Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Chatting With Cowboys Friends

Today, I thought we would get together with a few of my favorite online Cowboys' friends, David Newbury and Rafael Vela.  Newbury is on Sportsradio 1310 The Ticket and can be followed on Twitter at @Newbury1310 while Vela has been blogging on the Cowboys online for years and years.  His current home is Cowboys Nation and is a fantastic resource.  You can also follow him on Twitter at @cowboysnation1 and both are worthwhile follows.  

Bob Sturm:  I would like to start by getting both of you to elaborate on your thoughts going into the offseason on the topics of the veterans who might be gone, the cap situation, and how that affects Anthony Spencer and any free agency ideas you have.  Can he be kept?  If not, how big of a deal is this?  Would you franchise or extend for years?  And, is Romo a no-brainer for a 4-5 year extension?

That should get the ball rolling.  Whoever would like first, fire away!

David Newbury: The Cowboys’ head into the 2013 offseason with a payroll north of $134 million and 43 players under contract.  As of today Dallas has $90 million committed to 10 players.  Romo, Carr and Ware have a combined cap number of $44.4 million.  Free, Austin, Ratliff, Connor and Sensabaugh currently combine for $33.6 million towards the 2013 cap.  Dallas also has a cap deficit of $5 million because of their penalties.  They face two major decisions this offseason that will greatly impact the rest of their roster.  Should Dallas keep Anthony Spencer and should they extend Tony Romo? 

The fear of losing Spencer should not be the reason Dallas extends Romo.  If Jerry believes he is a Super Bowl caliber QB then he should extend him.   Unfortunately, this GM is never honest with himself.  Jerry truly believes that the Cowboys are close to being a Super Bowl contender.  It’s the reason he traded a 1st, 3rd and 6th round pick for Roy Williams and gave Leonard Davis $50 million.  Jerry is also terrified of making a move that will delay a Super Bowl appearance.  That fear lead to him overpaying Free, Austin and Williams.  Over 20% of the 2012 cap was tied up by dead money.  Dallas decided to spread part of the cap penalty and dead money to 2013 so they could be active in free agency.  Jerry chose to go for it again in 2012 instead of planning for the future.  Jerry gave Carr $60 million, Livings $18.7 million, Bernadeau $11.5 million and Dan Connor $6.5 million.  Instead of drafting Spencer’s replacement Jerry decided to trade his 2nd round pick for another corner.  I love Mo Claiborne but I hate the trade. Those decisions could keep Dallas from resigning Spencer and force them to release serviceable veterans like Sensabaugh and Austin.

Dallas needs to first decide if Spencer can be a dynamic player in Monte Kiffin’s 4-3 system.  It sounds simple. However, there are too many examples of this team signing good players that don’t fit their system.  I believe he can be a dynamic player in this system.  Next, Dallas must decide how high they are willing to go to keep him and stick to that number.  Do not match a crazy contract because you don’t like the idea of him playing somewhere else. Dallas must remember that Lee, Smith and Bryant will be free agents eventually.   Dallas could franchise Spencer a second time.  This is an expensive option, but it would allow them to see how Spencer plays in a 4-3 defense.  They would have to free up $33 million before they could apply the franchise tag.  Dallas could free up $10.5 million by restructuring Carr’s deal.  In addition they would have to restructure Ware and Romo’s contracts.  They would also have to cut Free, Connor and possibly Ratliff or Sensabaugh.  That’s a lot to do to keep one player for one year.  In Spencer’s case, it could be the right thing to do.  Spencer is 29. Dallas should offer him a “team friendly” 4 yrs-$32 mil or 5 yrs- $36 million.  If he turns it down, inform him that you plan on franchising him.  Dallas can remove the franchise tag at any point.  This gives Dallas options on draft day.  Dallas can remove the franchise tag if they land a defensive end that is a better fit.  The one thing Dallas can’t do is over pay a 29 year old defensive lineman.  They made that mistake with Ratliff.

