The Dallas Cowboys restructured a handful of contracts last week in order to chop over $20 million in salary-cap space. Then, earlier today, they freed up an extra $1.3 million by cutting starting safety Gerald Sensabaugh.
Now, in one instant, they've handed about half of those savings back by placing the franchise tag on veteran linebacker Anthony Spencer.
That is according to Spencer's agent, Jordan Woy, who tweeted that the two sides will now work on a long-term deal.
The question, now, is whether they can come to an agreement on that deal in the next eight days or if negotiations will linger beyond the start of the new league year on March 12. Because if they can't get something done with Spencer by then, Spencer will cost the 'Boys $10.6 against the cap, which they have to be under by 4 p.m. ET next Tuesday.
That's why this is a two-headed gamble by the Cowboys, who are making a long-term bet that Spencer's 2012 breakout campaign wasn't just a fluke while also making a short-term bet that they'll be able to avoid a real mess by getting under the cap before said date.
And getting under the cap doesn't mean just getting under the cap. Teams still need a few million dollars to spend on keeping restricted free agents, filling spare parts and, eventually, signing their draft picks.
So by voluntarily putting themselves back over the cap, the Cowboys are putting faith in their ability to get some serious contract work done between now and next Tuesday. Maybe they're close with Spencer, and maybe they're putting the finishing touches on a long-term deal with Tony Romo, which would save them some short-term cash.
As things stand right now, with Spencer slated to make his eight-figure salary, Romo slated to count $16.8 million against the cap and Sensabaugh's release saving them $1.3 million, the Cowboys are about $4.5 million over the cap.
In order to be players at all in free agency—and keep in mind that they're now down a starting safety from 2012, need upgrades at right guard and right tackle and could use some help along the defensive line—they'd need to get Spencer signed, Romo re-signed and would need to redo deals for guys like Jay Ratliff, Doug Free, Nate Livings, Orlando Sandrick and Dan Connor, all in a little over a week.
It won't be easy, but they believe in Spencer to enough of a degree to roll the dice. And while that's exciting considering how well the 29-year-old performed in 2012, there's a chance this decision comes back to haunt Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett.
That haunting could begin to take place in only a week, but the 'Boys will live with that and get under the cap, whether it's the easy way (long-term deals for Spencer and Romo) or the hard way (more restructures and cuts, potentially leading to cap hell in future offseasons).
But if Spencer doesn't continue to perform like a top-tier pass-rusher and one of the most versatile defenders in the game, and if he struggles to make the transition from 3-4 outside linebacker to 4-3 defensive end, the Cowboys will be filled with regret.
They could again have him play out 2013 as a franchise player hungry for a long-term deal, but that wouldn't be worth the aforementioned eight-figure commitment. And there's also the possibility—raised by ESPNDallas.com's Todd Archer—that they trade Spencer for, say, a third-round pick, getting something instead of nothing for a man who was supposed to become an unrestricted free agent this month. Still, that's far-fetched.
Spencer put up a career-high 11 sacks while often looking dominant in non-pass-rushing situations in 2012. Pro Football Focus rated him as the best run-defending 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL. He's always been underrated, but sacks take precedence, and he never had more than six until this past season. If things revert to that way in 2013, the Cowboys will have screwed themselves, possibly in more ways than one.