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Offseason | 2023

Spagnola: Bitter-Sweet Start To The League Year

FRISCO, Texas – Whew, what a week.

         Call it Bitter-Sweet.

         Bitter, choosing to say goodbye to Ezekiel Elliott.

         Sweet, trading to say hello to Stephon Gilmore, and re-signing a gaggle of their own, including the likes of Donovan Wilson, Leighton Vander Esch, Cooper Rush, franchising Tony Pollard, tendering Terence Steele and restructuring enough contracts to remain solvent under the salary camp.

         Plus, fasten your seatbelts. There just might be more "juice" on the way.

         Toughest, though, was seeing the grinning face and 1970s-ish head of hair of Zeke leaving the building. Somewhat expected but thought the Cowboys would do what they could with his $10.9 million base salary for 2023 to keep him around after guaranteeing Pollard the $10.1 million on the franchise tag.

         My guess is the Cowboys didn't want to insult the franchise's third all-time leading rusher (8,262 yards) and rushing scorer (80) by telling him they were going to significantly reduce his $10.9 million base salary for 2023 to a mere shell of that without adding years to the deal. Out of respect, the Cowboys are giving him an early chance to latch on with another team for a more respectful amount.

         But if not, and he wants to return for maybe another year for like $2 million with incentives, sort of like the restructures given Tyron Smith or those play-time incentives in Vander Esch's new deal, who knows, that door just might swing back open for Zeke. Although as Michal Irvin once told me 20-some years ago, players would rather take a pay cut in someone else's locker room than their own.

         But the biggest surprise of releasing Zeke with a year left on his deal – one, though, the Cowboys when making him a June 1 release will have to account for $11.86 million of dead money, splitting that charge on this and next year's salary cap – has been the local and national reaction to the move that most had been predicting and encouraging.

         I mean, did you see the front-page headline of The Dallas Morning News, and look, not in the Sports section, but on the front page of the newspaper screaming in nearly two-inch headlines "Elliott Era Ends" across three of the page's four-wide columns. Then all the tributes to his seven-year Cowboys career, with at least four total articles to follow.

         Big doings.

         Then all the Tweets praising his career and some kind words from many of those calling for his head and denigrating his 2022 season, quick to point out his 876 yards rushing, his mere 3.8 yards per carry while failing to exclaim leading the team with 12 rushing touchdowns.

         So, asking you, who have the Cowboys got to replace those 12 rushing touchdowns? For all his Pro Bowl stats, Pollard had nine rushing touchdowns. Like, who will score seven times from one yard out? Who is going to pick up those 12 of 14 third-and-ones?

          And on top of that, who is going to provide those much-needed locker room or Red Kettle moments of levity?

         As Dak Prescott said Thursday at a community fundraising gala when asked his thoughts of Zeke being sent out the door, "It's tough. It really is. It's tough."

         Or as his co-chair to this event, Troy Aikman, said of Zeke, and he didn't even play with the guy, "I think they're going to really miss one of their core players in that locker room. I always felt when I was playing, there are guys you just don't replace and they have a big impact, regardless of whatever they're doing on the field, with the continuity and the success of a football team. I really believe Zeke is one of those guys. I'm not alone.

"I think the Cowboys understand that as well. I think that's what made this so gut-wrenching."

But maybe this will bring some perspective to this move. Zeke is in a crowded field, being one of the Cowboys' superstars since their 1960 inception being shown the door. Let a little of this soak in.

Aikman was released in 2001 when the Cowboys didn't want to pick up his huge – at the time – roster bonus.

The Cowboys cut Emmitt Smith, the NFL's all-time leading rusher.

The Cowboys traded away the likes of Tony Dorsett and Herschel Walker.

The Cowboys made Tony Romo a June 1 release.

They did not pick up the team option on Danny White.

And how about this for fancy company, the Cowboys releasing Larry Allen, DeMarcus Ware, Bob Hayes, Flozell Adams, Dez Bryant, Everson Walls and while Randy White retired, that move was on the doorstep.

Oh, and shown the door, too, were Jimmy Johnson, Tom Landry, Tex Schramm and Gil Brandt. That's four Pro Football Hall of Famers right there, along with eight others with the same fate – Aikman, Emmitt, Dorsett, Wright, Ware, Hayes, Allen and would have been White.

So, let's not act as if this release of Zeke is some sort of monumental event. It's football. It happens. Will continue to happen. Just business, you know. Happens to the very best of 'em. But the game goes on.

And by the way, as for the sweetness, Gilmore knows all about this business. The former first-round draft choice played five seasons for Buffalo, but the Bills decided to let the 2016 Pro Bowl cornerback walk into free agency instead of franchising him.

The Patriots swooped in to sign him to a five-year, $65 million deal. But after four full seasons, including being named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2019, and three consecutive Pro Bowl efforts, the Patriots traded him midseason in 2021 to Carolina, having been on PUP to start that year with a quad injury.

Then it was on to Indianapolis in 2022, where he signed a two-year, $23 million deal. After that one season, it is now on to the Cowboys for a 2023 fifth-round draft choice and inheriting his $9.9 million cap hit.

         "I feel great, you know, I had a great season last year," Gilmore said upon his arrival at The Star. "I think I played great last year, felt good running around, and look forward to adding on to that this year. I'm a person who rechecks every year and tries to improve myself each and every year, so I'm looking forward to that."

         Though turning 33 in September and beginning his 12th season in the NFL, pairing the experienced corner with Trevon Diggs and Jourdan Lewis (returning from Lisfranc surgery) or DaRon Bland, the rookie leading the Cowboys with five picks last season, should be a boost to the secondary, if for his experience alone.

         By most accounts, Gilmore had a fine season with the Colts in 2022, finishing with two interceptions, one of Dak when Michael Gallup fell down on his break, and had 11 pass breakups – three of those on final possessions to save victories for the Colts, who only had four total. One of those breakups came on Denver's final possession, breaking up Russell Wilson's pass into the end zone to preserve the Colts' victory. This after his end-zone interception of Wilson earlier in the game.

         Saved another game when he broke up Derek Carr's pass into the end zone for Davante Adams to seal another. And in another Colts' win Gilmore broke up a Kirk Cousin's pass for Justin Jefferson late in the fourth quarter against Minnesota.

         And maybe as impressive as his big plays in big moments is how physical Gilmore defends receivers, along with his aggressiveness when coming up to make tackles. Unafraid to lay some wood.

         "I've been in a lot of big games throughout my career, big situations, and I really thrive off those moments making plays whenever the team needs that big play in the game," Gilmore says. "I never really try to force it, I let it come to me, but I'm always putting myself in position to make the play. I live for those moments, so a lot of players I looked to growing up – Deion [Sanders], Michael Jordan, Kobe [Bryant], Ty Law, Tom [Brady] ­– they were able to make those plays at the end of the game. No matter how big the situation was, they were able to step up and make the play."

         His confidence and forthrightness kind of reminds me of T.Y. Hilton, and like Hilton, has no problem taking this group of young Cowboys cornerbacks under his wing, saying he likes to teach guys what he learned, and things he didn't really know when he was that age.


         Maybe taking some bitterness off Zeke leaving the building.

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