FRISCO, Texas – This has been a two-month negotiation.
The Dallas Cowboys wanting to sign DeMarcus Lawrence to a long-term deal.
DeMarcus Lawrence wanting to sign a long-term deal with the Cowboys for a lottery-winning lump sum.
And finally, after much haggling, the two sides agreed to terms early Friday evening on a five-year agreement worth $105 million, with $65 million guaranteed. And guarantee you as soon as Cowboys team doctor Dan Cooper can, Lawrence will be having the much-needed shoulder surgery that has been complicating these talks.
What we needed to understand, though, is that these negotiations are never easy. From the start, one side’s initial ceiling never coincides with the other side reaching for the moon.
That’s when the back-and-forth proceeds to Let’s Make A Deal. Each hopes.
But always easier said than done.
Having bought the team in 1989, the Joneses know all about these negotiations over the past 30 years, some quite contentious. There has been Emmitt Smith (twice). Alexander Wright. Jesse Solomon. Michael Irvin. Darrin Smith. Dez Bryant. Just to name a few that immediately come to mind. For sure there’s been more.
Even before that, there were Cowboys contract disputes with Randy White, Tony Dorsett and even Roger Staubach, if you can imagine that. Everybody’s All-American was so upset with being stonewalled by late-president Tex Schramm on a new contract that Staubach actually walked out onto the window ledge of Tex’s high-rise office to get his attention. Legend has it the ghastly sight nearly knocked Tex off his desk chair.
“We all understand in a negotiation, both parties can really want to get it done,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones recently said at the NFL meetings. “They’ve just got to go into the area where they have some disagreements. Usually it’s about the amount of money or the time you’re talking about, issues like that. And so you can have times you feel real good, you feel like you’re making progress. You can have times you don’t feel as good.
“This isn’t in anyway unique to DeMarcus. This has gone on as far back for me as notably Emmitt Smith. … That’s just the business. It’s just part of the business.”
So when Cowboys CEO Stephen Jones characterized the negotiations with Lawrence and his rep David Canter as having hit an “impasse” during the NFL meetings, it really was nothing new. Sometimes these things take time. Sometimes these things need a drop-dead deadline. Deadlines have ways of causing both sides to capitulate a little.
Jerry Jones’ first negotiation for Emmitt’s rookie contract in 1990 didn’t conclude until the Tuesday before the season opener. The second one didn’t get done until the 0-2 defending Super Bowl champion Cowboys were in the third week of the 1993 season.
Since Lawrence was franchised under CBA rules, meaning the Cowboys have reserved his rights by guaranteeing him a one-year, $20.5 million contract for 2019, just as they did last year for $17.1 million that Lawrence signed almost immediately, the hard deadline for a long-term deal was actually July 15. After that, Lawrence would have just two options: Sign for the franchise tag number or not play at all. (See LeVeon Bell, 2018.)
Complicating these matters have been artificial deadlines. Like draft-day decisions, April 25-27, when the Cowboys would have to factor in need for a defensive end or not. Also, there was Lawrence needing to have his aforementioned shoulder surgery, if he was leaving enough rehab time in order to start the season on Sept. 8. That one was like now, and maybe why the ice seemed to break.
Just remember, if you are perplexed as to why these negotiations lasted this long, there always are two sides to these negotiations. Let’s explore each.
Lawrence saw himself as a two-time Pro Bowler. The Cowboys best defensive lineman and pass rusher. He saw himself, if not franchised, as having been the No. 1 free agent this year, and there were many listing him as such.
Plus, he would have been the No. 1 pass rusher available in free agency this year if not franchised, what with his 25 sacks over the past two seasons. That ranks him tied for the fourth-most sacks in the NFL the past two seasons, behind Aaron Donald’s 31.5, Chandler Jones’ 30 and Ryan Kerrigan’s 26, while tied with Calais Campbell and Cam Jordan. That 25 would be a half-sack more than Von Miller and two more than Khalil Mack.
Therein posed the hang-up. When Mack was traded to the Chicago Bears this past season to end his holdout in Oakland, the Bears signed the outside linebacker to a six-year, $141 million extension ($23.5 million a year), with $90 million guaranteed, of which $60 million guaranteed at signing. That’s not only top dollar for pass rushers, but the richest defensive contract ever signed in the NFL. And Donald was signed by the Rams this summer to a six-year, $135 million extension, with $87 million guaranteed, to end his holdout.
Not sure Lawrence and Canter were looking for Mack money, but probably figure he had to average more than the $20.5 million he was scheduled to make this year if signing the franchise tag. So now we’re at an average deal of $21 to $22 million they most likely had been seeking for five years, with perhaps three-quarters of the total sum guaranteed.
And Lawrence was a good soldier last year, willingly playing for the $17.1 million tag even though there is no signing bonus involved, meaning franchised players take the chance of playing under just a one-year guarantee while risking an injury that could lower market value the following season on the open market. On top of that, he Cowboy-ed up to play through his shoulder injury in need of surgery, along with back ailments.
