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Tony Romo’s Contract: A Cowboys Fan’s Perspective

Tony-RomoLast Friday, in the waning hours of the workday before the weekend, news broke of the Dallas Cowboys and their quarterback, Tony Romo, coming to an agreement on a contract extension. The fact that Romo got the extension was no surprise (more on that later), the only thing left to mystery was the details: 6 years, $108 millon, $55 million guaranteed, making his total contract, including this year, for 7 years and $119.5 million, just the 15th contract to break the nine-digit mark in the NFL.

Over the weekend, I let the news of the extension and terms set it, gather my thoughts and try to piece them together in a coherent statement of my feelings on the contract.

To start, we’ll consider the mere concept of extending the embattled quarterback. Cowboys fans have long been tough on Romo. It seems that for every moment of brilliance he has two moments of ineptitude. He’ll evade three defenders and hit Dez Bryant forty yards downfield on one play and throw and interception in the end zone on the next. At least, that’s the common conception of Cowboys fans. In reality, Romo is a playmaking, gunslinging QB who has occasional gaffes that stick out more than others, due to them coming in “high pressure” situations. The timing, more so than the frequency, of these miscues is what causes so many fans to be disgruntled. However, he still continues to hover in the top ten of the league in yards, touchdowns, quarterback rating and QBR. Something that a quarterback like Joe Flacco, the highest paid player in NFL history, can’t claim.

Understanding that, you’ll see that the Cowboys had but no choice to franchise their quarterback. No options currently on the market come anywhere close to be considered an upgrade. Carson Palmer? Nope. Ryan Fitzpatrick? Pass. Kevin Kolb? Ha! The fact is, franchise quarterbacks don’t hit the open market anymore (Peyton Manning is an entirely different situation). The last time a franchise quarterback, prior to Manning, hit the open market was Drew Brees, after the Chargers took a flier on his surgically repaired shoulder. Even then, the Saints were making quite the gamble, something the quarterback-hungry Dolphins weren’t even willing to take on.

Taking a look at the projected starting quarterbacks for 2013 (assuming a Palmer-to-Arizona trade goes through), the way a team acquired their starting quarterback breaks down to this, Draft: 23 (including the NYG-SD draft day trade featuring Eli Manning, who would never lace up for the Chargers. Also includes undrafted free agent Tony Romo, ironically), Trade: 5, Free Agency: 4. The four free agents? Kevin Kolb (woo hoo!!), a coming-off-four-neck-surgeries Peyton Manning, the previously mentioned Brees and a “I just got out of my inmate oranges” Michael Vick. As you can see, a healthy franchise-quarterback doesn’t fall into your lap via free agency. Even the five acquired via trade lack sizzle. The best of the bunch is likely Matt Schaub, and arguments could be made that he’s a product of his system and the talent around him. So even a possible trade leaves you short of a Romo-caliber player. That leaves the draft.

As shown, the draft main way for a team to acquire a quarterback. However, for every Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin, there’s JaMarcus Russell and Ryan Leaf lurking. The teams that often get burned by these first-round busts are teams that are desperate for a quarterback and reach too high, because they place too much emphasis on the position instead of drafting for quality. If Dallas were to release Romo instead of extending him,* they’d find themselves looking at Kyle Orton as their starter and no heir to the thrown on their roster. A recent team that found themselves in this position (looking at you, Denver) ended up reaching for a quarterback, and we all know how that turned out.

*Dallas was virtually unable to let Romo play out his final year of the contract due to the large cap hit his contract created, handicapping their ability to sign anybody, including draft picks.

With the QB crop that is hitting this year’s draft, the last thing you want is for your team to be needing a quarterback. There are about three to five possible starting quarterbacks available, depending on whose opinion you believe, but none of them you’d bet the barn on. Geno Smith, Matt Barkley, Mike Glennon, Ryan Nassib and Landry Jones all come with their (in some cases, considerable) doubts. That’s why you’re seeing teams use free agency and the less-traveled trade route to acquire other options before the draft. Nobody wants to be in a position of “Mike Glennon or bust!” for the 2013 season. So obviously, drafting a quarterback wasn’t the answer for the Cowboys.

Now the question of why do they need somebody NOW? The way the Cowboys roster is constructed, they’re best served to try and win with the talent they have now. They have one of the most dynamic receivers in the league in Dez Bryant. Miles Austin, when healthy, is one of the best number-two receivers in the league and Jason Witten is aging, but still among the league’s elite. Their defense features stars, or stars in the making in DeMarcus Ware, Sean Lee, Brandon Carr Bruce Carter and Morris Claiborne. There is a considerable amount of talent on the roster, enough to be on the brink of winning the division in week 17 the last two seasons. They’re not looking to rebuild, they’re looking to win.

Putting all these pieces together, you can see that the Cowboys had no choice but to extend Tony Romo. It was the only card to play. However, where the real debate comes from is whether they paid too much.

Romo’s extension averages $18 million a year over six years, which will take him through his age-39 season. That is $2.1 million less per year than Joe Flacco’s deal just gave him, although Flacco will just be turning 34 before his deal expires, conceivably taking him through his prime. Romo, on the otherhand, likely will be playing over have his deal in his post-prime decline. For a player like Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, who’s game revolves around being smarter than the defense as much as physical abilities, the decline isn’t as severe. But for a player like Romo, who’s key attribute is his shiftiness and ability to make unconventional plays, the fall from grace could be dramatic. Romo is likely to see his sack totals increase as he ages and his allusiveness diminishes. He’ll have to redefine his game and adapt to his declining skills to make this deal any where close to being favorable for the Cowboys.

So why did the Cowboys give him such a lucrative deal? As Bill Barnwell pointed out, Romo had all the leverage. We previously noted that the Cowboys had essentially two options, release him or extend him (trading him wouldn’t net the first round pick you would be required to use to try and replace him, so you’re starting with a net loss). Releasing him would’ve likely dropped about $11.8M of the $16.8M cap room Romo occupied. But you’re left in a dead mark with no long-term options. Essentially, they could only extend him.*

*For the sake of argument, even had the Cowboys had the cap to let Romo play out his contract this year, the fact that he couldn’t be franchised after the season would’ve meant Dallas would have to bid on the open market for Romo against likely quarterback-needy teams such as the Jaguars, Cardinals, Jets and Browns. They had to extend him.

All of this sided in Romo’s favor. He was the only proven option for them and if they chose not to extend him, it would cost them a premium to resign him next year, if they were able to keep him at all. So the end result is Romo got a contract that is heavily-favored in his direction, but still cheaper then what the Cowboys would’ve likely paid for him on the open market. They get to clear up $5 million in cap room to sign additional free agents and their draft picks. It’s a win in the present, although the future could be quite murky.

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