Spagnola: The Dilemma Of Hammering Away With A Salary Cap Lurking Overhead

IRVING, Texas– The Franchise Tag.

S.B.K.A. (Should Be Known As) The Hammer.

The NFL's free agency/salary cap mechanism as liked as is universally disliked. The one teams can use to virtually retain exclusive rights to an impending unrestricted free agent for one year, but at a hefty financial cost to both the pocketbook and the salary cap.

The players, they dislike the franchise tag. While they receive guaranteed money and a salary the average of the top-five players at their position, the contract is for only one year. No bonus. They have to essentially work for their money, not a strange nor aggravating concept for the rest of us.

Thus, no long-term security. Get injured during the one-year deal and lose marketing power in free agency for the next year when theoretically you are an unrestricted free agent again.

Ask Anthony Spencer, requiring microfracture knee surgery the second time he was franchised ($10.627 million) by the Dallas Cowboys in 2013 and had to basically settle for a near-minimum, one-year deal ($1.250 million) laced with playing time and sack incentives the next with the Cowboys since no other team was willing to take a financial chance in 2014 on a player labeled "damaged goods."

The owners, too, they really don't like the franchise tag either. Oh, they appreciate the ability to protect one unrestricted free agent's rights each year if they so choose while knowing they would receive two first-round draft choices in return if deciding not to match another team's offer sheet to the player.

But the owners would so rather have a player they value signed to a long-term contract for salary cap purposes. That way, the NFL's salary cap rules allowing teams to prorate signing bonuses over the life of a contract enables teams to lessen the yearly cap impact for several years. In other words, say a player's franchise tag would cost, oh, $13 million. That $13 million all would count against the cap in 2015. But if signed to a long-term deal, and say you guaranteed the player $20 million on a five-year deal, then only $4 million plus the yearly base salary would count against the cap.

And for the first year, the cap hit might be like $7 million instead of $13 million, a significant cap savings.

Thus the hammer.

The club can hold the tag over the player's head, basically saying, if you don't agree to this long-term deal then you only get one year's worth of guaranteed money, and we wish you well the next year if you happen to get injured since we won't owe you a dime. You want to take that risk?

The player can hold the tag over the owner's head, basically saying, if you don't offer me the long-term deal with the amount of guaranteed money to suit my tastes, then go ahead, take that $13 million one-year hit against the cap, possibly costing you the ability to sign, oh, say your unrestricted free agent running back who led the league in rushing.

Just saying.

And so here we are, nearly one week into this franchise-tag saga between the Cowboys and Dez Bryant, the mercurial wide receiver, along with his agents, who have yet to receive what they perceive as a satisfactory, market-value offer from the Cowboys that would include guaranteed money due one of the best five receivers in the NFL.

The Cowboys officially raised their hammer this week during the NFL Scouting Combine when team COO Stephen Jones verbalized what we knew all along: That the Cowboys certainly would be leaning toward using the Franchise Tag on Bryant if the two sides can't agree on a long-term deal by the March 2 deadline to tag a player. And that certainly does not preclude eventually coming to terms on a long-term deal, since that negotiating period lasts until July 15. In other words, buys some time.

Why what Jones said caused nationwide shuttering befitting the spotting of a great white shark is beyond me. Mere commonsense.

Then Dez counters, on Twitter of course, tweeting out that he understands it's "business," but when egged on then maintains he just wishes the Cowboys valued him as much as he valued playing for the team, angling for the sympathy vote and second-handedly letting the Cowboys know he isn't budging from his requests. He also knows if he's counting $13 million against the Cowboys cap this year that they will be hamstrung to do a whole lot else in free agency, including having the ability to possibly re-sign many of their other 15 unrestricted free agents (including Murray) and make suitable qualifying offers to the four restricted free agents, let alone court other perceived bottom-feeder free agents around the league.

Hammers up.

Now the sympathy factor is hard to play when you have an opportunity to make a guaranteed $13 million in one year's worth of work. In fact, if indeed that is all Dez makes this year, that would be more money in one year than he earned over his first five years in the league ($11,810,500), of which $8.625 million was guaranteed.

