IRVING – The NFL’s 2014 Shopping Season is here. March 8 marks the opening of teams’ chances to talk with agents for free agents and March 11 is when they can be signed, sealed and delivered to their teams. The Dallas Cowboys, due to their much-ballyhooed tie to “Cap Hell,’’ have no financial way to be involved in any of this, right?

Your 20-Step Cowboys Free-Agency Guidebook
1. Hey, Fish, I thought the Cowboys were in Cap Hell?
Right and if they are what is the point of a Cowboys Free-Agency Guidebook? As astute Cowboys fans have come to realize yet again this year, there is no such thing as “Cap Hell.’’ There are limitations, rules and budgets. Then there are more restrictions and limitations and tighter budgets that come with stupid spending. And Dallas has experienced every bit of that.
But “hell” is something that is inescapable. And being under the $133-million cap by the March 11 deadline (even though a few days ago Dallas was $20 million over)? It’s as easy as four strokes of a ballpoint pen.
2. What moves did Dallas make to get under?
The Cowboys simply activated pre-existing clauses in the contracts of Tony Romo, Sean Lee and Orlando Scandrick, and then released Phil Costa. (More room was gained by an undo/redo of Mackenzie Bernardeau’s contract.) None of the three players who were “restructured’’ made a sacrifice or was paid more, and none of their contracts were extended beyond their existing amount of years.
3. But isn’t there danger in playing the credit-card game?
Theoretically, yes. But Lee and Scandrick are still in their 20s and therefore giving them guaranteed money instead of bonus money comes with little risk.
Meanwhile, Dallas has resisted the temptation to restructure Jason Witten and Brandon Carr. If the Cowboys did so, they could be super-shoppers right now … but they’d also be bloating their future caps with guaranteed dough to older players.
So you credit-card younger guys (watch and see; there is a Lee escape hatch when he’s 31) and you hold tight so you can eventually say painless goodbyes to older guys (watch and see; Witten’s contract is written through 2017 but he’ll be released before 2017 ever gets here).
4. Romo isn’t in his 20s. Aren’t the Cowboys overcommitted there? Won’t they have to pay the piper? Oh, and PS: Romo sucks, right?
It is difficult for Romo haters to grasp this, but dealing with quarterbacks under this CBA means they are different. Their talents are different their market value is different and their availability is different. That’s the way it is in Baltimore and New Orleans and Pittsburgh and in every NFL city where management views their veteran quarterback as “the big ticket,” as Cowboys owner Jerry Jones recently called Romo.
They are paid differently. They are dealt-with differently. They are “big tickets.’’
This part of the NFL is just like high school: back then, they got the cheerleaders. Now, they get 20 percent of your cap.
Oh, AND the cheerleaders.
5. Is there a cap-friendly solution at QB?
You bet. Draft Romo’s potential heir. Johnny Manziel in the first round, Aaron Murray in the fourth round, Garrett Gilbert in the seventh round. Whomever. Turn over every stone, this year and every year. Find that gem — as Seattle was so lucky to do two years ago with Russell Wilson in the third round — and you can eventually move on seamlessly from his highly-paid predecessor. The Cowboys can someday escape Romo’s cap impact (with an eventual post-June 1 release one of these years) by replacing him with a quarterback who comes at such an affordable price that the two dollar figures balance each other out.
It’s easier said than done. But that is the cap-friendly solution and it must be found.
6. Why don’t you just trade Romo for Manziel, like the newspaper says?
Why don’t you quit celebrating April Fools’ Day in March?
That fantasy concept would’ve caused Dallas to take a $38 million kick in the salary-cap crotch. Meanwhile, it was later explained away by a colleague of the author as a parody of some sort. …
There are real QB ideas available (like the decision to retain Kyle Orton as a backup vs. the pursuit of Shaun Hill, who worked with new offensive coordinator Scott Linehan in Detroit.
The DFW media would be wise to leave the football analysis to football analysts and to leave the sports-journo comedy to “The Onion.”
7. So Shaun Hill? Is that the best free-agent the Cowboys can sign?
That name is viable. But otherwise, this is yet another Cowboys myth foisted upon the LCD (Lowest Common Denominator of the Dallas fan base). As a prominent agent told me this week, “Any team can find the money to sign any player it wants. There are always ways. And that’s especially true of Dallas.”
Remember, two years ago, the Cowboys were $20 mil over the cap one day and pretty much the next day signed Brandon Carr to a $50-million deal. And last season, the supposedly “cap-strapped” Cowboys found the cash to sign perennial Pro Bowl guard Brian Waters.
The end doesn’t always justify the means. But there are always means.
8. So they have the means to keep DeMarcus Ware?
Shockingly to some, they can sit on Ware’s existing deal – which allots him $16 mil, $17 mil, $14 mil and $14 mil over the next four seasons – and not sweat it right now.
