It's hard to say Cowboys enjoyed unfair edge

March 13, 2012

Jerry Jones and Dan Snyder have been close friends for years. They've vacationed together as well as consulted each other in business ventures.

And on Monday, they were stripped by the NFL of a combined $46 million in salary-cap room for how they structured contracts during an uncapped season. The Cowboys were docked $10 million for their creative structuring of wide receiver Miles Austin's contract extension a year and a half ago. The Redskins reportedly moved large portions of base salaries to players such as cornerback DeAngelo Hall and defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth.

The timing of the ruling Monday – the day before the free agency period was set to open – seemed especially punitive by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. The Cowboys will be able to spread the $10 million hit over two seasons, but it still put them in scramble mode. Jones has always been known as a maverick, so it's no surprise he'd be implicated in trying to circumvent league rules. The problem is that most of us weren't aware the league had hard and fast rules during the uncapped season. Here's the statement the league issued:

"The Management Council Executive Committee determined that the contract practices of a small number of clubs during the 2010 league year created an unacceptable risk to future competitive balance, particularly in light of the relatively modest salary cap growth projected for the new agreement's early years. To remedy these effects and preserve competitive balance throughout the league, the parties to the CBA agreed to adjustments to team salary for the 2012 and 2013 seasons."

Substitute the word "punishment" for "adjustment" and you get the picture. But with all due respect to the league's unwritten rules, did anyone actually think the Cowboys and Redskins operated at a "competitive advantage" over the past couple of seasons?

The Cowboys front-loaded a $54 million contract for Austin and then watched him fall off the map in 2011 because of injuries and subpar play. It seems odd the other owners would make such a stink given these two organizations' records over the past 15 years or so. The owners should be delighted that Snyder wasted millions on Haynesworth.

But all jokes aside, the Cowboys obviously have some smart guys monitoring the salary cap in Jones' son, Stephen, and his assistant, Todd Williams. These are not the most brazen men you'll come across in the league and they've managed the cap for years without being penalized. In fact, you heard Jerry and Stephen talking during the uncapped season about trying to stay within the NFL's guidelines and not violate the spirit of any unwritten rules.

At least one of my longtime colleagues has suggested this is a sign of how Jerry's standing in the league has been diminished. But it's hard for me to believe Goodell would turn his back on a man who personally financed $750 million of his $1.2 billion stadium. This appears to be a situation where Goodell caved to a group of owners who've always felt like Jones didn't play by the rules.

This is not a crippling punishment for the Cowboys when compared to what the Redskins received. An organization that just mortgaged its future for the rights to draft Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III will now struggle to put anyone around him. That's why the Redskins started releasing players immediately upon hearing the news. The Cowboys responded with a sternly worded press release Monday evening.

"The Dallas Cowboys were in compliance with all league salary cap rules during the uncapped year. We look forward to the start of free agency period where our commitment to improving our team remains unchanged."

In a weird way, this punishment actually provides some cover for the elder Jones. If the Cowboys aren't able to land a top name in free agency such as Brandon Carr or Cortland Finnegan, the owner can point toward the league's punishment. But the Redskins, who have spent lavishly in free agency, will have a much easier time making that claim. One high-ranking member of the organization sent a text Tuesday indicating the Cowboys would still be in the thick of things.

"We will find a way if the good players come to us," said the source.

Jones is usually a pretty easy target, but it's hard to fault him for trying to be creative during an uncapped season. And if the Cowboys truly have enjoyed an unfair advantage recently, you'd hate to see what happens if they start following the rules.