FRISCO, Texas – The No. 1 question being asked, deliberated and anticipated as this 2017 offseason begins picking up steam unquestionably is this:
What will the Dallas Cowboys do with 14-year veteran, four-time Pro Bowl quarterback Tony Romo?
Will they trade him, and if so where?
Will they simply release him?
Will they designate him for a post-June 1 release?
Will they keep him?
Guess with NFL free agency to begin in two-and-a-half weeks and sources popping up left and right claiming to know this and know that, it's time to, as we like to say, feed the beast … again.
Just want to make sure you guys know all the nuts and bolts of this quite complicated situation that brings me back to the same time in 2001 when the Cowboys were trying to figure out the most efficient way to part with future Hall of Famer Troy Aikman.
Those old enough to have paid attention might remember Aikman had finished the 2000 season with an extremely achy back and two more concussions, the second in Game 14 that, in the end, sent him to the sideline for good. The Cowboys were hesitant to put him on the field again. Troy, he stubbornly wanted to still play.
But there was this issue of the $7 million roster bonus coming due, the final portion of the $20 million signing bonus included in his 1999 contract extension. The cap-strapped Cowboys just couldn't see investing more in Aikman, seen as physically breaking down, and wanted to release him after June 1 to spread out his salary cap hit over two years instead of just one.
Sound kind of familiar so far?
Aikman wanted out immediately. There were starting jobs out there and drying up fast. Tampa Bay had just signed veteran Brad Johnson. Baltimore had signed Elvis Grbac. And San Diego, where former Cowboys offensive coordinator Norv Turner was the OC, had been flirting with Doug Flutie while keeping an eye on Aikman's situation at the same time. Troy knew if he waited until June 2 his opportunity to potentially land another starting job would be long gone.
In fact, at the time he said of waiting until June 2, "That was not going to allow me to look at the various options I might have."
After 12 glorious years and three Super Bowl victories, the two sides were at odds: Troy wanting his freedom and Jerry wanting to preserve cap space in a season the Cowboys ended up absorbing $23 million of dead money against just a $67.4 million salary cap. Or as now COO Stephen Jones said of back then, "We lead the world in dead money." Had the Cowboys spread Aikman's remaining prorated bonuses over two years, he would have counted $2.5 million in 2001 and $7.5 million in 2002 with a post-June 1 release, and note, back then the option to "designate" a player a post-June 1 release did not exist.
Well, the Cowboys ended up cutting Aikman on March 7, taking their $10 million salary cap lumps. San Diego ended up signing Flutie, and about a month later Aikman threw in the towel. He retired.
Fast-forwarding to today, man, is Cowboys quarterback history repeating itself, yet another messy QB departure?
Think about this:
Don Meredith, darn tired of the constant criticism, up and retired after the 1968 season at the tender age of 30, after just nine seasons in the NFL.
Roger Staubach, fearing one too many concussions suffered, surprised the club by retiring after the 1979 season at 37, but having played just 11 seasons because of his Navy commitment.
Danny White suffered a broken wrist with torn ligaments in Game 9 of the 1986 season and was never the same, the Cowboys new regime of Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson surprising him in the spring of 1989 after taking over by not picking up his club option.
Then the surprise cutting in training camp of 2004 presumed starter Quincy Carter coming off the 10-6, playoff season of 2003.
Now this with Romo.
Evidently breaking up indeed is really hard to do.
For your own benefit, better preface over the next couple of weeks anything you hear or read or might think, no matter if its hypotheticals, sources saying or someone just throwing opinions out there like mashed potatoes with hopes of something sticking to the wall with what Jerry said one month ago when asked about the Romo dilemma – one certainly perpetuated by a combination of this past season's debilitating back injury along with rookie Dak Prescott's performance, all compounded by Romo's league-high $24.7 million salary cap hit for 2017:
"I don't have to get into that at all, and I'm not. As a matter of fact, there are several cards to be played," said Jones. "Don't think for one minute if you see something written or something said about what or where Romo is going to be relative to our team, that there's any credibility to it. There's only one that can make that decision and there's been no decision made."
If you need interpretation, Jerry means he's the "only one." And that's no jive.
So here we are, it's Feb. 17, coming up fast on March 9, the date the 2017 salary cap, projected to be as high as $170 million, kicks in, and as usual, the Cowboys will need to perform some mathematically complicated financial gymnastics to get under the salary cap.
