With Second Restructure Spree in as Many Years, Cowboys' Window Is Closing

Brad Gagnon NFL National ColumnistMarch 4, 2014

USA Today

For the second consecutive March, the Dallas Cowboys are jumping through hoops in order to get under the salary cap for the start of the new league year.

For the second consecutive March, the Cowboys will likely be forced to remain primarily on the sideline during the annual free-agency arms race. 

And for the second consecutive March, the Cowboys will likely have no choice but to let good players walk simply because they don't have the cap space to re-sign them. 

In the last 24 hours, the Cowboys have reworked three key contracts in order to get within shouting distance of the cap, and Miles Austin's seemingly inevitable release would officially put them in the clear. 

Quarterback Tony Romo restructured his lucrative deal by agreeing to convert $12.5 million of his base salary to a signing bonus for the purpose of proration, which saves Dallas about $10 million right away, according to ESPN.com's Todd Archer

But that also means Romo's 2015 cap number climbs to a ridiculous $27.7 million, according to Spotrac

NFL's top projected cap hits for 2015
PlayerCap hitAgeContract expires
1. Tony Romo$27.7M332019
2. Drew Brees$26.4M352016
3. Larry Fitzgerald$23.6M302018
4. Peyton Manning$21.5M372016
5. Julius Peppers$20.7M342015

They did the same thing with Sean Lee and Orlando Scandrick, according to Archer, but those three players alone are now slated to cost more than $37 million next season. 

I know what you're saying. They'll just keep pushing that money forward until the camel's back gives in. After all, it's about winning now, not in two or three years.

But the problem is that the Cowboys might merely be buying themselves more 8-8 seasons. This, the records indicate, is not a team on the verge of Super Bowl contention. The Cowboys have failed to make the playoffs in four consecutive years and are likely to get worse with an already weak defense if they are forced to let DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer and Jason Hatcher walk in the coming days and weeks. 

So they'll be under the cap, but it will come at the cost of not getting better. In fact, unless they can strike some oil in the draft, they could be getting worse now. And in the years to come, that will be accentuated. Because soon, there will be no further years to defer Lee's, Scandrick's or Romo's salary to. 

Say the cap is once again $133 million next year. Right now, the Cowboys are already approximately $6 million over that with only 38 players under contract, according to OvertheCap.com.

Top projected cap hits for 2015
TeamProjected total cap hitsPlayers under contract
1. Dallas Cowboys$134.8M38
2. Philadelphia Eagles$131.3M47
3. Kansas City Chiefs$116.5M35
4. Arizona Cardinals$115.9M41
5. New Orleans Saints$114.1M36

Sure, if you cut Austin and Ware this year, that projection changes dramatically. Suddenly, you'd actually be on track to have over $20 million in space. But then you have 17 rosters spots to fill, two draft classes to pay and you're without Ware, Austin, Hatcher, Spencer, Tyron Smith, Dez Bryant, Doug Free, Bruce Carter, DeMarco Murray, Justin Durant, Kyle Orton, George Selvie, Dwayne Harris and Nick Hayden. 

Again, the Cowboys can work their magic and find a way to keep some of these guys by reworking deals that expire in 2017. (2016 would be off the table next year since you can't restructure a contract with one year remaining on it.) But right now, only Romo, Lee, Scandrick, Barry Church, Brandon Carr and Jason Witten have contracts that extend that far, and every one of those players except Church has already restructured at least once. 

This always reminds me of one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes. Serenity now, insanity later.

Jerry Jones and his colleagues are maintaining a good-but-not-great football team right now, giving fans just enough hope. But Dallas can't win right now without getting better, and that can't happen under this cap crunch.

And with so many delayed bills coming due in the seasons to come, this franchise could very well be gutted in two years, leaving Jones and his son with a carcass of a roster that even the current Pittsburgh Steelers would shake their collective heads at. 

If Dallas does come through and wins a sixth Super Bowl before the cap excrement really hits the fan, nobody will care about the rebuild that will loom in the ensuing seasons. But the odds aren't in favor of that happening, which means frustrated and spoiled Cowboys fans could be in for a lot more frustration over the next half-decade.

The window is still open, but it's quickly closing. Serenity now, insanity later.