The Dallas Cowboys were supposed to be terrible last year. Instead, they were one weird call away from the NFC Championship Game. There are a few reasons for that: the stellar rushing totals put up by DeMarco Murray, the surprising defensive turnaround led by unheralded linebacker Rolando McClain, and the ever-present threat that Dez Bryant—perhaps the game’s top wide receiver over the past three seasons—represents to opposing defenses. And Bryant’s recent threat to sit out could jeopardize the team’s season.
Murray, of course, left the team to join the Eagles earlier in the off-season, and McClain was hit with a four-game suspension going into the Fourth of July weekend. And Bryant, as of yesterday, has vowed to sit out at least part of the season unless the Cowboys offer him a long-term contract.
— Dez Bryant (@DezBryant) July 13, 2015
Players in Bryant’s position — that is, players not under contract to their team, but who’ve been hit with the franchise tag to prevent them from seeking a new contract elsewhere — often threaten to extend their holdouts into the season. They rarely do, and for good reason. Although they can skip up to ten games and still receive credit for a year of accrued service, they don’t get paid if they don’t play. In Bryant’s case, that translates to over $750,000 a week if he opts out.
The tag allows every team to designate one person whose contract expired at the end of the previous season as their “franchise” player. In lieu of a new long-term contract, that player is offered a one-year deal worth whatever the average of the five highest-paid players at their position comes out to. Players can sign that deal or not, but if they don’t, they can’t play elsewhere. For Bryant, the tag is worth $12.8 million — but it also puts the risk of injury, or a down season, entirely on his shoulders. Instead of a one-year deal with $12.8 million, Bryant appears to be seeking a long-term contract worth closer to $50 million guaranteed.
And Bryant may be the rare franchise-tagged player who’s both so vital to his team that a holdout makes sense and who is dealing with a bullheaded enough owner that a long-term deal doesn’t happen. But if the Cowboys don’t sign Bryant, it’s hard to see how their offense works.
The strength of the Cowboys offense is its offensive line, which, after some impressive drafting, is made up of young, cheap stars. They’ve got one of the NFL’s better quarterbacks in Tony Romo, and a solid tight end in Jason Witten. And secondary wide receiver Terrance Williams has been impressive lining up opposite Bryant, as well. The running game, meanwhile, sans Murray, is a big question mark helmed by former Raiders draft bust Darren McFadden. And here’s what’s at risk if Bryant holds out:
1. That offensive line won’t stay cheap forever.
The interior of the line — guards Ronald Leary and Zack Martin, and center Travis Frederick — currently average around $1 million each per year. That’s serious value, and it won’t last forever. They’re all playing on rookie contracts that are going to be renegotiated in a year or two, and the salary cap makes it hard to keep a strong line together for the long term, at least if a team wants to invest in other positions (which the Cowboys certainly need to do). In other words, the Cowboys’ best window is when the line is both good and cheap, and wasting a year of that with an uncertain running game and a passing attack missing its best player is a huge opportunity lost.
2. How long can you count on Romo?
Tony Romo is 35-years old with a history of back injuries. When he’s healthy, he’s one of the better quarterbacks in football, jokes and haters be damned — but every time he steps onto the field, it’s a roll of the dice about how long he’ll stay that way. He suffered serious back injuries in both 2013 and 2014, and even with a strong offensive line the clock is ticking on any quarterback in his mid-30s. Which means that, like the offensive line, Romo isn’t going to last forever. He might stay healthy for the entire 2015 season, but whether he’ll be playing at a high level in 2016 and beyond is another question.
3. Is Terrance Williams actually good?
A lot of #2 wide receivers look great when the #1 receiver is one of the best in the game. Lining up opposite Bryant, Williams is a solid option. But Cowboys fans might want to ask how excited they are about the prospect of a Terrance Williams/Cole Beasley one-two punch at receiver.
4. Will they be able to run the ball?
Rolando McClain proved last year that a draft bust from Oakland can have a career resurgence in Dallas, but banking on Darren McFadden — who is entering his eighth season and has rushed more than 1,000 yards only once in his career — to have the same success is expecting lightning to strike twice. Backing up McFadden are holdovers Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar, a combination that inspired so much confidence in the team that they promptly handed the keys to an aging veteran who’s never delivered on his potential. McFadden might turn out to be a good player behind the Cowboys’ offensive line, but it’s hardly a guarantee. And it’s going to be a lot harder for any running back to succeed if defenses have to worry about a Williams/Beasley combo catching passes, rather than a Bryant/Williams tandem.
In other words: The Cowboys need to win now, because the offense’s strengths are its cheap line and its nearing-expiration-date quarterback. If the offense is missing its best player, winning now is an awfully tall order.
Jerry Jones presumably recognizes this, but he’s never inspired fans with his managerial skills. In addition to pushing for leverage by raising concerns about off-field incidents (something that Bryant has a history of, but not in recent years), the blasé attitude displayed by Jones about the prospect of a holdout seems to fail to recognize that Bryant has more leverage in this situation than most franchised players.
It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the Cowboys are a serious playoff contender if the wide receiver decides to skip games. It’s easier, meanwhile, to imagine that Bryant really means it when he says “I will not be there if no deal.” Missing those checks would surely hurt, but usually when a player is as important to his team as Bryant is, there’s a GM whose job is on the line if a new long-term contract isn’t reached. In Dallas, where Jones and his son run the show, the circumstances are such that the Cowboys could actually test Bryant’s leverage.
There’s one more wildcard in all of this, which is the allegation of collusion between the Cowboys front office and that of the Denver Broncos, where receiver Demaryius Thomas is also a franchise tag recipient hoping for a long-term deal. Thomas hasn’t made any statements about missing games, but as two of the game’s top receivers, whichever contract one player receives will set the eventual terms for the other—if Thomas gets, say, $50 million guaranteed for his first three seasons, then you can expect Bryant’s deal to be roughly the same.
The NFL Player’s Association claims to have proof of collusion between the two teams to avoid setting the market, and the threat of a lawsuit could force either team to pull the trigger on a new deal—which, if it happens, will essentially force the other team to do the same. And if the alternative is that Bryant wins the game of chicken he’s currently playing with Jerry Jones, then being forced to sign a market-setting deal with the receiver would actually turn out to be a win for the Cowboys, even if Jones is unlikely to see it that way.
(AP Photo/LM Otero)