The Saints must learn from Cowboys' salary cap mistakes


The NFL is a copy-cat league, as the old addage goes.  When one franchise finds success with an outside-the-box approach, most other franchises typically try to emulate it. 

When Peyton Manning and Tom Brady began orchestrating their offenses with a barrage of pre-snap adjustments, those offenses became the most dangerous in the league.   Now, there isn’t a franchise-type quarterback in the league that isn’t allowed nearly-autonomous control of pre-snap adjustments and the line of scrimmage.

Pete Carroll believed his system of gargantuan-sized cornerbacks and safeties could counteract the proliferation of big, athletic receivers that were dominating the league.  Carroll’s defenses became the best in football, his Seahawks won a championship, and now big, physical cornerbacks are among the most valuable assets any team can employ. 

The Rams hired young offensive wunderkind Sean McVay, who immediately transformed the once-beleaguered Rams’ offense into one of the most explosive units in football.  The Rams quick turnaround under their young coach has nearly every team with a head coaching vacancy looking to find the next McVay.

Smart professional football franchises see what’s working and incorporate the best of those systems and ideas into their own philosophies.  Innovation is still crucial, but ignoring precedent is often the death knell to NFL success.

Which is why it’s completely confounding that most NFL teams have still failed to acknowledge the role salary-cap management has played in the Patriots nearly two-decade long dynasty.   Yes, New England has employed one of the best quarterbacks and best head coaches in league history concurrently during that time, but their complete unwillingness to pay any player beyond what they deem is that player’s value on the field has been crucial in maintaining their success this millennium.

Most teams value loyalty over cap management.  Those organizations sound like better places to work, but the Patriots care more about winning than loyalty.  The Patriots fan base has learned to accept that their favorite players may not be Patriots for life.  Even New England’s players surely know this by now.  Most other franchises, however, often hamstringing their salary cap in the pursuit of keeping those players happy and in-house and placating their fan bases.

This is where the New Orleans Saints must learn from the Patriots, while simultaneously watching the Dallas Cowboys plunge themselves into certain salary-cap hell.  It’s imperative that general manager Mickey Loomis realize the mistakes Dallas is making in a flailing attempt by their owner to please the team’s fans and the star players he employs.  

The Cowboys are essentially tripling down on a roster that has failed to advance beyond the Divisional Playoffs with very little cap wiggle room over the next few seasons to add any meaningful pieces. I guess they hope the rest of the NFC gets worse? (Spoiler alert: it’s not)

— Seth Dunlap (@sethdunlap) September 4, 2019

The Saints have benefitted from extraordinary recent success in the NFL Draft and free agency market.  They’ve already made Michael Thomas the highest-paid receiver in NFL history, and will have to deal with expiring contracts for Alvin Kamara, Vonn Bell, Marcus Williams, Taysom Hill, Eli Apple, Larry Warford, Sheldon Rankins, Demario Davis, and Alex Anzelone over the next couple of seasons.   Ryan Ramczyk, Marshon Lattimore, Terron Armstead, and others will follow soon thereafter.  That doesn’t include the decision they’ll have to make at quarterback, either giving Drew Brees another contract or looking for his replacement.

That’s an un-enviable position for Loomis.  He’s built a team that has competed for championships the past two seasons, but keeping this roster mostly-intact is going to be incredibly hard.  One thing the Saints shouldn’t do is emulate what the Cowboys have been doing with their young roster.

Dallas has given running back Ezekiel Elliot a six-year, $90 million contract extension, ending a standoff that spanned the entirety of training camp and the preseason.   Elliot also gets $50 million guaranteed, and his $15 million-per-year average makes him the highest paid running back in the NFL.

There’s little question that Elliot earned that money after proving to be one of the league’s most valuable backs during his three seasons in Dallas.  If not for the restraints of salary cap control, Elliot would have fetched a much greater sum on a truly open market. 

That, however, is a debate for another column.  The Cowboys, like every NFL franchise, are constrained by a hard salary cap limit that can make it nearly impossible to retain every star player you draft through the entirety of their careers. 

Dallas has signaled they are willing to ride with their young core of players through this era, giving Elliot, linebacker Jaylon Smith, defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, and offensive tackle La’el Collins contract extensions over the past five months.   Those four players have contracts that will average just under $60 million combined over the next five seasons. 

Add in the $10 million per-season they’re already paying left tackle Tyron Smith along with the looming extension they’re expected to give quarterback Dak Prescott and the Cowboys will likely have over $100 million per-year allotted to six players on their roster.  If Dallas expects to also re-sign receiver Amari Cooper, then that number could balloon to somewhere around $120 million per-season invested in seven players. 

Belichickian cap economics this is not.   The famously frugal Patriots head coach believes in a much more balanced salary cap approach.  While we can debate the role Bill Belichick’s management of the cap has played in the franchise’s six championships, dismissing any correlation between titles and tight purse strings would be foolish.

Cowboy’s owner Jerry Jones has decided, apparently, that he’s smarter than Belichick.  Jones has bet that his current roster will improve enough to compete for championships.  Time will tell if Jones’ strategy works, but allotting over 50% of the Cowboys’ salary cap to six players when the team has failed to advance beyond the Divisional Playoffs during their careers seems like an incredibly high-risk gambit.   

Dallas is unlikely to be big players in free agency or trade market the next handful of years due to their contract decisions over the past two seasons.  If the young Cowboys roster, last year the youngest per-snap in the NFL, improves enough to consistently compete for, and win, championships then Jones’ strategy will be validated.   Remember, though, they won’t be able to make significant additions outside the current roster unless they let a player like Cooper get away in free agency, or they begin trading away some of their expensive young talent.   Which, if that happens, would mean that this current Cowboys’ roster wasn’t actually able to compete for titles, proving Jones wrong.  But I digress.

The other way Jones’ gambit could work is if the rest of the NFC suddenly experiences a conference-wide regression.  Not impossible, perhaps, but incredibly unlikely.  Also, betting your franchise’s future on other teams imploding seems like a bad way to run an NFL team.

The Saints must not let the Cowboys’ oversized influence on the country’s sports zeitgeist impact how they manage their delicate salary cap situation.  The Saints have built an enviable roster full of young stars, a roster that has a chance to keep the franchise among the conference’s elite teams even in the looming post-Brees era.  That won’t happen if they indiscriminately hand out mega-deals to every player who is ready for a payday. 

If that sounds harsh, it is.  The NFL is an unforgiving business.  Fans in the Gulf South have craved a second championship in the decade since Brees and Co. outdueled Peyton Manning’s Colts in the Super Bowl.   The best way to add multiple pieces of hardware to their trophy cabinet is by looking north for inspiration. 

The Patriots have laid the salary cap blueprint for sustained success.  Jerry Jones believes he’s savvier than those folks up north.  Perhaps he’s right, but the smart money is on the Cowboys’ experiment backfiring spectacularly.  The Saints would benefit by being the anti-Cowboys, while being humble enough to take inspiration from the Patriots instead of trying to re-write their book on sustaining NFL success.