IRVING, Texas – The image of DeMarcus Ware schooling Tyron Smith daily in Oxnard, Calif., is still implanted in my mind.
Not schooling like teaching, although he did that as well, just as he has throughout what will likely be a Hall of Fame career. He was schooling like dismantling, as he beat and embarrassed any offensive tackle he went up against, including at times the young and budding star who wound up going to the Pro Bowl.
Then the injuries set in. Again.
There's no arguing the decline the stats will show in Ware, who dropped from 19.5 sacks in 2011 to 11.5 in 2012 and down to a career-low six last season. But where some players decline from a lack of talent in older age, Ware's decline can be attributed solely to injury. He's still got the talent.
Ware returned from his 2012 injuries to become a force in training camp in 2013. That player everyone saw is still a double-digit sack performer. It was a daily and weekly beat down during that camp for anyone he went against last season, and that carried into the early portion of the year. It's easy to forget Ware quickly compiled four sacks in the first three weeks of the season.
The Cowboys have some tough financial decisions to make on the defensive line in the coming weeks and months regarding the futures of Ware, who's still under contract, and pending free agents Anthony Spencer and Jason Hatcher.
It makes sense to assume Ware won't make it through a 16-game season scot-free at 31 years old. It hasn't happened in recent years, and it's difficult to repair a body from injuries after two straight seasons with many to choose from. But would it make any more sense to assume Hatcher, who's 19 days older than Ware and also suffered a stringer injury last year, will repeat his monstrous 11-sack season for the next couple years? [embedded_ad]
There's no doubting that seeing a capable Ware make plays and return to form for another team would be much more of a dagger than seeing that happen with Spencer or Hatcher.
Now, this doesn't mean the Cowboys should continue to pay veterans whose careers are dwindling. They absolutely should try to figure out a way to limit the contract of Ware, who's the second-highest paid player on the team behind Tony Romo and is set to make $12.25 million in base salary and count $16 million against the cap in 2014. But they shouldn't let him get away if he's willing to negotiate down to a respectable number similar on the salaries of other top-flight veteran defensive ends.
He'd be missed much more than Hatcher or Spencer after totaling 117 sacks and 32 forced fumbles with the club, serving as one of the most consistent pass rushers this team's ever seen. Given his level of production over such a long span, he's more of a sure bet than either of the other two players, who've had fewer than seven sacks in all but one season of each of their careers.
The Cowboys know if Ware can stay healthy, even if that may be a big "if," they'll still be getting a star defensive end. That training camp sensation is one healthy offseason from returning in full force. It's not worth letting that get away if they can pick away at that gigantic contract they brought upon themselves.