IRVING, Texas – Now comes the headache, the offseason.
You know, you'd think after a lark of a season that this time of year would not be so excruciating. I mean, you go 12-4, the second-best 16-game season record in franchise history. You win the NFC East for the first time in five years.
You win a first-round playoff game in your first playoff appearance in five years, and possibly come within a replay-reversed call in a second-round, road playoff game from appearing in your first NFC title game in 20 seasons.
Yet, thanks to free agency and a salary cap, you are faced with the very real proposition that this season's Dallas Cowboys team, which coagulated so nicely as the year progressed, one that became very likeable for its grit and determination – the fight – very well might not be next year's Dallas Cowboys team.
Hurts to think about it, doesn't it? Figuring out sustainability in the NFL becomes the Holy Grail.
Sure, we all understand the challenge the Cowboys have to somehow, someway keep Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray on the team for 2015. The debate has raged on ad nauseam, to the point of overshadowing the magnitude of decisions facing the Cowboys over the next two months that likely will determine if the success of 2014 can be carried over into 2015 and beyond.
Singularly, these decisions seem manageable. But in totality, they are likely to make your head spin when considering the Cowboys have 16 unrestricted free agents, 14 of them playing significant roles this past season, and four more significant restricted free agents to deal with.
And that doesn't take into account potentially manipulating a few existing contracts of players who were very significant to the team's 2014 success.
Let's begin, and hopefully you have the stomach for all of this.
Of course, there is Bryant, long-term deal (five years, $60-$80 million) or an exorbitant one-year franchise tag (roughly $13 million)? This is a must if you only consider one number: 16. As in 16 touchdown receptions, most by a wide receiver in the league this season.
OK, also Murray, right? The NFL's leading rusher. At times I've cavalierly said, treat running backs like lease cars. Use 'em up, turn 'em in and get a new one. Great, but does the unknown make you queasy? Not just everyone can rush for 1,845 yards, at least no other Cowboys player has in a single season, or rush for 13 touchdowns, as no Cowboys player has since 2006. Long term on a 27-year-old running back is tough, but then so is the one-year, $11-million franchise tag.
Now for the cavalry.
There is a quandary at linebacker. Rolando McClain, Bruce Carter and Justin Durant are unrestricted free agents. Can you sign one of them, two of them or all three of them to pair up with Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens? And what's the cost for any or all of them? Market value will make this determination for the Cowboys.
Because remember, in free agency you can't have a steak on every plate.
Then there is defensive end. Appears the Cowboys hit decently with Jeremy Mincey. OK, that's one. DeMarcus Lawrence looks like a keeper if the final couple of games are any indication. That's two. So then, what to do with Anthony Spencer and George Selvie? Need one of 'em? Both of 'em? Or do you trust your ability to draft a guy or sign one in free agency?
Remember getting to the quarterback was a huge problem for the Cowboys in 2014, as they finished with only 28 sacks, their fewest in a single season since 2002 (24) and ranking 28th in the league. Consider also that in two playoff games the Cowboys totaled four sacks while their quarterback was sacked 10 times.
Now defensive tackle. The most consistent of those guys this year was Nick Hayden. He's unrestricted. The only other potentially considered 1-technique to play in more than three regular-season games this year was Terrell McClain and Jack Crawford. Then it's, how good do you feel about Josh Brent returning with a full offseason and training camp under his belt? Or the prospects of rookie Ken Bishop improving or if Amobi Okoye has something left after not playing a snap the past two seasons?
Not easy, is it?
Then there is the 3-technique position. Tyrone Crawford definitely is a keeper, and potentially a star in the making, finishing with three sacks and 29 quarterback pressures. But what to do with veteran Henry Melton, who faded down the stretch? Do you pick up the three-year, $24 million option that comes with a $9 million guarantee if on the roster the first day of the league year? Or do you roll the dice with Melton, figuring you can either restructure the option or find someone else to pair with Crawford at the 3?
Next, but certainly no less of a quandary, is right tackle. Doug Free or Jermey Parnell? Both are unrestricted free agents. Free was awfully good until that foot injury cost him the final four regular season and two playoff games. Parnell was so-so, no matter what anyone says of his play. He was not as good as Free, especially run-blocking. Free's 2014 cap was $6.5 million. The veteran leader of a much-improved Cowboys offensive line certainly doesn't want to take a pay cut. Do you go with quality or affordability at this spot?
Same tough decision with Dwayne Harris, the team's Swiss Army Knife. How much is a guy worth who can come in as a third or fourth receiver or come in as a blocking receiver in the running game? A receiver you're willing to hand the ball to on jet sweeps, return punts and kickoffs and … and … go down on punt and kickoff coverage to lead the team with 18 special teams tackles?
Or the worth of a special teams ace such as C.J. Spillman, who came on the latter half of the season, finishing with 10 special teams tackles, along with whether to keep fullback Tyler Clutts?
Then, to top all this off, you have four highly contributable restricted free agents in Cole Beasley, Lance Dunbar, Chris Jones and Sterling Moore. Problem is, all four entered the league as rookie free agents, so there is no qualifying them at the original draft choice level. The decision then on all four is to qualify them at the lowest level, meaning you have the right of first refusal with no draft-choice compensation if you don't match an offer sheet (projected to be $1.5 million) or likely at the second-round level (projected $2.2 million), where at least you'd receive a second-round draft choice if an offer sheet is not matched.
Or you can just take your chances and try to sign the guy to a multi-year deal with closer to minimum base salaries and a little bit of signing bonus to lessen the cap hit.
OK, that's all convoluted enough. But now let's factor in a couple of other dilemmas that must be faced:
What to do with Tony Romo's contract, calling for a $17 million base this year, and with a prorated signing bonus, option bonus and restructure bonus, coming to a $27.77 million cap hit. Can you stomach all of it, or do you need to turn a good portion of that $17 million base into signing bonus, then able to be spread it out over the final five years of the contract that realistically runs through only 2017? The final two base salaries are an unrealistic $19.5 million in 2018 and $20.5 million in 2019, and his prorated signing bonuses and guarantees will expire after the 2017 season, lessening greatly any dead money cap hits if released after that.
What to do with Brandon Carr's contract, calling for an $8 million base salary in 2015 and a $12.71 million cap figure? Easy to say just cut the guy and save $8 million in base salary. Problem is, do so and you are charged with a $12.1 million dead-money cap hit pre-June 1, or if post-June 1 then $4.7 million in dead money for 2015 and another $7.43 in 2016. Not so easy, right? So maybe the Cowboys come to him with a restructure deal reducing the base in half, sort of like the deal Free took in 2013, though the Cowboys did compensate with guarantees for 2014 if on the roster.
Man, see what I mean? Does make your head swim when considering the totality of the Cowboys' offseason decisions.
You have heard NFL stands for No Fun League. Well, this definitely is the part of the season when the acronym should be adjusted to ANFL – Absolutely No Fun League – when faced with such a hard cap while trying to determine your needs and projected value of ability. Certainly nothing off about this season.
Bottom line: You had better be right on with your decisions or else the greatest coaching in the world won't help you out.
And I thought my high school physics class gave me headaches.