ARLINGTON, Texas – The Cowboys hugged their past here Thursday night prior to the final preseason game.
They left AT&T Stadium after all was said and well done knowing they still were searching for their future at …
The weak-side defensive end position.
Nice to see you DeMarcus Ware, and unlike the Nationwide Insurance jingle Ware would so playfully sing, he was no longer on their side.
Ware was over there, one of them, the Broncos, and by the Cowboys choice. And even though he didn't play in the 27-3 Denver victory that night, his presence was seemingly taunting them, reminding the team that he played nine seasons at the highest of levels in the spot they now are sorely missing.
How he had spoiled them.
Photos from the Cowboys final preseason game against the Broncos.
A sack artist, one who could explode from the line of scrimmage and bag double-digits worth of sacks, as he had done in seven consecutive seasons … until this past season when he finished with a career-low six, injuries piling up, leaving him unable to practice much and half the player he had always been.
Combining a decrease in production his last two seasons, along with an increasing salary-cap charge – his base salary of $12.25 million, along with a prorated signing bonus, would have smacked the 2014 cap for $16 million – painted the picture of a declining player in the Cowboys' evaluation. They did not want to reduce his base and push more money into his future cap hits with injuries seemingly taking their toll and his sack totals dwindling in three consecutive seasons, from 19.5 to 11.5 to 6.
So they bit the bullet, hard, releasing Ware, assuming an $8.5 million cap hit this year to recoup the $12.5 million in base salary. Denver, knowing defensive improvement was a necessity if it was to return to the Super Bowl and win it this time, was only too happy to sign the Cowboys career sack leader the next day to a three-year, $30 million deal to make $13 million (essentially recoup his Cowboys 2014 base) this year.
Time to move on. But as the Cowboys are finding out, and through some unfortunate circumstances, replacing catalytic defensive players can be as hard as replacing quarterbacks. These guys don't exactly grow on trees. They once were hard-pressed to replace Harvey Martin and Randy White and Too Tall Jones. They found themselves wandering in the NFL's desert sands for nearly a decade trying to replace Charles Haley.
And now this: Just who is that guy going to be?
Nine days before the season opener, here at AT&T Stadium Sept. 7 against the San Francisco 49ers, they do not have a sole answer, leaving them talking about waves of players being thrown at the vacancy while realizing if this lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks that plagued them last season when their defense plummeted to No. 32 in the league and to the lowest depth in franchise history isn't solved, that "uphill battle" owner Jerry Jones talked about earlier this week at the team's annual Kickoff Luncheon will rise to Kilimanjaro heights.
This reminds somewhat of the dilemma the Cowboys faced in 2001 when they were in need of a quarterback to replace Troy Aikman, also released for health/cap reasons. Not only had the Cowboys invented the term "salary cap hell" that year, but they also already had traded away their first-round pick the previous season for wide receiver Joey Galloway. No money, no draft pick equaled Quincy Carter and a bunch of reclamation projects.
Right? Because even with Ware's $12.5 million base salary savings, they were only capable of nibbling in free agency, bringing them veteran free-agent defensive end Jeremy Mincey, who wore out his welcome in Jacksonville and was only a serviceable pawn later that year in Denver after the Broncos had lost Von Miller for the season.
The least expensive way to fix the position would be in the draft. With the 16th pick, they were 15 slots too late to grab the best pressure end in the draft, Jadeveon Clowney, who went No. 1, the only true defensive end taken in the first 22 picks. Just their luck. Oh, they might have settled for a linebacker who could put his hand on the ground, but UCLA's Anthony Barr was gone by 9, and though they had Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier's name already on their card at 15, Pittsburgh crushed them, selecting the pressure player just ahead of them.
And while sometimes revisionist history becomes somewhat cloudy, at 16 the Cowboys were trying to trade down so they could select the next best pass rusher in the draft, DeMarcus Lawrence. No one would dance with them close enough. So they did the prudent thing, selecting offensive lineman Zack Martin and would worry about the defensive end later.
Not much later, though, using their third-round pick to move up in the second to 34 to secure Lawrence. OK, only a rookie, but after OTAs, two minicamps and a week of training camp practices this kid was going to be the starting weak-side defensive end …
Until he broke the fifth metatarsal in his right foot on July 30, had surgery two days later to insert a screw and was projected out for eight to 12 weeks. That was four weeks ago, so he's still four to eight weeks away from returning if all goes well, though still utilizing one of those pedal scooters to get around.
