Defensive end DeMarcus Ware admittedly will be nostalgic when he comes to AT&T Stadium for the first time as a member of the visiting team.
The seven-time Pro Bowler and the Dallas Cowboys’ all-time sacks leader will stand on the sidelines as a member of the Denver Broncos for Thursday’s preseason finale.
Ware signed a three-year, $30 million contract with the Broncos after being released by the Cowboys in March because of age, injury and financial concerns.
After going to Dallas as the 11th overall pick in 2005 and putting together a potential Hall of Fame career, Ware, 32, never saw this moment coming.
But there will be no bitterness as he watches the game with the rest of the primary starters for both teams.
“I thought I was always going to be a Dallas Cowboy,” Ware said. “That was really, really big for me. I played well for nine years. I never thought they would get rid of me. It’s different being in a different uniform.”
Ware understands the decision by the Cowboys was based primarily on business — namely his $16 million cap figure, including a $12.25 million base salary for what the team considered a declining player.
The two sides even discussed him taking a pay cut to remain with the team, and he would have given the Cowboys a final chance to match an offer on the free agent market. But the Broncos’ offer was simply too good financially and as an opportunity to finally have some playoff success with a team looking to contend for a championship.
The Broncos lost to the Seattle Seahawks in last season’s Super Bowl partly because of their shortcomings on defense.
“The Cowboys were always a consideration because they’re home for me and they were always at the top of my priority,” Ware said. “But things just didn’t work out. We just split ways amicably and said, ‘You know what, this right here is what we need to do. We need to test the market and see what your worth is.’ Denver, at the end of the day, they said, ‘This right here is what your worth is.’ The ball just started rolling.”
Like Ware, Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones said there is no bitterness.
“He’s a shoo-in to the Hall of Fame and he spilled his bucket here for us. It’s difficult, but that’s part of the business,” Jones said. “It’ll be difficult [seeing him on the other sideline], but at the same time I hope it all goes well for him. I hope he gets to the Super Bowl.”
The big question in Dallas and Denver is whether Ware will play like the Ware of old, or as an old, broken-down version of his former self.
He was compromised by a string of injuries the past two years, including neck, quadriceps, elbow, shoulder and back issues, culminating in a career-low six sacks in 2013, when he rarely practiced.
“DeMarcus was a great, great football player for this organization for a long time, and I’m really proud of how he played the last couple of years with the injuries that he was dealing with,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “He didn’t practice very much in 2012 and 2013. It’s hard to play well on Sundays when you’re dealing with injuries and not practicing during the week.”
Ware said off-season surgery on his elbow has relieved the pain and weakness that hurt his game the past two years. He said he missed no time this summer in Denver.
“I play on the right side, but I use my right hand to club and to really get around the corner. After the surgery I had down there in Dallas and the good treatment here, it’s fully healed,” Ware said. “There’s nothing I can’t do. I just feel like the sky’s the limit this year.”
Ware had 117 sacks in nine seasons with the Cowboys, becoming one of the most dominant pass rushers of his era. He earned Pro Bowl honors every year from 2006 to 2012 and was named All-Pro six times. He had a streak of seven seasons with at least 11 sacks. He had 20 sacks in 2008 and 19.5 sacks in 2011. Only Hall of Famer Reggie White has more 15-sack seasons in a career (five) than Ware (three).
Playing opposite Von Miller, a premier pass rusher who can draw double teams, will certainly help Ware get back to that level. He won’t be the primary focus of the opposing team’s pass protection for the first time in his career.
“This is a totally different monster with Von Miller,” Ware said. “Pass rushers want to get those double-digit sacks. How effective can I be this year? I think I can get back to my old self. I know I can.”
Ware sees Thursday’s game as a chance to say goodbye to Cowboys fans.
But as emotional as things might get, Ware knows this won’t be his last hurrah with the Cowboys.
He plans to retire as a member of the Cowboys and one day see his name in the team’s hallowed Ring of Honor.
“Before and just talking to (Cowboys owner) Jerry (Jones) we talked about (the Ring of Honor) and he was just like, ‘You know I want you to be able to come back here and retire as a Dallas Cowboy,’ ” Ware said. “That’s a big goal of mine.”