I think extending Romo is a no brainer.  He’s a good QB. The people that want to replace him forget who is running this franchise.  It’s the same guy that selected Quincy Carter in the 2nd round.  We all need to remember how many QB’s this franchise went through between Aikman and Romo.  Dallas got lucky with Romo.  The GM even admitted he was “a miracle”.  He’s not going anywhere.  The question is, how long will Romo be the QB.  He’ll turn 33 before the start of next season.  I’m not concerned with Romo’s age.  Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees are all older than Romo and are still playing at a high level.  I am concerned about the beating he takes every week.   The aforementioned QB’s all play for teams that invest heavily in their offensive lines.  Dallas needs to follow that blueprint.

This is a great year for Dallas to negotiate with Romo.  He doesn’t have the same leverage statistically as he did after the 2011 season.  However, Romo knows he holds the keys to the offseason.  I think Romo has a great chance to win over a lot of fans this offseason.  Do what Dirk did before the Mavs won the title.  Romo needs to sign a club friendly deal, even if it means taking a little less money than he could get.  The deal must be structured in a club friendly manner.  Give Dallas some financial flexibility/relief. There are a lot of people that still see him as the “if this is the worst thing that happens to me QB.”  It’s his chance to tell the fans that winning in Dallas is more important than his contract.  Romo needs to understand that Dallas will have to address the defensive line early in this draft if Spencer leaves.  That will prevent Dallas from upgrading HIS offensive line.  I think a 5 year deal for $70 million is fair.  I can’t pay him $20 million a year.  That is Super Bowl winning money.  Just like during the season, the key to winning is in Romo’s hands.

Sturm: David, you hit on quite a few things in there that are worth discussing further.  I would start with the Spencer issue that most bothers me because I always believe that a team gets in major trouble when they make mistakes on top of other mistakes to cover for the original mistakes.  This seems wordy, but I think it describes the Cowboys about as well as anything could.  They continuously are trying to fix mistakes, and end up making things worse.  

That leads me to this offseason where Spencer appears to be an ideal fit in a 4-3 as a defensive end, and generally, we can all agree that this is one of the most important spots in the scheme.  Yet, as a player who is coming off what I feel are at least 2 strong years in a row, he is being considered a cap casualty.  Part of this is real - as you documented, the cap situation in the present tense is quite difficult to manage - and part of it is anticipating the difficulty dead ahead with the contracts due to Sean Lee, Dez Bryant, and Tyron Smith which could all be huge and headed this way in a short amount of time.  

But, I continue to feel that it is backward thinking to do anything but secure your best players and sort the rest out later.  If Spencer is legitimately projected to be a top 10 player on this roster for the next several years, then you must sort it out and keep him around.  They gambled on the franchise tag as opposed to a longer extension to get him to "prove it" on the field.  Well, he did, and now his extension is likely out of the neighborhood you quoted.  That part is debatable, but what isn't is the ramifications if you let him walk.  Then, you have pretty much made your offseason about trying to find a replacement for Doug Free and a replacement for Anthony Spencer.  This, is what Bono has so properly labeled as "Running to Stand Still" and not making any headway on addressing the things on this roster that are generally ignored in the offseason - guard, center, safety, defensive tackle - but seen as overall weaknesses during the year.

I liken it to Tyson Chandler with the Mavericks - although the circumstances are significantly different, of course.  If you have a player who you think is at a premium spot and is not close to diminishing talents, then you keep the premium player and figure out the finances.  Letting a player go because you have locked up money in players you don't feel as strongly about is a problem that might hurt, but must be addressed in the order of importance.  Anything else is backwards thinking.  In effect, you build your roster by placing your top players on a board with their projected prime as a guide.  If you are giving extensions to players who don't have much left on their primes (Jay Ratliff, Jason Witten) then you are making things way more difficult on yourself, but you better not mean that you are sacrificing guys still in their prime to do so.

This is classic life-on-a-treadmill thinking that you can never get out of.  That is why the "we can't afford to keep Spencer" logic is so frustrating.  You begin you plans with a guy like Spencer, you don't wait to see what leftovers you can offer him.  Conversely, you must draw the line somewhere where you are not beholden to players who have already played their best football eating the majority of your cap and costing you chances at upgrades.

It truly is a model that is broken and getting worse each year.  I would love some explanations on the big picture plans for this cap as huge looming cap numbers approach for DeMarcus Ware next season.

