IRVING, Texas – Since the depressing end to the 2013 season, there has been talk of DeMarcus Ware being over the hill.
That the wear and tear of nine NFL seasons is starting to catch up with the body of this seven-time Pro Bowler that will turn 32 the last day of July.
That the switch from playing outside linebacker in the Cowboys' previous 3-4 defensive alignment to defensive end with his hand in the dirt in the current 4-3 scheme subjected his body to far too much abuse.
That he no longer is worth the money, the scheduled $12.25 million base salary for 2014 that comes along with a $16 million salary cap hit against a team's bloated cap in need of deflation.
Just cut him, some say, take the cap hit and move on.
The poor guy could barely raise his right arm to defend himself Wednesday evening at AT&T Stadium where he kept an appearance commitment to Nationwide despite having undergone two surgeries not much more than 24 hours earlier. That's right, two.
First, that bothersome right elbow was scoped to clear out some loose bodies, something he had been contemplating since the end of the season.
Second, while they were under the hood, doctors opened up the elbow to realign the ulnar nerve, repositioning the pinched nerve into a more comfortable compartment between the muscles, leaving his right arm, from the hand to the shoulder thoroughly and significantly wrapped, as if the start of being mummified.
"Already feels better, can tell the difference," Ware said as he managed to sign footballs, pointing out he had been wearing basically an elbow pad used by hockey players all season long since injuring the elbow in training camp. "If I hit it just right was like a bunch of bee stings each time."
Combine the elbow with the badly bruised quad, along with the neck strain he put up with most of the season, and maybe we better understand his career-low six-sack season and why he registered only two sacks in the final 13 games (missing three of those) after collecting four in the first three. And why he would be seen on the sideline even more during crucial stretches of games over the final month of the season.
Now, as bad as this dual elbow surgery might sound, and definitely looked the next day, Ware insists he'll be ready for the start of the official offseason workouts, including the OTAs and minicamps come May.
Physically, he says he'll be just fine and plans to play a little lighter this season, no longer worried about needing the extra weight he put on last year because of the move to defensive end. Mentally, he says he'll be even better.
Now the hard part: The financials, although Ware says the Cowboys, needing to get their salary cap powder a bit drier, have not come to him with any cap-saving proposals.
As usual, the annual salary cap hysteria is swirling, you know, same song, next verse for a team always spending to the cap maximum, so many pulling their hair out worrying how the Cowboys will trim $20 million off their cap; how will they have enough money to even draft or possibly even do minimal work in free agency.
At ease, Cowboys COO Stephen Jones says. The situation is not as dire as it seems, though does need some adjusting. For starters, if reports coming out of Indianapolis are accurate, the cap will rise from what was expected to be like close to $125 million to around $130 million. That helps.
Then, I found out this: If the Cowboys decide to adjust the base salaries of Tony Romo ($13.5 million) and Ware ($12.25 million), which they knew would have to be done when writing those contracts, they would shave $18.5 million off the 2014 cap. That simple. And guys don't mind this since base salary is converted into signing bonus, which means they actually get their money up front instead of over a 17-week period during the season.
Oh, and I can hear the screams now, about how that just compounds the cap problems into future years by turning base salary now into a prorated signing bonus that will hamper them down the road. Yeah, right, but remember, the salary cap will continue to rise, giving the Cowboys much more room to absorb the hits.
There are those who insist the Cowboys should just part ways with Ware, cut him because they are told they can reduce a cap hit from $16 million to just $8.571 million in dead money. That is true. But can a team that already is dealing with $11.8 million in dead money for 2014 move that figure to nearly $20 million being spent for nothing?
They will tell you that dead money can be minimized by making Ware a post-June 1 release. That is true, $3.75 million. But what they fail to mention is another $5.3 million will charge in 2015, and that you can't use the available space created until after June 1.
