IRVING, Texas – Before this season, Anthony Spencer had never garnered more than 6.5 sacks. He hadn't made a Pro Bowl and more importantly, he had never been a consistent player the Cowboys expected when they drafted him in the first round in 2007.
And then came the contract year. Or the second one, actually.
But even though Cowboys' fans scratched their heads with puzzled looks when the club issued the $8.8 million franchise tag to Spencer, the sixth-year pro has actually proved to be worth every penny of it this year.
And he's about to earn a few more pennies, probably on a long-term basis here in the future.
Will it be with the Cowboys? That's an interesting question and one that likely won't have real answers for a while.
On one hand, you can say Spencer is well worth a long-term contract probably in the neighborhood of $40-50 million over six or seven years.
However, the Cowboys will be up against the salary cap yet again and re-signing him, especially with Tony Romo possibly getting a new deal as well, could make it hard for the Cowboys to dole out a worthy contract for Spencer.
While Spencer will likely test the free-agent market in March, the Cowboys could always give him the franchise tag once again to retain his negotiating rights.
Regardless where he signs, Spencer has earned a big contract with a career season of 11 sacks. And the honors might not be over for Spencer, who ranked fourth in the NFC in sacks and quite possibly could be an alternate for the Pro Bowl roster. And with DeMarcus Ware, who made his seventh straight Pro Bowl, having two surgeries in the near future and unlikely to play in the game, Spencer might finally get the call to Hawaii. But the Cowboys do not announce alternates for the Pro Bowl until they are selected to the game, which is played on Jan. 27.
Whether or not, Spencer makes it to the Pro Bowl, he certainly has had a breakout season. And the Cowboys needed every bit of it considering how many injuries they sustained at inside linebacker with Sean Lee and Bruce Carter both out for the year. Not only that, but Ware hardly resembled himself down the stretch with a plethora of injuries.
Head coach Jason Garrett was asked about Spencer's future with the Cowboys. While he somewhat sidestepped that issue, he did speak highly of his play this year.
"Yeah, Spence played great. You guys have heard me say this a lot but he's just a darn good football player and a lot of people get caught up in the sacks that he has or didn't have over the course of his first four years in the league," Garrett said. "But he's always impacted the game. He's a hard guy to block. He's a hard guy to block in the run game. He's a hard guy to block in the pass game."
On Monday following the season finale loss to the Redskins, Garrett said he met with most of the players individually and revealed some of his conversation with Spencer.
"I told him today that the things that impressed me the most was the leadership role that he took," Garrett said. "He really took charge of that defense particularly when those two inside linebackers went out and took over the signal calling and just really became so much more invested in the entire scheme and just continued to play better. There were a number of occasions during the year, late in the year, when these guys are really banged up that I literally was like, 'Wow, look at how hard he is practicing.' Just the effort that he would give on Wednesday and Thursday and Friday to get himself right to play well on Sunday was really remarkable and a great example to the rest of our team, an inspiration to the rest of our team. Again, he showed up every week and we've seen him make plays every week."
While Spencer showed up in practice, he also showed up on Sundays, particularly in the most crucial of moments.
During the Cowboys' streak of wins in the second half of the year, Spencer made several fourth-quarter sacks, including one on Robert Griffin III on Sunday to give the offense the ball back late in the game with a chance to tie or win it.
"At critical moments he was the guy that was making the plays," Garrett said. "He's always made a lot of different kinds of plays but it seemed this year at crunch time he was one of those guys who consistently make those defensive stops, gives us a chance to get the ball back to go win the game on offense."
Clearly, Spencer was a difference maker in 2012. Now the Cowboys have to figure out if he'll be around to do it again in 2013.