OXNARD, Calif. – Relax.
That’s right, relax.
So what Ezekiel Elliott is not here the official first day of training camp. This is not a big deal. This is not Armageddon. This is not going to destroy any team chemistry. Not going to cause some riff between teammates. They know better than Baker Mayfield to publicly scorn a teammate’s business decision.
So thought we’d start here on this chamber of commerce Friday at the Cowboys’ River Ridge Sports Complex camp site. And I’m going to start with a parable born out of years and years of covering these Dallas Cowboys, nearly from their inception.
No, no, not me. Please. But my great friend and mentor, the great sportswriter and columnist, the late Frank Luksa who worked for five decades covering the Cowboys for three different Dallas-Fort Worth newspapers: _Fort Worth Press, Dallas Times Herald, Dallas Morning News._
One day in training camp, with the Cowboys haggling over the contract of a player holding out from camp, Frank issued this experienced parable to calm me and everyone else down. He told me players holding out over a contract from training camp are like a cat stuck up in a tree.
Frank effectively said: Oh, when a cat gets stuck up in a tree, everyone begins to fret. They call the fire department. They try rattling the branches to encourage the cat to come down. They use poles. Anxiety grows high. But you know what? Have you ever found a dead cat up in a tree?
The cat eventually finds its way down, and the player holding out of training camp – aside from Le’veon Bell – eventually reports, even if a new contract isn’t signed. Nobody wants to forfeit a paycheck to make more money that you would never recoup. Ask Earl Thomas. Did all this posturing last summer and got back for practice the first week of the regular season to ensure he’d get that first game check.
Now you might say, well, Emmitt held out. Missed two games. That was different. Emmitt was a restricted free agent. He wasn’t under contract as Zeke is for two more seasons. The previous season, Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin ended his contract holdout the Friday before the Monday night season opener. Said at the time he couldn’t bear not being there to play the Redskins. Truth of the matter is, he couldn’t bear to miss a paycheck, and came to terms with the Cowboys at the last minute. He had five catches for 89 yards in Dallas’ 23-10 victory, the Cowboys going on to win eight of their first nine games, with Michael putting up a 210-yard, three-touchdown receiving game in the Game 3, 31-20 victory over Phoenix.
In fact, Cowboys COO Stephen Jones and I reminisced over like a half-dozen players other than Emmitt during the 1993 camp in Austin, Texas, holding out over contract disputes during a time when players had no leverage to hit free agency.
Gosh, back then, unsigned veterans and unsigned rookies during training camp seemed to be standard operating procedure, those covering teams spending half their time and effort in tracking contract negotiations. And for general managers and those team officials negotiating contracts? No big deal.
And at this point, Zeke not being here for Saturday’s first practice, no more than a minicamp practice these next two days before the pads come on Monday, is no big deal to Jerry and Stephen Jones, along with head coach Jason Garrett.
“I think all these things work themselves out,” Stephen Jones said.
And as Jerry Jones pointed out, that there seems to be an unemotional response to Zeke’s absence is not the Cowboys taking a cavalier attitude toward the situation.
“It’s a part of what goes on in football, it’s pro football,” Jerry politely points out.
Remember, too, there are so many layers to these negotiations. The Cowboys must consider how one extended contract effects other future contracts, meaning they would also like to re-sign Amari Cooper and Dak Prescott. This is not a one-piece jigsaw puzzle. The Cowboys have to stay out ahead of contract structure rules beginning in 2020, the final season of the CBA, where the 30-percent rule affects base salary going forward from there. And there is, always remember, a hard cap. There are no luxury tax loopholes in the NFL. The cap is the cap.
“We are working under the assumption we want to get all three deals done,” Stephen Jones said.
Also, the Cowboys aren’t obligated to pay their players what some other team (the Rams) might have paid their running back (Todd Gurley) or what one team (Eagles) paid their quarterback (Carson Wentz) or what one team (New Orleans) might pay their wide receiver (Michael Thomas) because their cap situations, now and the future, likely aren’t similar.
Market value is a great agent and media term. Operating value is entirely another thing.
“The Dallas Cowboys have a litany of contracts, and those contracts have been predicated on the terms of other contracts, not in New Orleans, or not in Cleveland, but based on the Dallas Cowboys,” Jerry Jones said. “So we have arduously spent money, time, planning, relative to the relationship of those contracts together. Just because somebody in their contractual situation decides they want to do different in their contract, just because that doesn’t mean that you tear up everything you’ve got over here with the team, even though somebody else might have done something different with another team.
“What rules the day is your list. And what rules the day is your economics, that rules the day. Now that’s real. And that’s what your sitting there protecting, the integrity of how all of that works together. And that’s why, if everybody at one time said, you know something, let’s just all go up and see Jerry, and he’s got all this money, let’s get all that money.
“I’m just saying, that’s not the way it works.”
This type of holdout or contract disputes with the Cowboys might be new to some of you. But you know what? It’s been going on now for 60 years. Hey, one year when Tex Schramm was stonewalling Roger Staubach on a new contract, Staubach got tired of waiting outside Schramm’s office, and so jumped onto a long window sill and inched his way along the high-rise building ledge to jump in front of Tex’s office window to get his attention. Tex, as Roger’s story goes, almost fell off his chair. Roger was let in.
Or the time Randy White missed camp in 1984. Went fishing in East Texas. Nobody could find him until the _Morning News_ outdoor writer on a fishing trip of his own, ran into him at the same lake. There was the time Tony Dorsett showed up late to camp in Thousand Oaks to a horde of media members greeting his arrival outside Tom Landry’s dormitory at Cal Lu. There was Emmitt, his rookie year, signing a contract the Tuesday before the season opener. Let’s see, there was Jessie Solomon missing camp in 1990, although telling me he was coming in the next day when the Cowboys were in San Diego practicing against the Chargers, causing me to lose a bet and having to shave off the mustache I had since college on Dale Hansen’s _Sunday Night Sports Special_, never to be grown back, probably to my benefit.
The difference back then as compared to this: Those guys weren’t under contract and had no access to something called free agency. Zeke is under contract, for two more seasons, and I’m told he was spotted at The Star on Wednesday, and all smiles, in a good mood.
Soooo, just remember, let’s not act like this is the end of the world. Look, 99 percent of players in contractual disputes eventually return. They don’t like missing paychecks paying nearly $18,000.
Just like those cats. They don’t die up in trees.