But both sides are sweating. The Joneses love the future Hall-of-Famer and Ware has no desire to leave.
What Ware will discover here is that the leverage in negotiations to get Ware to undo-and-redo his deal – if Jerry can harden his heart enough to use it — belongs to Dallas. Ware will ultimately be told to take a “paycut or be cut.” (Maybe in softer phrasing than that.)
If Ware senses there is a monster deal waiting for him on the open market, Dallas will endure that pain and watch somebody else overpay this iconic talent.
And then, regardless of whether he finished his career in Buffalo or Oakland or Kansas City or Denver or New Orleans, a few years down the line he will be inducted into the Cowboys Ring of Honor.
9. Can Dallas keep Ware and remake this defensive line?
That is the optimal plan. Chase Henry Melton, the 27-year-old Chicago Bears stud who is coming off a knee injury but has Texas connections. He is a valued 3-technique guy, as is Cowboys free-agent Jason Hatcher,. You don’t want to pay age (Hatcher is 32) but you certainly approach your discussions with him with an open mind.
There is talent along the defensive line in this free-agent class (Michael Johnson, Michael Bennett, Jared Allen, Red Bryant and Dallas’ own Anthony Spencer, coming off an injury that could make him even more available to the Cowboys, are among the many names). And there is talent in the draft, starting with Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald, an obvious Cowboys target at 16.
In short, there is a way to assemble a group of “Rushmen’’ under defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli without all of them being billionaires. Last year, off-the-couch Cowboy George Selvie was paid $700,000 and recorded seven sacks.
There is a way to get production out of defensive linemen without paying them $16 million a year.
10. Will the Cowboys explore wide receiver help?
Priority No. 1 is crafting an extension for Dez Bryant. Before that figures to come the release of Miles Austin, which will be a June 1 deal that give Dallas $5.5 million worth of room. (That number, by the way, matches almost perfectly the dollars Dallas will need to sign its draftees.) The Cowboys are not opposed to spending a high pick on a receiver but can also scan free agency and see names like Robert Meacham, Lance Moore and Nate Burleson. … And Dallas is depth is such that even that sort of signee might just be the fourth receiver in the Cowboys rotation.
But I cannot stress enough: There is another Nate Burleson (a third-rounder in 2003) in this draft. And there are Lance Moore’s available after the draft is over (he went unchosen in 2005).
11. Do they need a running back?
Not in free agency, they don’t.
Uninformed speculation connects Dallas to the marketplace here.
Ignore uninformed speculation.
There are are extremely affordable ways to back up DeMarco Murray without chasing, say, Darren Sproles. The Saints (in cap hell!) released their scatback this week. He’s about to turn 31 and will want, say, $5 million. (Who wouldn’t!) Dallas already employs in Lance Dunbar a kid who makes one-tenth of that.
The cap does not allow you to have “famous’’ players at every position, especially at backup running back, where productive “cheap labor’’ can always be found. Somebody on the roster has to play well and make $500,000.
Dunbar is an example of how this must work.
Dwayne Harris as the return man (no, Dallas is not calling Bears discarded legend Devin Hester) is another.
Saints tight end Jimmy Graham this week tweeted, “Wow unbelievable. Shocked and disappointed on everything that’s gone on this offseason.”
Graham apparently doesn’t understand that other Saints are getting shuffled and sunk so that he, Graham, can get paid. It’s not unlike old friend Deion Sanders, who tweets with outrage every time he reads about the release of an older player Deion has heard of getting released.
Don’t look for Jimmy or Deion getting hired as anybody’s GM any time soon.
12. Is there a singular key to doing it right in free-agency shopping?
Yup. Let somebody else set the market.
It’s been smartly noted that of the 2013 free agents who signed with new clubs, none of them finished in the top 10 in passing, rushing, receiving or interceptions. So while it is fun for the Cowboys fan to dream about a collection of Christmas gifts under his March 11 tree …
“If he is free, he is flawed,” one GM tells me, repeating his longtime mantra.
13. Are the Cowboys wrong to be “spenders”?
It is a funny thing; Dallas gets killed for being “dumb spenders’’ while some clubs who stay way under the Are credited with being “wise managers.’’ Truth? If you don’t use your money you are a cheapskate and doing so is as football-foolish as not using any other tool to improve. It is akin to keeping a third-round pick in your pocket and not using it. No football credit is due organizations who opt for such frugality.
One report, by the way, suggests the cap could jump to $145 million and $160 million in the next two years. And in those seasons, there will be a few owners who still stay under the cap and do you know where that unspent $30 million or whatever goes?
Not into the assemblage of a roster, but rather, into the owner’s construction of a second vacation home in France.