So now their desperation at this position will affect their roster decisions Saturday when cutting to 53. They were expected to keep Lawrence on the 53, even though he likely won't be able to play at the earliest until sometime in October, heck maybe not even until November.
This is also why the Cowboys insist they will keep a bullet of hope in their gun with Anthony Spencer. You remember him, don't you? The Pro Bowl outside linebacker in 2012 who finished with 11 sacks, just a half-sack off Ware's pace? But a hyperextended knee injury suffered early in OTAs of 2013 eventually turned into the dreaded microfracture knee surgery in October after playing in only one game last year. The cartilage under his left kneecap had deteriorated. In fact, left a nine-iron deep divot in there. Yep, you get the picture, bone on bone. No can play football that way.
Truth be told, he probably needed the surgery in training camp. But he made the decision to rehab and try to play, knowing he was on a one-year, franchise-tag salary and fearing having to enter free agency the next year with no marketing power.
Well, it didn't work. He ended up having the surgery, and when there were no takers in free agency, of course, he re-signed with the Cowboys for one year, knowing his extensive rehab would continue with hopes of returning this season. Not many play football again after such surgeries. The Cowboys have seen a couple fail, and only one successfully return, that being Kevin Hardy in 2002.
So here is Spence, still rehabbing but inching closer to returning to the field, the Cowboys desperation at this position the driving force to chance keeping him on the 53-man roster on Saturday, as Jones has been insisting they will do, instead of leaving him on reserve/physically unable to perform, a mandatory six-week stay. While Jones already has said Spencer won't play in the first game, don't be misled. Chances are he won't play in the second game or third and possibly no sooner than the fourth, fifth or sixth.
But here is the deal. Had the Cowboys left him on PUP, he is required to miss the first six weeks of the season. Not just games, but can't practice, either. That means even if he is cleared to practice after those six weeks expire, he'd still need at least two weeks of practice, which would include just two padded ones, to get ready before he actually played in a game. So that's eight weeks, maybe even nine.
This way, by leaving him on the 53, Spencer, the most proven pass-rusher on this team, might be able to start practicing after three weeks of the regular season. Take two to resume practicing, and now he's back in five weeks instead of the eight or nine.
Again, that is if all goes well, and from everything I've heard, the cartilage void is filling in nicely, the goal of this microfracture procedure that drills holes into the bone to create the regrowth of cartilage. But as Spencer knows, "You can't rush it back," as he said earlier in the week, the mistake many have made. But he's getting closer to possibly beating the odds, ones he knew were quite long when he had the surgery. Just have to strengthen everything around the knee, and make sure the cartilage hardens again.
And while the Cowboys wait, Mincey appears to be the projected starter a week from Sunday, an OK option, but just OK. But the Cowboys have another hopeful trick up their sleeve: strong-side linebacker Kyle Wilber, the one-time defensive end who has been putting his hand on the ground on the weak side on the nickel.
So here is the deal. If Rolando McClain can play middle linebacker, freeing Justin Durant to play the weak side and likely moving Bruce Carter to the strong, that would free Wilber to play more at defensive end, where he showed here Thursday night an ability to get to the quarterback – a tangible solution to this troubling void. [embedded_ad]
Maybe this all will hold down the fort until either Spencer or Lawrence – or both – return at some point. But the trick is to get to those points with something left to play for, the Cowboys realizing after last year that lack of pressure on a quarterback allows backups such as Matt McGloin, Josh McCown and Matt Flynn to light up your defense.
"This team has no-name guys, guys that weren't No.1 draft picks, guys that were retired," Jones accurately pointed out after Thursday's final preseason game. "You have guys coming back from injuries. This a to-prove group. The to-prove Cowboys."
Boy, you can say that again. Put it in three-inch letters:
THE TO-PROVE COWBOYS!
Yet after the game Thursday night, Jones did not seem to have cutters remorse. Asked what he told Ware when he hugged him on the field during pregame warm-ups, he said he wished him well, that he hoped he had a great season. Even went as far as suggesting he certainly wouldn't rule out Ware being inducted into their Ring of Honor.
That, though, is the past.
In the meantime, the search continues over there at weak-side defensive end, the key component to this 4-3 defense. See the difference Haley made in '92. See the difference Ware made from '05 on.
But, of course, the future over there still is out lingering on the horizon, the distance making this a troubling view.
When it, too, is hugged no one really knows.