March 12, 2013

Cowboys’ inactivity has to be driving Jerry Jones crazy

With little room under the salary cap, Owner Jones is paying the price for his past generosity.

For a guy who once signed Deion Sanders to a $12.999 million signing bonus and who also thought Randall Cunningham would make a good fit as backup quarterback, Tuesday must have driven Jerry Jones crazy.

All that Pepsi and Papa John’s money, and no way to spend it.

All those NFL free agents, and Owner Jones had only $177,000 to offer any of them.

The Dallas Cowboys were not alone on the sideline as free agency officially began Tuesday. Salary cap Loophole Limbo also has the Panthers, Saints and Redskins, among others, in its clutches.

That must be little consolation to Jones, however, the eternal wildcatter, who has always seemed happiest when he’s got cash in his pocket, looking for somewhere to spend it.

Free agency is the NFL’s cathouse. And Jerry couldn’t even go in Tuesday and look around.

I tried reading the NFL collective bargaining agreement once. I had better luck Tuesday understanding the Latin being chanted at the Vatican conclave. Nonguaranteed money, back-loaded contracts, pro-rated signing bonuses, the 30-Percent Rule — no wonder NFL teams have felt a duty to manipulate it.

Jones’ personal pleasure — and his poison — has been the signing bonus. Jerry’s generosity, often rendered prematurely, frequently has left him with back-loaded bonus money due to players who have lapsed into Cowboys footnotes.

Sanders’ signing paid off. But was Leonard Davis really worth $18.75 million?

Fans love NFL free agency. To them, it is Christmas in March.

Free agency is how Drew Brees became a New Orleans Saint and led them to the Super Bowl. Free agency is how the Arizona Cardinals made it to the Super Bowl behind Kurt Warner.

But buyer beware, even when the buyer, like Jerry, has a billion dollars.

There are no secrets here, Jones should know. The surest, wisest way to build a Super Bowl champion is through the NFL Draft.

Yet the Cowboys, annually lodged into the middle of the selecting order, have never found a comfortable and consistent groove during draft week. There is nobody left on the Cowboys roster from the 2009 draft, for example — nobody.

If an NFL franchise can’t regularly find starters and future Pro Bowl performers in the draft, it is perpetually swimming upstream if it dives into free agency.

Sure, had the Cowboys had the cap room, Jones could have made a conspicuous splash Tuesday had he signed, say, tackle Jermon Bushrod or receiver Mike Wallace.

Buyer beware, though. The Chicago Bears, who signed Bushrod from the Saints, also announced a four-year deal with free agent Martellus Bennett. Good luck with that, Jay Cutler.

The Cowboys, remember, were big at the free agency craps table last year, and Brandon Carr and Mackenzy Bernadeau, in particular, appear to be money well spent. Yet all that spending produced only an 8-8 record and closed another playoff-less year on Jones’ Super Bowl window.

By all accounts, Jones and son Stephen have worked mightily to try to free precious dollars under the salary cap. Redoing contracts with, among others, Jason Witten, Jay Ratliff, Orlando Scandrick, DeMarcus Ware and Dan Connor have helped.

Curiously, though, the one major move that could unloosen cap space remains undone. Tony Romo and the Cowboys have yet to come to an agreement on the quarterback’s contract extension. Thus, Romo counts $16.8 million against the cap, and the Cowboys don’t have the expected $8-10 million freedom that a new deal would bring.

Next time somebody says, “Romo is all about winning,” please slap him.

In the meantime, the first day of NFL free agency came and went Tuesday. And Owner Jones, one day older, could only sit and watch.

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