We can sit at a table over a beverage and a pizza and say that Terence Newman must go and that we don't care who replaces him in February. But, when the Cowboys have lost 3 out of 4 next September because they have no cornerbacks, we might care who is replacing him, right?
For instance, somewhere inside Valley Ranch, there were discussions last spring and summertime about the performance and future of long-time Dallas Cowboys center Andre Gurode. His play had been dropping from one of the better centers in the sport down to a guy who was sliding by on reputation. Poor shotgun snaps and occasionally being beaten on pass protection were reasonable critiques about a player that was in decline and commanded a pretty salty salary.
So, the decision was made that along with Marc Colombo and Leonard Davis, the Cowboys were going to jump into the deep end of the pool without a life preserver and release Gurode at the end of training camp. Surely, they thought that he could be replaced by "anyone" and that he was a guy that we will not miss.
In 2011, Gurode was picked up by Baltimore and did not play well. His decline did continue and he spent the end of the season watching the Ravens offense play from his spot in the sideline. Their evaluation of the direction of his career was not off at all. What was off was the players they had behind him who would snap the ball and center the Cowboys OL for 1,000+ plays in 2011. Phil Costa represented the "anyone" that they thought could replace Gurode, and they were badly mistaken. As declined as Gurode's play was in 2010, the drop off to Costa in 2011 was gigantic. Costa was over-matched in many games and made the middle of the Cowboys line a constant target for stunting and collapsing on run and pass plays alike.
The lesson learned there was simply this: If a player is only a "5 or 6" on the scale of 1-10, you can certainly get better if you replace him with an "8 or 9", but you will also really miss him if you replace him with a "2 or 3". In other words, you better have a plan in place when you want to get rid of one of your veterans, or you may find out that you actually could do worse than the guy you have at that position right now.
Which brings us to both the case of Newman (who I am certain will not be back) and the far more controversial discussion of what to do with Anthony Spencer.
I spent Saturday tweeting a bit about Spencer and here were some of my thoughts:
* I like Alabama's Courtney Upshaw to play OLB. However, he kinda reminds one of Anthony Spencer.
* And to be clear, I think Spencer is a good to pretty good LB and average pass rusher. Not bad, but not dynamite for sure.
* Look, we all want a bookend at OLB for Ware. Nobody is arguing that. But, you better have a plan for that spot, beyond "anybody".
I am certainly not sure that Twitter and 140 characters is the best way to discuss the play of a football player in proper detail, but I hope my point is clear from those tweets and this previous essay on Spencer; You better understand what he is and that what he is will not be replaced "with a warm body".
He is the 2nd OLB in a 3-4 defense and therefore should be compared to those in that same category. To compare him to other #1's like Brian Orakpo, Tamba Hali, or Cameron Wake is not practical. That is DeMarcus Ware's job. He matches up against the other guy, and let's see how that works. Let's look at the "2nd Best" in terms of sack totals that outperformed Spencer of the 3-4s in the NFL in 2011:
That is your entire list of OLBs in 3-4 defenses (11 teams in NFL ran true 3-4s in 2011) that had more productive sack seasons than Anthony Spencer did in 2011. So, if you can get Ryan Kerrigan in here to replace Spencer, I would do that (of course, he is under contract in Washington for 4 more seasons). Jason Taylor is strictly a pass rusher and James Harrison is usually Pittsburgh's #1 but had a banged up season (LaMarr Woodley had 10 sacks). However, the 3-4s in San Francisco, Kansas City, Houston, San Diego, Green Bay, Arizona, and New York all had 2nd LBs that were either at Spencer's 6 or well below.
Obviously, this is not an apples to apples comparison. Some have dominant defensive lines (Arizona, San Francisco) and some have ensemble casts that use a strength in numbers attack.
But, the idea that a warm body can outperform every other 2nd LB in the scheme with the exception of those 3 teams seems worth noting. Next, look at the same category in 2010:
So, again, if you can get Woodley to replace Spencer (like they did on draft day, 2007) then I recommend the Cowboys pull the trigger. Trouble is, Woodley has been signed in Pittsburgh for $60 million dollars. Below that, there are a number of #2 LBs who had between 3-5 sacks, but drastically fewer tackles and assists than Anthony Spencer.
The point of this exercise is to readily admit that you can do better than Anthony Spencer by acquiring a true #1 Linebacker opposite DeMarcus Ware. Of course, the costs will be substantial and we must remember that this is not fantasy football. In fantasy football, you acquire "pass rush specialists" at every spot an think you will get 100 sacks. But, in real football, if you don't have a player setting the edge and shutting down strong side rushing plays, then you get beat. Spencer, of all outside linebackers in the 3-4 in the last two seasons has more tackles than anyone. 53 in 2010 (ranked 2nd behind James Harrison) and 53 in 2011 (ranked 2nd behind Calvin Pace).
Is Pace available? No. Is Harrison available? No. Is Kerrigan? No. Is Orakpo? No.
And yet, I have people telling me that Victor Butler, Alex Albright, or "anyone" can do what Spencer has done?
That is just an unreasonable way to summarize his play in the last few years for the Cowboys. Sacks are important and vital for a 3-4 to get sacks from that spot (of course, it wouldn't hurt if he was standing next to a Defensive end or tackle that could occasionally get home, too) but it is not the entire position.
Spencer's sacks, pressures, QB hits, and tackles combine to show you a much more balanced view of his performance and while it is easy for a reader or fan to simply marginalize everything he does for this team, it is imperative for the brains in the Cowboys war-room to either upgrade him or remember what he brings to the table and keep him in the stable.
Now, I do not say all of this to say that he has been a great pick, or a suitable stud, or even someone who is not replaceable. But as I look at the draft and free agency, I do not see someone who is clearly better than him at the all-around game at his position. The only 3-4 outside linebackers that are on the market are Ahmad Brooks (a player that San Francisco is happy to replace), Eric Walden (discarded by Green Bay), and Clark Haggans (35 years old). Further, if I use pick #14 on another outside linebacker, then I cannot use that pick on a defensive lineman, defensive back, or offensive lineman - where I clearly still have holes.
So, do I take Courtney Upshaw or Melvin Ingram at #14 to fill a hole I just made? I don't think you make any progress letting a solid linebacker go if there is another alternative.
With that in mind, here is my proposal to keep from having to either let him walk or sign him to an extension that makes everyone uncomfortable.
I slap the franchise tag on him. The tag this year is $8.8 million and keeps him in a Cowboys uniform for another season so the franchise can fill their other holes and find his replacement.
Therefore, I am not married to him, and yet I do not open up another major hole. If he performs well in 2012, we talk extension. If I think he is holding me back, we move along.
But, I cannot fix this defense by subtracting a reasonable piece while adding another. That is called running in place while the clock continues to tick on the primes of Ware, Jay Ratliff, Tony Romo, Jason Witten, and Miles Austin. I need to figure out which places are well below average (both defensive ends, cornerback) and address those while allowing players in their prime to stay in the mix so the Cowboys can try to win now.
Franchising Spencer might hurt to write that big of a check, but since this alternative is available, I think the Cowboys should strongly consider it to buy them some time in an effort to turn this thing around quickly. Cap room is available and this is a great way to put the decision off for 12 months.