The same with all this talk about Miles Austin. You know, how Austin's steady decline these past two years is not worth a $5.5 million base salary. Maybe so, but release him today and he'll charge $7.855 million against the cap, again for nothing. Do so after June 1, you're told Austin will count just $2.749 million this year. But what they fail to tell you is that in 2015 he'll count another $3.92 million in dead money.
As you can see, when it comes to the salary cap, once you pay a signing bonus or write guaranteed money into a contract, there is no free get-out-of-jail card available.
The other alternative is to strong-arm a player, meaning offer a cut in base salary or else. That is a delicate issue. And don't think just because that worked with Doug Free last year that will work with a Ware. You say no one will offer him a deal to make the $12.25 million in base salary. Maybe not, but that's where an agent has to do his homework.
What another team might do, though, is write a deal giving the player a chance to earn what he was supposed to earn, a combination of signing bonus, base salary and incentives. Also remember that guys are more likely to take a pay cut in someone else's locker room than in their own.
Then there is what Baltimore did with a similar case to Ware's, that of Terrell Suggs, who was heading into the final year of a six-year, $62.5 million deal that included a $7.8 million base salary with a $12.4 million cap hit. The Ravens decided that was too rich for their cap blood but weren't willing to part ways with Suggs, who was sort of in the same performance boat as Ware.
Suggs, too, will turn 32 this coming season. He's had 12 sacks in the past two seasons, compared to Ware's 17.5. Of the 10 Suggs registered in 2013, only one came in the final eight games of the season. And in 2012, Suggs was healthy enough to play just eight games.
So here is what the Ravens just did: They tore up Suggs' final year of his contract, then signed him to a four-year, $28.5 million deal extension, with $11 million in signing bonus and $16 million guaranteed. The deal was constructed to count just $7.8 million against the cap in 2014 instead of the previous $12.4 million.
And when it comes to dead money, the deal really is a three-year contract, since the Ravens could cut him after the 2016 season and only cost them $4.4 million that could be spread over two years if a post-June 1 release.
In the end, the Ravens get the cap relief they needed and Suggs gets the money he was owed in 2014 in the first place, and then some for his trouble. Sort of the same as turning existing base salary into signing bonus. The only difference is the Cowboys have the preexisting miscellaneous prorated bonuses from previous restructures totaling more than $8 million to still account for whatever new deal would be signed.
Also let's remember, it's not just the dead money simply releasing Ware costs you, but replacing him with another player capable of just six sacks in a season will cost, too. And need I remind you that until these past two seasons, no Cowboys player not named Ware had more than six sacks in the three previous seasons to that (2009-11), and since Ware has been here, only Greg Ellis had more than eight sacks in a single season (12.5 in 2007). That's going back a ways. [embedded_ad]
In fact, Ellis' nine sacks in 2004 were the most by a Cowboys player from 1997-2005, a total of nine seasons. So let's not just assume Ware is so replaceable since the only three guys with double-digit sacks since he arrived in 2005 are either retired (Ellis) or unrestricted free agents (Jason Hatcher and Anthony Spencer). Also, Ellis was, uh, 32 years old when he recorded those 12.5 sacks for the Cowboys in 2007.
To me, the only way none of this restructuring makes sense is if the Cowboys are convinced Ware's body is breaking down beyond future effectiveness. And it sure doesn't sound as if they feel that way.
Just the other day, Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett had this to say about Ware, pointing out the injuries prevented Ware from practicing enough to properly prepare for games during the second half of the season:
"I think if you watched him in training camp and the early part of the season, you saw him transition pretty quickly (to defensive end). But again, a lot of the injuries started to creep in on him and he was practicing less and less and fighting through these things and wasn't quite himself as the year went on. So hopefully with him, the big question is health, getting him healthy and getting him back to his old form."
Form that includes a right elbow minus unwelcomed floating bodies and the debilitating feeling of bee stings upon contact.
So ask yourself this question before you decide to eat $8.571 million of dead money:
Who among us wants to bet, say, $50,000 of our own money that Ware is done? Be honest, raise your right hand.