IRVING, Texas – This one has to hurt, at least emotionally.
From Day 1, Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett has preached the importance of building your team with "the right kinds of guys," meaning guys with high character, guys who love to play football, guys who understand the importance of team.
So for sure, releasing eight-year veteran Marcus Spears on Wednesday just had to strike at his core beliefs.
Same for Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, not as Iditarod-cold as most would expect, especially when it comes to his long-time, loyal players, and probably why it was Jones making the phone call to Spears and why Spears said they talked for quite a while and that it was "a good conversation."
Over the course of eight seasons, Spears, who came to the Cowboys in 2005 as a first-round draft choice, along with fellow first-rounder DeMarcus Ware, was everything you would want in a player, especially in the locker room and off the field. His maturity, from Day 1, was beyond his years. Still is.
His perspective on life and football was grandfatherly, which was maybe why so many of his teammates would gravitate toward him. Probably why I gravitated toward him. A straight shooter, with keen insight into this team.
Plus, he had no time to harbor grudges, and even this week after his release told me, "I thoroughly enjoyed my time here, it was great," and one of the reasons the Baton Rouge, La., native who basically traveled down the road to play his college football at LSU says, no matter what, "Dallas is now home."
"I've been telling a lot of people, coming into the game you know you're either going to retire or be cut," Spears said. "I had a blast."
The 6-4, 315-pound 3-4 defensive end probably had every right to be bitter, bitter at fate for his degenerative knee problems and bitter at the Cowboys, getting released just two years into his five-year, $19.2 million deal he signed in 2011 that included a modest $3.5 million signing bonus. Plus the switch to the 4-3 didn't do him any favors. all those "ranking" folks, they have yet to come up with a way to calibrate the effects of heart and common sense.
Think about this: Spears and Ware came to the Cowboys as the new cornerstones to the 3-4 defense then head coach Bill Parcells was transitioning the organization to for the first time in its history. And doggone it, projected to be the starting defensive end on the left side of the Cowboys new 3-4 defense, not a week into camp Spears sprains his right knee and ankle, along with suffering a calf strain, causing him to miss virtually all of training camp. He recovered in time to start 10 games his rookie season, but that was the beginning of his knee problems.
While he started 16 games his second year, again a knee sprain basically robbed him of training camp.
Just the degenerative effects of the knee sprains and the wearing down of cartilage really became noticeable this past summer, the big guy really struggling to get around, although he soldiered on. There were times this summer it was painful to watch.
There, too, could have been bitterness over his contract. Just when Spears was scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in 2010, which would be his sixth season in the league, the NFL, with an expiring Collective Bargaining Agreement, entered into an uncapped year, thus requiring players to have six years of service to become unrestricted.
Spears, at five years, thus was a restricted free agent, and the Cowboys worked the system to save money, tendering him at the lowest amount possible – original draft-choice compensation – knowing that if a team tried to sign him away, his original draft choice compensation meant a first-round pick in return. That move cost Spears like $600,000 even though he became a starter until tearing his calf muscle midway through the season.
But did Spears complain? Nope. Heard him do a radio interview before the start of camp that year, and while he understood the financial ramifications of the uncapped season and the Cowboys' low-ball tender and admitted it hurt, he was man enough to point out the country's struggling economy at the time, then say, "At the end of the day, how can I turn my nose up at still making $1 million."
See what I mean?
And even this week, Spears probably anticipated what was going to happen after his playing time decreased this past season, yet was hoping for the best. The Cowboys emerged on Tuesday, the beginning of the league year and salary-cap jurisdiction, only $177,005 under their roughly $120 million salary cap. Basically cap paralyzed until signing Tony Romo to a long-term extension and likely Anthony Spencer to a long-term deal to minimize his $10.63 million, guaranteed franchise tag.
So to pick up Spears' $2 million base salary for 2013 the Cowboys designated him a June 1 release, which does two things. First for the Cowboys, allows them to spread his remaining unaccounted $2.1 million in prorated signing bonus over these next two seasons – $700,000 this year and $1.4 million in dead money next year – instead of outright releasing him and having the entire $2.1 million count this year, which sort of ends up as a negative savings. Catch is, the Cowboys don't actually get to use that $2 million they've recouped until after June 1, so consider that a savings to help fund their 2013 draft.
As for Spears, this allowed him to hit free agency immediately, instead of having to wait until June 1. And he immediately began checking it out, saying "my knee is good," and pointed out he's been back working out these past three weeks.
"I'd like to play two more years," Spears said early Thursday evening. "I always said when I came into the league I'd like to play 10 years."
Says he had fielded a few calls already, but he's not going to sign with just any team just to sign – "It's got to be the right situation," he says, "because I know I'm no longer a 50-play-a-game player.
"But I've still got some juice."
And immediately he found someone who thinks he has some juice left, the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens agreeing with Spears on a two-year, $3.55 million deal late Friday afternoon. Maybe they caught wind of just what we've been discussing here.
Said Spears on his Twitter account, "I'm a Raven!! See u in Maryland God is so good."
Maybe there is something to this uncanny ability to take things in stride.
While the Cowboys certainly did come up short over his career, they did post a 73-55 record during Spear's eight seasons, suffering only one losing campaign, 6-10 in 2010. Three times they qualified for the playoffs, his second, third and fifth seasons, winning just one playoff game, that in 2009.
Yet when you ask him what he remembers most about his time with the Cowboys, he immediately says, "My teammates, man. I remember me and D-Ware sacred to death of Bill Parcells when we came to rookie minicamp. Just will miss being around the guys.
"I'll always remember the 13-3 season, one of our finest years.
"I'll remember being coached by Bill Parcells and Wade Phillips.
"I'll remember playing with some veterans like Greg Ellis, Jason Ferguson, Aaron Glenn, those guys taught me so much.
"And playing in the new stadium for the first time."
Healthy memories, for sure.
Here is what the Cowboys are going to miss most about Spears and what the Ravens are maybe even unknowingly about to gain: His leadership. That's right, leadership, one of those right kinds of guys in the locker room. You don't have to do some shake-down dance during pregame introductions to be a leader, you know. There are less obvious ways, and Spears found those.
"I tried, I tried," Spears said of being a stand-up guy in the locker room, and he must have succeeded since he says "I got a lot of calls from the guys when I got released. I just wanted to affect guys in the right way.
"So I'll miss the team camaraderie, you miss the guys, but I'm fortunate enough to have forged some good relationships."
He has, and guarantee, the Cowboys will miss Marcus Spears. With some guys, it's not all about the analytics – sacks, tackles, quarterback pressures, although 2008 and 2009 were his best seasons, totaling 115 tackles, 3.5 sacks, seven tackles for losses and 32 QB pressures over those two years.
Because all those "ranking" folks, they have yet to come up with a way to calibrate the effects of heart and common sense.