Free Agency Roundup

Free Agency in the NFL is like Christmas. You know it’s coming, the anticipation becomes palpable in the last few hours, and everyone pretends they’re not peeking at their presents early. Normally, Cowboys fans are spectators–we’re lucky if Dallas signs one player during this time–but this season America’s Team was at the forefront of the headlines scrolling at the bottom of SportsCenter in the early afternoon. A few players aren’t with the team any longer, and a few new jerseys will be in the pro shop. Here’s the breakdown.

Laurent Robinson leaves the team. A lot of articles and airtime is already being devoted to this, so there are only two things to know about this. First, the Jaguars paid a sizable amount of money for a sixteen game body of work (five years, $32.5 million with $13.8 million guaranteed). The Cowboys were never going to match that price point, and that’s good. Jerry Jones has a penchant for dealing out huge contracts just to avoid knowing what the team would be like without that player. You should be glad that he stayed fiscally conservative. Second thing to remember: I told you this would happen, that can’t be understated.

Brandon Carr gets signed to his favorite team. There were two starting cornerbacks available in this class, and the Cowboys signed one. Dallas desperately needed a cornerback to shore up the pass defense, and they quickly identified the best available player to accomplish that. Brandon Carr was cut by the Chiefs, which isn’t something that you normally want to hear. Instead of his talent being the reason, Carr was cut because the Chiefs couldn’t afford his contract–they signed Stanford Routt instead; enjoy that, Kansas City. Brandon Carr has admitted that he likes to make the four quarters a long war, specifically mentioning that he wants the receiver to take his verbal and physical barbs personally. Cowboys fans will need to get used to a corner who seeks contact instead of helping running backs audition for the US Olympic hurdling team. From a scouting perspective, he is kind of limited. He is really only good in man coverage, specifically press-man schemes. (Not so) Coincidentally, the Ryan defense is predicated on cornerbacks playing a high percentage of man coverage schemes, with the vast majority being press-man derivatives. Not only did they address a positional need, but they signed a player that is ideal for the defensive system.

Kyle Orton is waiting in the wings. The Cowboys wasted no time in addressing a problem that wasn’t given a lot of attention going into free agency, even though it has burned the club in the past. In four years of being a full time starter, Tony Romo has started the whole season only two years. First Brad Johnson screwed us over, then Jon Kitna had to go and get old. At first glance it seems odd to sign a backup to a multi-year deal, but because the likelihood is high that he will play, the best possible replacement was needed. Orton had to be signed quickly because another team would have offered him a starting position if negotiations took too long. Orton isn’t a pro bowler by any means, but the Clevelands, Jacksonvilles, and Miamis of the world might have come calling if the Cowboys didn’t lock him down. David Gerrard has been given the opportunity to battle for a starting spot, Kyle Orton would have gotten more than one call.  His contract looks scary ($5 million guaranteed), but the team did what it had to do. If a good quarterback isn’t ready to take the wheel when Romo goes down, it doesn’t matter how well the other parts of the team are playing, the season is over.

Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings add depth at Guard. The Cowboys had a lot of holes, but on Offense the most glaring was the interior Offensive Line. The stronger the line, the better the running attack will be–which obviously translates to success through the air. Both of these players have been quality performers with other franchises, and having experienced tackles at their shoulders will only help them, but that shouldn’t preclude Dallas from looking hard at David DeCastro from Stanford with the number 14 pick.

Dan Connor is underrated. The Inside Linebacker previously with the Carolina Panthers is going to be the most impressive but least talked about signing from this class in a few seasons–not unlike starting linebacker Sean Lee. Lee and Connor are similar players, and have a lot of experience playing together from their time at Penn State. Sean Lee’s impact on the defense was almost immediate, and there’s a possibility that we just added someone like him. Take some time to dream about those possibilities. Connor was brought in to compete with Bruce Carter at the position, but if he is anything like his fellow Nittany Lion he will find himself involved in a lot of plays no matter what his position on the depth chart.

Now free agency is pretty much over, and everyone’s focus goes to the draft. Only time will tell if these signings turn out to be a new Sega Genesis or lumps of coal.

