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Spagnola: If They Are So Good Why Are They Free Agents?


IRVING, Texas – Every year around this time of year there seems to be four constants:

  • My dining room table is cluttered with piles and piles of tax return material.
  • Time springs forward over the weekend.
  • Local and national hysteria over what's portrayed as the Dallas Cowboys untenable salary cap situation is muted when the team swiftly and efficiently ducks under the cap, just as they will have by Tuesday's March 11 start to the NFL's new league year.
  • NFL teams are preparing to obnoxiously overspend in free agency, that too commencing on March 11.

So I see in social media I'm being portrayed – oh, yeah, again – as an old fogey when it comes to free agency since my yearly mantra staunchly remains: If these players available in free agency are so good, why are their current teams setting them free?

Makes perfect sense to me. That team should know everything there is to know about a guy, and if they don't want to re-sign the player for whatever the going rate might be on the open market then what makes you think you're so smart looking in from afar that you should take the gamble?

See, if you look back over the history of the Dallas Cowboys, you can make an argument that since the start of free agency in 1994, the Cowboys really have lost only one bona-fide player they should have kept, that being Ken Norton Jr. in that first year of free agency. OK, maybe two, cornerback Ryan McNeil after the 2000 season when saddled in cap hell at the time.

But in general terms, the Cowboys mostly have managed to keep their own until they determined the player no longer was worth the free-agent expense.

Oh, you can pick and peck in free agency, do some bottom feeding and find serviceable help, maybe find an exception now and then to my rule, but usually you grossly overpay signing one of the considered top players in free agency.

See, looking back, most will say Deion Sanders was the best free agent the Cowboys ever signed. I disagree. They paid way too much for Sanders, even if they won Super Bowl XXX with him that first year. Hmmm, over the next four, they won only one more playoff game, and had only two more winning seasons to show for what turned out to be a five-year, $35 million contract that included a $12.999999 million signing bonus.

To me, the best free agent the Cowboys have ever signed, considering bang for their buck, has been defensive tackle La'Roi Glover back in 2002. For five years, $22.5 million and just a $6 million signing bonus, they found themselves a four-time Pro Bowler – each year he was with the Cowboys before they released him in 2006.

Man, for an average of $4.5 million, these days you can barely find yourself a starter.

So here we go on Tuesday, Free Agency 2014. And yes, the Cowboys will be under the now official $133 million NFL salary cap. In fact, after the moves this week, the latest being officially releasing offensive lineman Phil Costa ($1.5 million) and reducing the scheduled $2.75 million base salary of Mackenzy Bernadeau on Friday, the Cowboys will be well under their official cap of $134.4 million. Maybe by as much as $2 million.

Certainly the near $7 million jump in the salary cap helped the Cowboys eliminate what began as roughly $24 million in cap excess. Then the foresight to roll over the $1.3 million of unspent 2013 cap space into this year helped increase theirs to the $134.4 million.

Still not a whole lot to go out speculating with in free agency.

Now that's where Miles Austin and DeMarcus Ware come in. If the Cowboys decide to make Miles Austin a June 1 cut, they will recoup his $5.5 million base salary on June 1 and will be able to spread his unaccounted prorated bonus money over two seasons, $2.8 million this year and the rest, $3.9 million of dead money in 2015. So the savings this year would just about fund their draft, a projected rookie pool of $5.3 million … but push the dead money against the cap to just more than $15 million, nearly half ($6.9 million) caused by Jay Ratliff's release.

As for Ware, a stare down appears headed our way, since the Cowboys do not want to do as they did with Tony Romo, Sean Lee and Orlando Scandrick by turning 2014 base salary into signing bonus to reduce their 2014 cap hits and spread that total over the remaining years of the contract.

Appears as if the Cowboys want Ware, coming off another injury-riddled season, leading to a career-low six sacks, to take a pay cut on his $12.25 million scheduled base salary. At this point, Ware told me two weeks ago, un-uh on the pay cut, though his agent must find out quickly what the going rate on the open market might be if the Cowboys simply release him. Although doing so comes at a cap cost, $8.5 million in dead money this year, meaning that total, including Costa ($225,000) and if we include Austin, will now rise to nearly $24 million for nothing.

Oh, and remember, too, the Cowboys would have to spend money in some form or fashion to replace Ware since I don't see a ready replacement on the roster to date.

Now then, what do the Cowboys know about Ware that would cause them to consider this hardline move? All they would need to know over a nine-year career. So if you were, say, Cleveland, would that not give you pause if you were considering paying him even $10 million this year when the team that likely will one day induct him into the Ring of Honor and likely attend his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction is choosing not to?

Which brings us back to the beginning of this discussion: If that other team doesn't think their own guy is worth that much money, why would I think he is?

And need I remind you of some of this:

The St. Louis Rams are releasing cornerback Courtland Finnegan, who just two years ago in free agency signed a five-year, $50 million deal that was to include another $3 million roster bonus on March 13. Wasn't worth the money, evidently.

The Atlanta Falcons, after signing defensive end Osi Umenyiora last year to a two-year, $8.5 million contract, with $5 million of it guaranteed and due a $1 million roster bonus this year, are asking him to take a pay cut or else …

I see also where the Falcons, after trading for cornerback Asante Samuel and signing him to a three-year, $14.7 million deal in 2012, are cutting him after two years and with but a $3.5 million base in the final year of his deal.

Oh, and how close did this come to being a nightmare for the Cowboys? At training camp in 2011 the Cowboys were all set to sign cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha for like five years, $50 million until at the last minute the Eagles came in with a five-year, $60 million offer for the ninth-year veteran, with $25 million of that guaranteed. He was cut by the Eagles after two seasons, played three games with the Niners this past year and now is retiring. Ouch.

Laughing about any of that now? [embedded_ad]

Certainly you can find exceptions to my rule, but to me, the percentages of hitting home runs in free agency are low. That's not the way to build a team. You do that through the draft, and stop your howling, we've got two months to continue that discussion.

But let's just look over the past three years. The Cowboys have signed 10 players considered unrestricted free agents. Only four of those guys are still with the team, although linebacker Justin Durant is in a tenuous situation and Kyle Orton appears to be threatening retirement.

And only two of the remaining four are considered starters, Bernadeau and corner Brandon Carr, a guy many of you are now screaming over the $50 million he was signed to just two years ago.

Simply put, you just overpay in free agency, same as a live auction when you start competing against other bidders. Like do you really think Muhammad Ali's gloves he wore to beat Sonny Liston the first time, back 50 years ago on Feb. 25, 1964, while dad and I were listening on the radio, are worth the $836,500 they fetched two weeks ago? Please.

So here we go, same time next year again, and the Cowboys are insisting they will not be big players in free agency, at least from the start when the cost of doing business is greatly inflated.

And for that, you should hope they are men of their word.

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