Lawrence also would argue his value on defense is not just rushing the quarterback. His 47 tackles led all the team’s defensive linemen and he also topped the Cowboys with 12 tackles for losses, not to mention 39 QB pressures, 11 more than the next guy, Randy Gregory with 28.
All valid arguments, right, to pay the man top dollar over a lengthy term?
The Cowboys recognize Lawrence’s talents, and were not trying to minimize what he means to this defense, the NFL’s seventh-ranked unit in 2018, the highest finish for the Cowboys since they were the No. 1 defense in 2003. And even though they traded for Robert Quinn, the Cowboys understood the need for Lawrence with Gregory’s status in limbo due to his indefinite suspension.
Makes you salivate at the thought of Lawrence, Gregory and Quinn on the field at the same time, no?
But unlike Lawrence and Canter, the Cowboys must manage a salary cap. They are on a budget, and not for just 2019, but years to come, and knowing eventually sometime soon they will have to dole out big contracts to the likes of Amari Cooper, Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and possibly Byron Jones, and make decisions on guys like Maliek Collins and Anthony Brown next year.
Hey, every million dollars of cap money counts.
Again, my guess is the Cowboys were figuring since Lawrence is on the books for the $20.5 million franchise tag, that his deal should probably average around the $20 million mark. Maybe $21 million, including that mouth-watering signing bonus that doesn’t come with the tag.
But likely gnawing at the Cowboys had been the length of term, guaranteed money and medical issues. Remember, Lawrence needs shoulder surgery the Cowboys wish he had performed two months ago. You only had to listen to Jerry Jones from the NFL meetings to figure that out.
“We’re all aware, as it turns out, this is a contract to play football and the first year is a big one – of any contract,” Jones said, referring to the signing bonus issued. “And so, at the kinds of dollars we’re talking about, it’s just a given that you’d get the full year at top physical condition – that that’s what you’re getting. If you don’t get that, then that depreciates what you’re doing. Works both ways.”
And therein might have been the crux of what this negotiating hang-up had been. It’s April 5. By Monday, the Cowboys are like five months to the the date from their season opener. The type of shoulder injury Lawrence has, the labrum suffering serious tears, will need four to five months of rehab after repair before he’s ready to play. That had to be a sticking point.
Seems quite logical then that Jones’ point had been this: If we’re paying top dollar, then we want potential 16-game availability in 2019, not wanting to wait two weeks or a month for their top-dollar guy to play in 2019 because he waited so long to have the shoulder repaired.
A further delayed surgery might also have impacted the franchise tag, too. Certainly, the Cowboys didn’t want to guarantee that much cap money for, say, a 10-game season. Possibly their artificial deadline had arrived. Maybe that helped. Remember, tags can be pulled, which would make the franchised player a free agent. But then how much would another team have paid Lawrence if he’d been unable to play a full season? Then again, it only takes one team.
Trading a franchised player also would have been a possibility. Kansas City just did that with franchised pass-rusher Dee Ford. The Chiefs received a 2020 second-round pick. But he is healthy. How much would a shoulder still in need of surgery, then rehabbed, have depreciated draft-pick compensation? Or Lawrence’s financial compensation?
Also, the medical issue might also have given the Cowboys pause on length of contract. Remember, over his five-year career with the Cowboys Lawrence has suffered through a surgically-repaired fractured fifth metatarsal, two back surgeries and now the shoulder. But then he turns just 27 on April 28.
Maybe they had been thinking more in terms of a shorter length, like three years instead of the five to six years those other guys received. A shorter term reduces the Cowboys’ long-term liability but in turn would leave Lawrence young enough to earn a third contract. While the two sides agreed to a five-year deal, let’s wait to see how the guaranteed $65 is spread out over the contract. That’s what counts.
See there, all enough to have muffled those screamin’ to just pay the man.
Here we are, the contractual tug-of-war, with a looming shoulder surgery having complicated negotiations, if they hadn’t been already from the standpoint of amount and term, reaching a comprised conclusion.
But when analyzing these negotiations logically, just can’t dismiss these medical considerations when guaranteeing large sums of cap space from mucking up the discussions. Especially when considering a salary cap hanging over the Cowboys heads, as it does over all the other 31 teams. This is serious stuff, not only for the present but for sure the future.
“The main thing I don’t want to be is cavalier,” Jones had said of these complicated negotiations. “This is a significant thing for not only our franchise but in DeMarcus’ life. And it is. And it would make anyone be very, very judicious working through the terms of this agreement.
“So the fact that we don’t have something today is not really inordinate when you look at the things that are at stake here.”
But then as for tomorrow, literally 11 days later, with the two sides consummating the deal …
And finally, indeed there was light at the end of the “impasse,” and in deference to Joni Mitchell, we’ve looked at these negotiations from both sides now, maybe giving us a better understanding of just why reaching this $105 million middle ground has taken so long.