Sean Lee, Bruce Carter and DeMarcus Ware had their moments, but when the 2012 NFL season came to an end and we could look back on how the Dallas Cowboys performed, it was crystal clear that Anthony Spencer was the defensive MVP of that team.
The problem is that Spencer is now slated to become an unrestricted free agent in four weeks time, and the Cowboys are looking at a deficit in terms of the salary cap. ESPNDallas.com's Calvin Watkins reports that they have to chop about $20 million merely to get back to par.
That's why many have concluded that Spencer will walk when free agency gets underway next month. A player of his caliber will earn an eight-figure salary on the open market, which means the 'Boys would have to shave off about $40 million worth of 2013 salaries in order to pay Spencer to return while also having room to sign role players and draft picks.
That's why working out a long-term contract with quarterback Tony Romo is so crucial to the chances of being able to work out a deal with Spencer. Romo's cap number is a team-high $16.8 million, but the Cowboys could probably get about half of that money back by agreeing to terms with Romo before he enters the final year of his current contract.
They can save about $12 million by cutting Doug Free and Jay Ratliff and will likely get some money back from Brandon Carr and DeMarcus Ware. At the very least, they'll likely rework all four of those contracts, with Miles Austin also a candidate for restructuring or release.
But there's a very good chance that even all of those steps don't free up enough cash to pay Spencer. Unless they release Free, Ratliff and Austin, the reality is that they'll probably have to sign Romo to a new contract before they can commit to Spencer.
There is some flexibility here. If Dallas feels strongly that a long-term deal can be reached by July, the team can slap Spencer with the franchise tag again before free agency gets underway. Spencer would be due $10.6 million under the tag, with no wiggle room. That's dangerous. But if they can use those extra three months to iron out a contract, they'd likely save a few million bucks in the short term.
But they have to be under that cap on March 12, which means there has to be a massive sense of urgency. If they tag Spencer before that date but don't redo Romo's deal in time, I have a hard time seeing how they keep Free, Ratliff and Austin. And forget about signing external free agents.
What this means is that Romo has some serious leverage. The Cowboys don't have a replacement for him, and he's coming off a good season, despite how it ended. If he enters 2013 with a cap number of nearly $17 million, his supporting cast will be much weaker, and Dallas' chances of taking advantage of a wide-open division will take a major hit.
Romo doesn't want that but neither does Jerry Jones, obviously. Cowboy fans have to hope that Romo and his agent don't use said leverage to bleed Jones dry. They have to hope that he takes one more hit for the team.
If he doesn't, Spencer's likely gone.