FRISCO, Texas – And now we bear witness to the continuing exodus of the 13-3 Dallas Cowboys.
One by one, piece by piece, already nine players contributing this past season to the Cowboys' best record in the NFC and second NFC East title in the past three years are being swept away by the riches of free agency.
Let's pause for a second before we continue, while wondering how many out there were supportive of the NFL embracing this free agency/salary cap system back in 1993, hailing the right-to-work movement that was going on. You know, players should have the right to work where they want like the rest of us.
Well, here you go.
Ronald Leary, gone, but then we anticipated that. Can't afford a steak on every offensive line plate.
Barry Church, the defensive co-captain, gone.
Brandon Carr, having started every game the past five years, gone.
J.J. Wilcox, the backup safety/special teams dude, gone, eroding the safety depth.
Terrell McClain, one of the more consistent defensive linemen during the 2016 season, gone.
Jack Crawford, a, uh, Jack of all trades on the defensive front, gone.
Lance Dunbar, that offensive backfield toy, though somewhat of a luxury, gone.
Ryan Davis, hey, the guy actually started two games, gone.
Doug Free, reportedly retiring with one year left on his contract, going.
Morris Claiborne, coming off the best seven-game stretch of his career, reportedly going, wiping out three-fourths of the original starting secondary.
And last but certainly not least, Tony Romo, in no better than roster limbo – at least his name is still above his locker – TBD.
Now, not including Romo, the 2017 season-opening age of the nine departing players will be 29, assuming Claiborne signs with the Jets. There is a longtime NFL adage that cautions against paying age. Six of the Leaving Nine will be at least 28 by September. One- to three-year deals, OK fine. But four- to five-year deals, no can do, unless QB or pass-rushing DE. Plus, guaranteed money becomes dangerous.
See dead money over the years.
Now, none of these departures come as a total surprise to the Cowboys. They knew it was going to be impossible to retain all 17 of their 20 unrestricted free agents who at least somewhat contributed to their success this past season. There has to be a budget.
But until the March 9 start of free agency, the Cowboys couldn't accurately predict just what fair market value was going to be for their own players. Teams with beaucoup salary cap dollars could afford to spend lavishly, as agent Leigh Steinberg once said, by paying "B" players as if they are "A" players. Or this, by possibly overpaying players who were on successful teams. (See departing Cowboys, mid-1990s).
This is what happens when so many players become unrestricted free agents at the same time, and the nine the Cowboys already seemingly have lost is the most since 11 players departed during free agency in 1995, the likes of Alvin Harper, James Washington, Mark Stepnoski, Jim Jeffcoat, Kenny Gant and Rodney Peete. Bet they all would have loved to hang around to win another Super Bowl that year.
Ah, the lure of money.
So the Cowboys, with limited cap dollars, just like in 1995, had to set priorities. The first was to preserve the strength of the team. And what might that have been?
Why, an offense averaging 27.2 points over the first 15 games, only twice scoring fewer than the 19 points of the season opener with a rookie starting at quarterback.
And they have so far, with the notable exception of losing Leary, though with knowledge of La'el Collins returning, and assuming Free will retire. Again, hard to afford five Pro Bowlers on one offensive line, especially one with arguably four first-round talents.
Remember, owner Jerry Jones, from the outset of free agency, proclaimed two positions that concerned him the most, and we discerned those to be wide receiver and cornerback. The Cowboys managed to survive at wide receiver, re-signing Terrance Williams to a reasonable contract while retaining Brice Butler on a one-year, prove-it contract ($1.1 million) for barely more than his fifth-year minimum ($775,000).
So the offense remains intact, aside from Free's seemingly impending retirement, but aided by the re-signing of Darren McFadden and taking a one-year flier on guard Jonathan Cooper, a former top-10 draft choice. And wouldn't it be something if the Cowboys could convince – and afford – Romo to happily stay put as the backup quarterback. Also, if he doesn't, they needed to budget dollars for a backup, even if they decide on Kellen Moore.
As for the defense, I'd say they lost five guys they would have been glad to retain for the right price – Church, McClain, Claiborne, Carr and Wilcox. But the prices haven't been close to their "right." Remember that darn budget? Teams must set priorities, and darn if the Cowboys haven't been doing a better job of sticking to their priorities and budgets over this decade so far.
Also, let's consider this: If they so desired, the Cowboys could have created needed cap space – and still can – by restructuring a couple more contracts. But you only do that if you are trying to re-sign, say, a Sean Lee or a Zack Martin or a Dez Bryant. And they always have, right?
Also II, if you really think about it, the Cowboys never have lost a player they absolutely wanted to retain. Now, they've lost some good ones, and maybe the best was linebacker Ken Norton Jr. in his prime, but that was back in 1994 when there was this initial adverse philosophy by the team to paying guaranteed money, i.e. big signing bonuses. That changed the next season after the Cowboys failed to win their third consecutive Super Bowl when they found a way to entice free-agent cornerback Deion Sanders to join the good guys.
After that, here would be my, in-no-particular-order, list of the best lost free agents the Cowboys would have re-signed had the money been more reasonable in regards to their available cap space and priorities for spending:
Norton, Stepnoski, kicker Chris Boniol, linebacker Randall Godfrey, running back DeMarco Murray, wide receiver Dwayne Harris and Church. Not an extensive list.
If you think about it, the cap never prevented the Cowboys from keeping, within reason of age and health, an Aikman or Irvin or Novacek or Ware or Emmitt or Romo (and still might not, who knows?). For the proven guys who were integral to the future success of the team, they always managed to find way.
So if you are looking unemotionally at the big picture, of the two positions Jones deemed necessary to somehow replenish in free agency, the secondary remains an issue, especially cornerback, assuming again that Claiborne is leaving for the Jets' reported one-year, $5 million deal. OK, but the Cowboys still have Orlando Scandrick, and I'm thinking they just might be thinking of last year's sixth-round pick Anthony Brown as a starter after the rookie season he had. They did sign veteran Nolan Carroll, so right now there is your top three in some form or fashion for at least the nickel defense. The team at least could open the season tomorrow feeling relatively comfortable.
My guess is, with a safety trio of Byron Jones, Jeff Heath and Kavon Frazier, they will keep their eyes open for a safety with some starting experience who won't break the bank. And there is also this: No team has ever said, "Well, we didn't win our division because our strong safety wasn't good enough." There are certain positions you pay – quarterback, left tackle, wide receiver, running back, defensive end, cornerback, center. Strong safety has never been one unless you happen to land some guy named Darren Woodson who also could play the slot on the nickel.[embeddedad0]
After that, you need a bunch of those "B" players making "B" money. And let's not forget the draft, the most inexpensive way to add quality players. The Cowboys added four starters in the 2016 draft, Ezekiel Elliott, Maliek Collins, Dak Prescott and Brown, and conceivably, depending on health, two more in Charles Tapper and Jaylon Smith.
This yearly free agent process is probably no different than how we all budget our households. The ends have to meet, right? And that's why so far the Cowboys have been very prudent with their dollars, having as of Friday at 3 p.m. signed seven guys for right around $10 million in 2017 cap space. Now that's some serious stretching of your dollars.
You know, sometimes if you want some Steak Oscar, you splurge on the steak but settle for a little imitation on ol' Oscar.