COMMENTARY | It looks as if things are starting to get comfortable at Valley Ranch. The coaching staff is complete and the Dallas Cowboys are officially under the salary cap following an outbreak of contractual realignments.
Now the Cowboys are just one Tony Romo extension away from being able to resign Anthony Spencer and maybe even have enough left over to avoid any cap casualties.
But this is hardly a cause for celebration. The immediate need for financial relief was one of the biggest offseason concerns and had to be addressed one way or the other, but the net result of all these restructured deals is a compromised future. In the short term, the Cowboys are in position to do business as usual for the upcoming season. In the long term, their capacity to participate in free agency has been severely handicapped.
Restructuring a player's contract means taking a percentage of their base salary and turning into a bonus. That bonus is guaranteed money which can be spread out across the life of a deal. It's common place in the NFL for teams to write restructuring options into the language of a contract which allows them to be more strategic in free agency.
But if it's not done correctly, or done excessively, it can cripple a franchise for years.
The Cowboys are in serious danger of tipping that scale. Their history of short-sighted financial decisions mixed with bad draft classes leads to the kind of sequestering they were faced with this offseason. They constantly have to work out short-term discounts via long-term, expensive contracts. In the process, any trade value that a high profile player once had is immediately truncated when his contract is back-loaded and guaranteed.
When it's all said and done, you end up with a roster full of overpaid, old players and little room to negotiate on the open market.
See the Oakland Raiders.
I can assure you that any comparisons made between the Cowboys and the Raiders are sure to make Cowboys' fans nauseous. But it's an appropriate analogy and one that is nearing cliché. The "just win baby" mantra once proudly chanted by the black and silver hopeful has long been replaced with years of bad front office decisions. As a result, they haven't been to the playoffs since 2002. America's Team isn't far from falling into the same black hole.
To be clear, it's not as if the Cowboys are going to go bankrupt, at least not from a financial standpoint. They are still one of the most valuable sports franchises in the world. In fact, they're the second most valued according to Forbes. But that's not say they won't go broke on talent.
Take the 2015 season for example. Dez Bryant, DeMarco Murray, Dwayne Harris, Tyron Crawford and Bruce Carter all become unrestricted free agents. We'd like to think that those five players are a big part of the Cowboys' future. It's going to be extremely difficult for Jerry and Stephen Jones to retain all of them, if any of them, given the recent salary renegotiations. .
Meanwhile, the Cowboys have consistently had "D-grade" drafts over the last decade, failing to build any sort of bright future or foundation (until recently). For a brief moment, with Wade Phillips coaching Bill Parcells' players, the Cowboys won a couple of division titles. Beyond that, it's been nothing but a nauseating mix of overvalued players and misguided salaries, leaving fans wondering " when will my team win the Super Bow l."
There is some hope that the new TV deal, which goes into effect in 2014, will result in a much higher salary cap. That should provide some relief for the Cowboys and their impending financial crisis. Still, there's no doubt that we'll be having this exact same conversation next year, and the year after that, and the year after that. It's business as usual. But eventually, one has to think that it'll all come to a head and the Cowboys will enter full-scale-blowup-the-franchise rebuilding mode.
Until then, there is serenity in the fact that financial regulations have been met. The Cowboys are under the salary cap and can shift their focus to April. I recently suggested that they are one good draft away from being contenders, which was met with an understandable "same story, different year" attitude. I suppose it's fair to suggest that any team is a good draft away from relevancy, but the Cowboys have been one good player-one good play-away from a division title for the last two years. You can't say that about very many teams.
What's absolutely clear in all of this contractual hoopla is the obvious "win now" attitude that seems to have such a death grip on the Cowboys' front office. You don't bankroll the present at the expense of the future unless there's a real sense that a Super Bowl championship is within reach. The Joneses are evidently ready to bet the house their current roster and draft prospects. But then again, what choice do they have? Cut everybody and start over?
Justin Bonnema is a freelance writer and a featured columnist covering the NFL and fantasy football.
Follow him on Twitter: @justinbonnema
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