So in reality, the duel going on here is cap space (i.e. ability to sign mo' better players) vs. guaranteed money (i.e. long-term security). The Cowboys want the former and Dez wants the latter, but neither can get either unless they come to a middle ground.

That's why having offensive Triplets on the team is nearly a thing of the past since back then that was dependent on the owner having enough money to afford such an expenditure. But now, hard to afford a quarterback, running back and wide receiver averaging double-digit million-dollar hits against the cap as was possible back in the day when a hard cap had yet to come into existence.

Look at it this way, and certainly this is what the Cowboys are struggling with: Quarterback Tony Romo, before any potential adjustments, will cost $27 million against the cap in 2015. Say Dez is franchised and plays for the tag, that's another $13 million, so the two guys now charge $40 million. And if Murray thinks he's worth a $10 million cap hit, now three players would be counting $50 million against a projected $143 million (possibly a tad more) salary cap.

That would mean you are spending 35 percent of your cap on three players. That then also means you would have just $93 million for your other 50 final roster players, and that does not take into account funding a practice squad and absorbing the salaries of players who will eventually land on injured reserve.

If this is the case, and again, this is hypothetical, then salary cap hits for those other 50 players could average only $1.86 million. Already the Cowboys have 11 other players not named Romo averaging at least $1.86 million against the cap, and remember that does not include the likes of trying to re-sign Doug Free, Rolando McClain, Bruce Carter, Justin Durant, Nick Hayden, George Selvie, Spencer, Dwayne Harris and Jermey Parnell – all guys essential to the Cowboys 2014 success – along with distributing qualifying offers to restricted free agents such as Cole Beasley, Lance Dunbar, Chris Jones and Sterling Moore, all of which would charge a minimum of $1.5 million on a one-year deal with nothing in return if signed to offer sheets by other teams.

Oh, and this does not account for the $12.869 million of dead money that will charge against the Cowboys cap this year, thus significantly lowering the $93 million figure we are working off of to roughly $81 million for the lower 50. Forgot that didn't you, especially the $5.1 million last year's release of Miles Austin still is costing the Cowboys. And now another $3.98 million for all the finagling the Cowboys have done with Free's contract over the past three seasons, extending and then reducing.

There are no free get-out-of-jail cards available when it comes to this salary cap and guaranteed money. Quite punitive. Similar to those out there who can't pay off their credit-card balances each month. Problems compound, and they always get you in the end.

Just remember, of the 20 unrestricted and restricted free agents the Cowboys have, 12 of those guys were considered starters on the final depth chart of the season, which includes nickel back Moore, nickel receiver Beasley, punter Jones, special teams ace Harris and right tackle Parnell, but does not include the injured Free. That's a lot.

Hopefully this helps further understand the dilemma the Cowboys are fighting this offseason, no different than 31 other teams.

While wanting to bring the band back together again is a noble goal, when you win, when you have success, that's almost prohibitive with free agency and a salary cap hanging over your head. I mean, since the Cowboys won that first of three 1990s Super Bowls in 1992, and free agency began in earnest in 1994, here are a few of the more prominent free agents the Cowboys lost from 1993-2000 while paying for the right to keep Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin:

Steve Beuerlein, Kelvin Martin, Tony Casillas, John Gesek, Kevin Gogan, Jimmie Jones, Ken Norton Jr., Kenny Gant, Alvin Harper, Jim Jeffcoat, Rodney Peete, Mark Stepnoski, James Washington, Larry Brown, Dixon Edwards, Russell Maryland, Ron Stone, Chris Boniol, John Jett, Darrin Smith, Brock Marion, Randall Godfrey, Toby Gowin and, uh, Jason Garrett.

And people wondered why the band fell to pieces in 2000, the Cowboys going through that stretch of having just two winning seasons (1999 and 2003 ) over an eight-year span (1997-2004).

This free agency/salary cap stuff is a grizzly bear.

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