Owners who spend are the football fan’s friend.
14. Once the dust settles, will Cowboys be able to retain Dez Bryant and Tyron Smith?
It is preordained. Every single dollar the Cowboys have used and every single dollar the Cowboys have saved have been part of a design to re-up those two before they hit free agency.
15. You are throwing around very specific names and very specific numbers. Why, in the face of that, do so many people say Dallas can’t be a player in free-agency?
As Jason Garrett started telling me 20 years ago, “I only concern myself with things that are within my control.”
Seriously there is headline-grabbing attention and click-calling attention to be had by mentioning the Cowboys in any context long – positive or negative.
Mention LeBron, the Yankees, the Cowboys, Hitler or Jesus and you get yourself clicks. Mention the Cowboys in anything other than a positive light (as I have done for years in attempting to explain their cap-related options) and I am labeled a Kool-Aid-guzzling homer.
But my views about the Dallas cap are not about the Dallas cap. They are about the NFL cap. The same concepts that I’m applying to the Cowboys work for the Saints and Steelers and Lions, too.
But nobody gets clicks and headlines for trashing (or even analyzing fairly) the Saints and Steelers and Lions.
So the networks create huge “special programming’’ to detail how Dallas is in “Cap Hell’’ (by beiung an astronomical $30 million, according to one recent breathless report) and devote substantially less effort to noting that, one day later, Dallas is under the cap.
Oh well.
16. How about a Dion Jordan trade?
Dallas will make that call to Miami for its young pass- rusher. He was highly regarded by the Cowboys in last year’s draft. But at this time of the year, picks are golden. Dallas might give up A pick for Jordan, but it won’t give up THE pick for him.
17. How much does what Dallas accomplishes in free agency impact its draft selections?
Simple formula: You fill needs in free agency with known quantities. In the draft, you are dealing with unknown known quantities, so you take the best available player who fits.
The two must be meshed, of course. If Dallas is able to sign a standout veteran 3-tech defensive tackle, it is less likely to draft Aaron Donald, the Pitt standout who plays that same role.
But as a rule:
In free agency you are paying retail.
In the draft you are paying wholesale.
The NFL teams that master the concept of asset management get this.
18. Will the Cowboys do something quickly?
The sooner they get their own house in order, the better off they will be in terms of shopping space. They will enter free agency with about $2 million of room. A release of Ware will give them $7.5 million more – and if they can undo/redo his deal, maybe that same amount.
If Dallas has $9.5 million worth of spending cash, it will not burn a hole in Jerry’s pocket. But remember, this race goes to the smartest, not the swiftest.
19. Do the Cowboys have system tricks – or system flaws – other teams don’t have?
Jerry Jones’ sometimes comical involvement is the only major difference between Dallas’ approach and the rest of the league’s. Managing the cap, dealing with free agency and executing on Draft Day requires each team to reach into the same silverware drawer and to employ its knife, fork or spoon. Maybe sometimes, publically or even privately, Mr. Jones grabs the wrong end of the utensil, yeah. But for the most part, the offseason game is universally understood. The options are shared. Oh, and NFL management is very much a place of cross-pollination. Guys who used to work in that organization now work in this organization. That guy’s former assistant is now his friendly foe.
If over the course of two decades Dallas once upon a time had a clever edge, it’s gone now. And, if Dallas once had a repeated pitfall, it should be gone, too.
And yes, that “universal pitfall’’ includes the issue of “dead money.’’ The Cowboys are saddled with $7 million of it this year due to Jay Ratliff’s absenteeism. But that’s not unusual as Cowboys-centric observers think. Half the teams in the league have at least $4 mil of dead money. The Saints have $10 mil in such baggage (including $1 mil for a failed kicker). The Panthers have $17 mil of dead money in part because they traded away a linebacker. The Chargers have $8.6 mil of dead money because last year, the new GM dumped two vets the previous regime had just signed. The Patriots have $7 million of dead money tied up in a tight end who is a murderer.
Knife, fork or spoon. Same tools. Same pitfalls.
20. So, Fish, if you are to be believed, there isn’t really a “Cap Hell.’’ What is the Cowboys’ problem, then?
Year after year after year of cap mismanagement isn’t the Cowboys’ real ailment. Year after year after year of going 8-8 is.
The Seahawks winning the Super Bowl justifies every single thing they did. (Remember when they had a PED problem? Nope. Nor does anyone else.) The Patriots have so much success that Aaron Hernandez concerns aren’t really concerns at all. The Saints and Steelers and Ravens having won Super Bowls more recently than Dallas won one arguably allows them to be cut more slack in this department by some critics. … even as they (and really, all 32 teams) wrestle with the exact same issues at one level or another.