In the end, it wasn’t the bad call on the Dez Bryant catch that ended the Dallas Cowboys’ season.
It was the defense. The Cowboys’ defense, though gifted with a 21-13 lead, allowed Aaron Rodgers to drive the Packers 90 and 80 yards for what proved to be the winning margin.
And in the final two minutes, it was the Cowboys’ defense that couldn’t get the ball back.
The challenge should be clear this off-season, therefore, for Jerry Jones, the award-winning general manager of the Cowboys.
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All Dezzes and DeMarcos notwithstanding, Owner Jones has to start spending money on his defense.
Signing free agent receiver Dez Bryant to a long-term contract is Jones’ acknowledged No. 1 civic duty in the weeks ahead. Bryant caught 88 passes this season and scored 16 touchdowns. He is on his way to becoming the face of the franchise.
As we’ve all seen, Jones doesn’t need an unhappy Dez scowling and flapping his arms on the sideline. A one-year, $13-million-or-so, franchise-tag contract may not incite Bryant to mutiny, but he’s earned one of the those lifetime-looking Jones contracts.
Running back DeMarco Murray, also a free agent, is a different matter. He put 392 carries on his career odometer this season. At age 27, he’s going to want to cash in now, and that’s where Jones is going to have to earn that NFL Executive of the Year trophy he just got.
If money were no object, generous Owner Jones might win one of those trophies every year. He showed that recently by moving quickly to sign coach Jason Garrett and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli once the season ended.
There is no salary cap for coaches.
But there is for the players, and according to spotrac.com, the $31.97 million that the Cowboys spent on the defensive side of the football this season represents only 23.88 percent of the team’s total salary cap expenditures.
In a league of 32 teams, the Cowboys’ spending on defense ranked 28th.
Jones, meanwhile, spent $52.45 million on offense, 13th-most in the NFL.
And you’re saying the Cowboys’ two highest priorities this off-season are signing big-bucks, long-term deals with Bryant and Murray?
How exactly is that all going to fit?
As heroic a season as he had, quarterback Tony Romo again didn’t get the Cowboys past the second round of the playoffs. But he performed gallantly and, some say, to MVP standards.
He wasn’t the Cowboys’ problem, said the weekly refrain.
But was he?
Romo is in the middle of a six-year, $108 million contract. His hit on the team’s salary cap was considerable, but next year it is scheduled to climb to $27.773 million. No quarterback (since the cap was introduced 20 years ago) has ever taken his team to the Super Bowl while eating up that much of its salary-cap space.
Much has been made of Russell Wilson’s and Tom Brady’s cap-favorable salaries, especially Wilson’s, which was less than $900,000 this season.
Owner Jones has no leverage here, but he needs to convince Romo to restructure his contract and shuffle his money around. Romo won’t lose any money on a new deal, but the restructuring could give Jones an extra $5-6 million to spend on Dez, Murray or the defense.
Especially on the defense. The Seattle Seahawks’ payroll template stands as a notable example — high-dollar extensions locked up Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas.
And we see where the Seahawks are next week.
Owner Jones has a new trophy. Time for him again to earn it.
Gil LeBreton, 817-390-7697