Combine Tony Romo's 2013 cap number with the $5 million cap penalty imposed on the Dallas Cowboys by the NFL and you get $21.8 million. That's 18 percent of the estimated $123 million salary ceiling the team will be responsible to get under by March 12.
Considering that the latest cap-related report from ESPNDallas.com's Calvin Watkins estimated that the 'Boys were still $20 million over that number, it's easy to understand why few are optimistic about the organization's chances of re-signing impending free-agent edge rusher Anthony Spencer.
Additionally, the team has indicated that it isn't prepared to part ways with wide receiver Miles Austin or defensive tackle Jay Ratliff and might not be ready to give up on right tackle Doug Free. Those three are on the hook for over $25 million in 2013, but there's a chance that number is cut down significantly by way of restructures.
Assuming that happens and Brandon Carr's deal is reworked, the Cowboys should be able to get under the cap without redoing Romo's deal or signing him to an extension that eases the short-term burden. But that would also make it impossible for Dallas to bring back Spencer, which is something I elaborated on earlier this month.
Romo extension or not, if they keep Spencer, don't expect the Cowboys to gain the ability to invest in starting-caliber players on the free-agent market in two weeks' time. The reality is that it'll be very hard for Dallas to get Romo's 2013 cap number below $10 million without really mortgaging the future by over-backloading the deal.
Quarterbacks of his caliber make a minimum of $11 million or $12 million per year, and Romo won't want to take too much of a pay cut at the age of 32.
His 2013 base salary is currently slated to be $11.5 million. With a new deal, the Cowboys could push back that extra $5.3 million of cap space and might be able to get an extra $2 million or $3 million shaved off the base.
That would save them about $8 million, giving them just enough to pay Spencer, assuming they are able to successfully restructure Austin, Ratliff, Free and Carr.
ESPNDallas.com's Todd Archer estimated on Tuesday that Romo deserves about $18 million a year in the current quarterback climate. If that's the case, even with funny money on the back end, it would be impossible for the 'Boys to defer much more money than that in Year 1.
Of course, none of this means they bring back Spencer anyway, whether it's with the franchise tag or under a new deal. They may or may not be prepared to commit approximately $10 million a year to a man who might have had his reputation inflated by a big contract year.
The point is that Romo's deal will remove the Cowboys from a straitjacket, giving them the ability to find a replacement for Free if they choose to cut him or move him inside to the right-guard position. Or maybe to invest in a free-agent guard or safety or 4-3 defensive end.
The way things are shaping up right now—with Romo scheduled to count $16.8 million against the cap—the Cowboys will be forced to plug all of their holes via the draft. That's the difference.