Aikman was through after 12 NFL seasons. Over the previous 14 months, he had sustained four more concussions, pushing his NFL career total to 11, and his back pain had become debilitating, to the point Aikman had to take warm showers before he even attempted to practice just to loosen up. Privately, Jones was hoping Aikman would retire for his own good.
But here was the rub: Aikman wanted another shot to play, even if it wasn't with the Cowboys. OK, fine, Jones thought, but Troy, you need to do us a favor, Jones would tell him. We've got so much dead money against the salary cap that we can't afford to take another big hit this year.
So Jones and Aikman's agent, Leigh Steinberg, had negotiated a deal to move the roster bonus payment back to after June 1. That way, when he was released, the Cowboys could dump $2.6 million in the 2001 salary cap and the remaining unaccounted prorated signing bonus ($7.4 million) into 2002. But if the Cowboys released Aikman on the 7th, then all $10 million would escalate into the puny, by today's standards, $67.4 million salary cap.
But once quarterbacks began signing free-agents deals at the start of free agency that year, March 2, Aikman grew concerned that by June 1, all available slots would be taken. After all, Tampa Bay already had signed Brad Johnson and Baltimore Elvis Grbac. And San Diego, where Aikman thought he would be joining Norv Turner, the team's offensive coordinator, already was poised to sign Doug Flutie instead.
He wanted out
now, saying of renegotiating the roster bonus date to after June 1, "That was not going to allow me to look at various options I might have."
And from Jones' standpoint, knowing the $10 million hit he eventually did take would bring the franchise's dead money total to $23.4 million after already having taken hits for releasing the likes of Deion Sanders, Kevin Smith, Chad Hennings and Erik Williams, just to name a few of the 11, he said at the time, "It would have been easier to spread this over two years. This was not the best year to take the hit."
Well, you know the rest of the story. Aikman didn't sign the renegotiated contract, but what you might not know is the last conversation the two had on the subject that day in March wasn't very amicable, the phone cradles I'm told taking a beating at the very end.
Yep, the Cowboys released Aikman and spiraled into at least two years of salary cap hell at the expense of poor Dave Campo, who had become head coach in 2000, and worse than having no salary cap room, now had no proven quarterback. Goodwill has better picked-over goods than the quarterbacks who then played for the Cowboys in 2001: Carter, Anthony Wright, Clint Stoerner and Ryan Leaf, then add Chad Hutchinson to the mix the following year.
"We lead the world in dead money," Jones said back then to me, trying to lift his spirits with self-deprecating humor.
And when Aikman found no takers once he received his release, he then retired a month later, April 9, while the Cowboys were trying to fill the gigantic hole at quarterback by signing Tony Banks, a middle of the rack retread who didn't even make it out of training camp that summer and Campo left with no other choice but to start Carter, unprepared from a talent and maturity standpoint.
So yeah, fast-forwarding to today, Jones certainly can sympathize with what Irsay is going through. Manning, his franchise quarterback since being selected with the first pick in the 1998 draft – ahead of, uh, Leaf – is due a $28 million roster bonus on, ironically, March 8, five days before the start of free agency. But after three neck surgeries, the last one causing him to miss the entire 2011 season, most seem skeptical Manning will be able to play this season – or ever again.
Manning, like Aikman, insists he still can – and will – play gain.
But for Irsay, it's not as simple as just failing to pay the roster bonus and being done with Manning as most want to portray. If the Colts simply cut or trade Manning before March 8 they will take a $16 million cap hit for escalating prorated signing bonus, similar to what happened to the Cowboys. That's the untold part of this saga. Yeah, the Colts can save $28 million in real dollars, but will lose $16 million in cap space.
Ponder that: Which is worse?
Now, if the Colts fund the roster bonus and then cut or trade Manning later this year, trying to buy themselves some time to see how his rehab is progressing, the immediate cap hit then would be $44 million.
Ideally, what Irsay would like Manning to do is renegotiate the payment date of the roster bonus, just as Jones tried to do with Aikman. That way the Colts could have all the way until the first week in June to make a better decision from Manning's health standpoint. If they cut Manning then, only a portion of the $16 million would hit against the cap this year and the remainder next year, much more palatable for the Colts. Plus, that would give Manning three more months of rehab to prove he still can play, that he doesn't have the "noodle arm" that's being reported this week.
Great for the Colts, but then not for Manning, who would have taken $28 million off the table and the Colts' risk out of the equation. All on him, so we'll see if the money we're told really doesn't mean that much to Manning here in the next couple of weeks.
Plus, if he agrees to a restructure and still is released, he will have reduced his chances of catching on with another club even if he still can play since teams aren't usually in the business of settling quarterback issues the first week of June unless totally desperate.
Boy, this all sounds familiar.
Sure was a lot less complicated back in the day when the Jets parted ways with Joe Namath, the Colts with Johnny Unitas and the
Niners with Joe Montana, all three finishing their careers with other teams – something that has never happened to a Cowboys franchise quarterback. Don Meredith retired. Roger Staubach retired. The Cowboys didn't pick up Danny White's option, and he retired. Aikman was cut, and then he retired.
Some things, though, rarely change. These dealings with franchise quarterbacks still are never easy and usually messy.
Said Steinberg back 11 years ago when Jones and Aikman butted heads at the end: "The salary cap doesn't give a player or a team a gracious way to end their careers with a team. But that's the way it is with this system."
Was then, still is now.