Jerry Jones promised this would be an “uncomfortable” off-season at Valley Ranch, and so far he has lived up to that pledge on the coaching side.
Can he do the same with the players?
The short answer: Not nearly as much.
The salary cap makes roster churning difficult and complex. Also, a nearly across-the-board lack of quality depth also means nearly every roster decision must be weighed carefully. Cutting a player to send a message could end up hurting the team more the than the player.
A prime example is the reaction to defensive lineman Jay Ratliff’s recent arrest for driving while intoxicated.
In light of former teammate Jerry Brown’s death in connection with teammate Josh Brent’s arrest for a similar charge, it’s natural to expect Jones to make an example of Ratliff by cutting him immediately.
There are other reasons the Cowboys should cut ties with Ratliff. At 31, he’s showing signs of decline after an injury-plagued 2012 season. As a nose tackle, he plays one of the most physical positions in the game, so the shelf life for such players is short anyway.
Ratliff also has a big contract, thanks to his stellar performances earlier in his career. But he also had a big blowup with Jones in the lockerroom following a game last season. Players who confront owners usually don’t stick around long.
However, the Cowboys may not be able to afford to cut Ratliff for reasons other than salary. There’s the switch to the 4-3 under new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin to consider. While Ratliff’s skills may be diminishing, the Cowboys will need tackles to make the new defense work.
There’s a good chance Ratliff won’t be playing for the Cowboys in 2013, but it’s won’t be in response to any off-field transgressions. It will be to get the Cowboys under the salary cap.
The Cowboys are about $25 million over the salary cap for 2013. A number of contracts will have to be reworked, plus there’s that $5 million cap penalty for breaking the spirit of the uncapped year with Miles Austin’s contract.
Some players won’t return or will be asked to take pay cuts to return. Running back Felix Jones likely won’t be re-signed. Offensive tackle Doug Free had a woeful season after signing a fat contract, a combination that could see him cut.
High-priced role players like cornerback Orlando Scandrick and backup linebacker Dan Connor could also get pink slips.
Even a high-priced starter like Miles Austin could be released as a consequence of the salary cap.
And then there’s outside linebacker Anthony Spencer, who was franchise tagged last season when he and the team couldn’t agree to a long-term deal. Spencer then went out and a had a career season in 2012. Now the Cowboys may not be able to afford to franchise him again or sign him to a longer deal.
After back-to-back seasons of 8-8, Jones rightfully pledged to make changes for underperformance. He’s basically cleaned house with the coaching staff, all but for a select few holdovers.
But it’s a lot easier to do that with coaches than players, even those that have off-field transgressions.