Something has to give, and once again Jerry and Stephen are having to juggle what's in the best interest of the Cowboys while having this great appreciation for what Romo has done and has meant to this franchise over the past 14 seasons, wishing somehow they could satisfy their needs and Romo's desire to continue playing at the same time.
What seems obvious, me saying this, not Jerry, is Prescott now is the Cowboys starting quarterback. Period. There would seem no possibility, as some are trying to suggest, of an offseason then training camp battle between Prescott and Romo for the starting job. That ship has sailed. If Romo somehow amicably returns, he's the veteran backup. Dak is the starter. So don't fool yourself. That decision was made right before Thanksgiving when it became apparent Romo was healthy enough to play again after suffering the compression fracture of the L1 vertebrae. The Cowboys didn't budge from Dak, the 23-year-old taking them to the playoffs as the No. 1 seed at 13-3.
So let's explore the options, equipped with the knowledge free agency, the trading period and the salary cap all commence March 9.[embeddedad0]
From a financial standpoint, Romo's cap value for the 2017 season will be $24.7 million, consisting of the $14 million base salary – the lowest remaining base over the final three years of his six-year contract – and $10.7 million worth of prorated signing and restructured bonus. If the Cowboys simply cut Romo prior to June 1 or trade him, period, his $14 million base will come off the books immediately but $19.6 million of the prorated bonuses will escalate on the spot into the cap.
From a dollar and cents standpoint, that would open up $5 million more of cap space than the Cowboys currently have. But from a commonsense standpoint, that would cost the Cowboys the $19.6 million against the cap for nothing, and why that is considered "dead money." That also would simply be giving away an invaluable asset, and unlike Uncle Sam, the NFL does not allow any sort of salary cap deduction for donating talent to the league.
Now if Romo is designated for a post-June 1 release – the NFL allows only two such designated players per year – the bonus proration is spread over two years, $10.7 million in 2017 and another $8.9 million in 2018, lessening the effect of the dead money. The 2017, 2018 and 2019 base salaries are wiped off the books, too. But the Cowboys would have to carry his entire $24.7 million cap hit until June 2. At that time his $14 million base salary would come off the books, along with the $8.9 million portion of dead money being charged to 2018.
Great to have that money back in the cap, but by June 1 free agency has dried up of top talent and the Cowboys already would have been forced to restructure several contracts in order to first get under the cap and then also operate in free agency by re-signing some of their own players and/or unrestricted free agents. The $14 million then would fund their draft class, along with provide funds to possibly sign, say, Zack Martin to the expected extension that would significantly reduce his cap charge in 2018, the final year of his initial contract.
As for trading Romo at any point, be it March 9, June 9 or Aug. 9, the salary cap ramifications are the same as releasing him. The $14 million 2017 base salary comes off the books and the $19.6 million of proration escalates immediately into the salary cap. But at least you would get something in return for the cap hit.
How much? Well, that's anyone's guess in a free market, teams knowing first of all the Cowboys are in a cap bind, and secondly that Romo has started all of four games and played in just five over the past two seasons shortened by twice fracturing his collarbone and the compression fracture of the vertebrae occurring just three years after having a ruptured back disk surgically repaired at the end of the 2013 season. Then again you never know how quarterback-desperate some team might be.
As you can see, there is no get-out-of-jail card once you sign and then restructure these contracts loaded with guarantees. Jerry Jones knows only too well paying signing bonus or pushing base salary into bonus money and spreading the sum down the road comes with no salary cap relief.
"But make no mistake about it … Tony Romo really did yeoman's work in helping this team (try to) get to the Super Bowl," Jones said of Romo's drive to rehab this past season. "He did his part. And he was ready and he was very capable of going out there and making the kinds of plays that would get it done."
Having heard that, then there is this last option: Convince Romo to remain as the backup with a restructured base salary laced with playing incentives – ideal for the Cowboys, knowing they would have a recent Pro Bowl quarterback as their backup, but unlikely to appease Romo's burning desire to play.
And look, don't put it past Jones attempting to convince Romo to remain as the team's backup behind Prescott at a reduced base salary. His thinking would be, might as well get something for the money Romo already has been paid since he's still counting against the cap whether he's here or not here. But that would depend on Romo's willingness to accept an ancillary role without causing a stink. Beware Tony going into a room with Jerry when he's trying to sell anything.
See, by keeping Romo just one more year and then making him a post-June 1 release in 2018, the cap charges would be reduced to a more palatable $5.7 million in 2018 and just $3.2 million in 2019. But that certainly does not quench Romo's thirst to finish out his career as a starter.
Even more so when it's not your money or your career.