How Miles Austin’s Contract Got Dallas in Trouble

The league today gave the Cowboys a $10 million hit against their salary cap number in response to actions during the 2010 uncapped year. The penalty can be taken over the 2012 and 2013 seasons–i.e., $5 million in 2012 and the other $5 million in 2013. The league was very vague, not going into detail as to what exactly Dallas did wrong. Similar to fining DeMarcus Ware for a hit on a quarterback, they said “We’re punishing you. We won’t really bother to tell you what you did wrong, you should know.” Fortunately I think I have it figured out.

It’s all Miles Austin’s fault.

In 2010 he signed a new seven year $57 million contract, with $18 million of that guaranteed. Most NFL contracts are structured the same: you sign for a huge amount of money (fifty-seven million, in this case) but only a portion of it is guaranteed (eighteen million, in our example). If he lost a leg on his way home from signing the contract, he’s still getting that guaranteed money–it can’t be taken away. Because all the money counts against the salary cap, the guaranteed  money can be paid to the player over a maximum of four years. Normally it is paid in a bonus during the offseason, and the player makes a (comparably) smaller amount during the 17 week season.

For my mom, an explanation of the salary cap. The NFL doesn’t allow all teams to spend as much money as they want on players. In an attempt to keep everyone on an even level, the league sets a maximum of money that each team can spend on all player salaries–the cap is the same for all 32 teams. Each season, fans pay attention to how “under” the cap their team is. Every year teams want to add players to their roster to improve, and teams can only sign players if they are under the salary cap. Teams have made an art out of structuring contracts in a way that pay a good player enough money to keep him, but in terms that keep them under the cap to add other players to perform around him.

Teams want to spread these bonuses out over a period of years in order to have the player’s impact on the salary cap occur in more years, but be less of a pain. That way, he’s only tying up a little of money that could be used on other players over three or four years, instead of it all being paid in one year–but keeping the team from signing any new players. And pissing off their fans when they don’t improve.

2010 was the last year of the NFL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement. It’s complicated, but for the sake of this subject just know that in the final year of a CBA there is no salary cap. The Cowboys could have (basically) spent what they wanted in 2010–but would have needed to still fit under the cap in 2011. This need to still be under the cap in 2011 kept teams from going crazy with huge contracts–like those one might see in Major League Baseball’s offseason.

This is where Austin’s contract comes into play. The big number is fifty-four million, with only eighteen million of that guaranteed.

What the Cowboys could have done

Announce the contract in 2010, give Miles a $12 million signing bonus right then, and then pay him $550k over the 17 week season–affecting the 2010 (nonexistent) cap for $12.55m. In 2011 they could have paid him a $3 million bonus in the offseason and $600k over the season–a 2011 cap number of $3.6m. For 2012, it could have been another $3 million as a bonus and $750k during the season–cap number of $3.75. Same eighteen million in guarantees but he just affects the cap a little in 2011 and 2012, freeing up more cap space for Dallas to sign additional players. The 2010 cap amount hurts, but it could be worse–they could be forced to pay all of the bonus money in one season. That would destroy a team’s chances of signing any players for that next year. Spreading it out mitigates the financial pain, and makes sure that the team is competitive in all years under the contract.

What the Cowboys did

They realized that the 2010 season was uncapped, and that presented a sort of loophole to the Jones family. There was no penalty to paying Austin a huge portion of the guaranteed money in one season. Instead of a signing bonus, they just paid him a base salary of $17 million–leaving them only committed to him for $1 million after the 2010 season. For the 2011 and 2012 cap years, Austin has barely any impact because all of it was paid during the year when the limits didn’t count. Incredibly smart. Some might say that it only saved the Cowboys $3million against the cap over 2011 and 2012, but when teams try to spend exactly the cap number, every dollar counts.

Why it was wrong

What rule did the Cowboys break? What paragraph of the CBA did Stephen Jones mis-interpret? As far as anyone knows, nothing. The league offered a vague warning to teams going into the 2010 uncapped year about not manipulating the fact that there wasn’t a cap. Nothing specific was mentioned, nor were a subset of rules applied to this one year. So the Cowboys were shrewd with their money, and used a perceived loophole to keep a key member of the team and set the franchise up for fiscal success in future years. Now the league has come back and fined the Cowboys ten million against the cap for doing this, without detailing what exactly they did wrong. We will probably find out in the coming days what the specific guideline was that was broken, but as of now America’s Team is being penalized for taking advantage of a situation. If only the league would fine the New York Giant’s running backs for taking advantage of Terence Newman’s poor tackling skills.