Rafael Vela:  In one of his cockier moments during the Super Bowl '90s, Jerry Jones bragged that his wealth was obvious.  If everybody in the world could start with the same amount of money, he explained, the same people who currently had the biggest portfolios would do so again in short time.  Winners were winners.

Let's take Jerry's metaphor and apply it to the world of NFL drafting, where Jones has seen something less than success in his nineteen years as the sole totem atop the Cowboys pole.  (This April draft will be the 20th post Jimmy Johnson!)  In the cap-era NFL, draft picks are the major currency and the league plays a version of Jerry's wealth distribution game, giving each team seven draft picks each spring.  It's then up to the general managers to invest them wisely.  Following up on David Newbury's point that Dallas has burned an excessive amount of high picks in recent years, I decided to chart how all the NFL teams have used their priority picks in rounds 1-3.  These are the building block picks, which produce the most impact players an early starters.  

I created a frame starting in 2007, the first year after Bill Parcells abdicated the Cowboys throne.  In the six subsequent seasons, each NFL team has started with 18 picks, three in each round.  Those teams which lost priority free agents and did not replace them may have realized an extra 3rd round pick or even two in that span.  Here's the list of high picks the teams have amassed during Jerry 2.0.  (I've chopped the list a bit for space):

1.   New England  25 picks
2T.  Detroit  23 picks
2T.  Kansas City  23 picks
4T.  Cincinnati  22 picks
4T.  Denver   22 picks
6.   Miami  21 picks
7T. Baltimore 20 picks
7T. Atlanta  20 picks
7.  St. Louis 20 picks
10T.  Green Bay  19 picks
10 T.  NY GIants 19 picks
10 T.  Philadelphia  19 picks
10.T.  Pittsburgh  19 picks...
28T.  Dallas 14 picks
28T  New Orleans 14 picks
28T. Minnesota 14 pick
31T.  NY Jets 13 picks
31T.  Washington 13 picks

Any surprise that Dallas ranks in the bottom quarter of early draft pick attempts since Jerry reclaimed the helm?  He groused earlier this year that it's unacceptable for the Cowboys to continually finish one win short of the playoffs, as the  team again did in 2012, but look at the pressure he's putting on his scouts and himself by dealing away high picks.  He's had eleven fewer early round picks than Bill Belichick.  He's had six fewer than Ozzie Newsome.  In the conference, he's had six fewer picks than the Falcons' Thomas Dimitroff, and five less than the Giants Jerry Reese and the Packers' Ted Thompson.

And every one of those guys knows how to find good football players.

If Jerry had given the organization four or five extra picks up top, might he have a couple more key starters and the depth necessary to find that extra win?   That's why keeping Anthony Spencer is the team's top early off-season priority.  I think he can excel in the 4-3 and his team has made free agency an inordinately large part of its developmental program.

You can't keep pace with guys like Newsome, Reece and Belichick when they get one to two more early round picks than your team every year unless you hit it big in free agency.

It's a vicious cycle towards mediocrity.   The Jones give themselves fewer spins at the draft wheel, chasing bling players like Dez Bryant and Morris Claiborne.  They then find themselves short on depth and overall talent, which sends them to free agency.  They then give out desperation deals to guys like an over-the-hill Terrell Owens or a suspect starter like Mackenzy Bernadeau.  Until the Cowboys stop burning high picks, they give themselves no choice.

Jerry may manage his personal wealth like Warren Buffet, but he's managed his draft pick portfolio like Dez Bryant manages his money.  That's left Dallas fans all the poorer.  

Sturm: Thanks for that information there, Mr Vela.  I did not realize the deficiency in the number of picks was to that extent.  

I enjoyed this extended back and forth and I hope we can do this again real soon.  Please check both of these guys out in their various places online found up top.  It is well worth your time. 


JC said...

Strong on all 3 counts

Justin said...

Hey Bob, Doesn't your logic also explain why the Boy's have Doug Free in the contract he is in. He had 2 very good seasons. The cowboys made sure to keep him and are still trying to figure out the finances. I don't think it can be as easy needing to keep your good players. Contracts need to be value. If you are paying market for a player, how are you to get a return?