While it is extremely rare in today’s National Football League – as well as in sports in general – it is never meant to be forgotten. Furthermore, just because it is rare, doesn’t mean it should be ignored, devalued, or even taken lightly. While money is what players are after today – at times legitimately so – they should not base their contract decisions on that entirely or even make it their prime objective. Players seek lucrative contracts without considering that their search for green is much more of a sacrifice than they realize.
Such is the case with what transpired with the Dallas Cowboys and their negotiations last week with free agent running back DeMarco Murray. In a situation that came down to the limitations of the salary cap and the economic climate of franchises and the league, Murray’s negotiations were not fiscally conducive to the Cowboys’ payroll. In the end, Murray opted to sign a five-year $42 million contract with the NFC-East rival Philadelphia Eagles. The contract is structured with $21 million in guaranteed salary.
While the days of loyalty – for the most part – are long gone in this money-driven world of sports, that does not mean that everyone has to operate by that or agree with it. Plenty of professional athletes have taken pay cuts or restructured their contracts to help management re-sign players or extend contracts in an effort to remain fiscally sound, competitive, and be able to realistically contend for a championship. Even after NFL free agency began in 1993, loyalty was still seen in the mid and late 1990’s with pro bowl quarterbacks like Steve Young, Troy Aikman, and John Elway taking pay cuts or re-negotiating their long-term contracts in order to free up cap space to help their teams re-sign players to new deals. This allowed core players to stay together longer giving teams a better chance of maintaining their winning ways.
While it is possible to see raises given out by ownership and management in today’s world of salary cap constraints, it is just something that doesn’t happen as much. Everybody has a ceiling and that ceiling can’t always be continually raised. Yet, the Murray negotiations raise a question about sacrifice. Is it better to sacrifice for money and personal gain, or for a team and the success of an organization? Kind of sounds like that typical job interview question of, “Are you a team player or are you focused on individual acclaim?” While it is possible for any individual, especially a talented one, to achieve individually within the team concept, one would think that most employers want to hear that you are a team player.
I don’t mean to say Murray is not a team player. However in terms of business, I think he let Dallas down here. I also think Murray let himself down. Letting one entity down is bad enough. However letting both your team and yourself down is horrible and just does not make any sense. Sacrifice is huge in life. Murray did not negotiate wisely in these contract discussions because he did not know what sacrifice was all about.
When Murray signed with the Eagles, he sacrificed team success for personal gain. Now an Eagle, he could go on and reach statistical milestones and with it secure monetary rewards. He could be the face of a franchise that now looks as though it needs one after all the turnover they have had in personnel so far this offseason. He could rank among the league leaders in rushing statistics year in and year out. He could be a perennial pro bowl player. He could have all that and more but not necessarily play on a team that has a real shot at winning a Super Bowl Championship or two.
The Cowboys represented Super Bowl Championship potential for Murray and one has to wonder if he sacrificed this opportunity by not re-signing with them. With a young, strong, and now experienced offensive line anchored by pro bowl left tackle Tyron Smith to run behind, the sky was the limit for Murray and Dallas. The future was also now for Murray and the Cowboys. Furthermore, the balance of an offense featuring veteran talent with quarterback Tony Romo, wide receiver Dez Bryant, tight end Jason Witten, and speedy wide receiver Terrance Williams should have been plenty to keep Murray in Dallas. Top-rated players in cornerback Brandon Carr, linebacker Rolando McClain, and defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence made for a good defense that has the potential to be better in 2015 when linebacker Sean Lee is scheduled to return after missing all of last season with a torn ACL. Add in a heavily reliable kicker in Dan Bailey and the team has production all over the place. All these parts along with Murray made the Cowboys a complete and balanced squad in 2014. Murray both provided and benefitted from this balance and chemistry. Murray now leaves this behind and that has to leave him with a sour feeling when he had formed such a strong bond with teammates like Bryant and Romo. All Murray had to do to keep this productive unit intact was settle for somewhere between $4 and $6 million a year.
With Romo and Witten – both of who were drafted in 2003 – aging but still more than capable of playing, the window is at least somewhat shrinking for Dallas being able to win a Super Bowl with its’ current core players. The Cowboys’ chances to win the Lombardi Trophy in 2015 would probably be greater with Murray in place. While Dallas will still be a good team next season and beyond, how good will largely depend on whether or not they sign another premium running back.
By leaving the Cowboys, Murray is going into unknown territory with not only a new team, but a new offensive system. Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly has done an about face on offense via trades and free agency. Gone are quarterback Nick Foles, running back LeSean McCoy, and wide receiver Jeremy Maclin. In is an unproven quarterback in Sam Bradford who has suffered two torn left ACL’s. Bradford initially was dealt the injury in the seventh game of the 2013 season before suffering the same injury during a preseason game last year causing him to miss the entire 2014 season. Although Bradford and Murray both played together at Oklahoma where they were roommates, this does not guarantee that they will succeed in Philadelphia. The Eagles will have to likely add some other pieces and see how Bradford and Murray complement each other in Kelly’s open field and up tempo offense.
As if all that was not enough, there are more reasons that Murray should of stayed in Dallas. What about keeping intact what you are a part of and have helped to build? Murray became a focal point of the Cowboys’ offense in 2014. For the first time in years, Dallas had a prime threat at running back to take pressure off of Romo and the passing game. What about continuing to excel with your same team, one that you had cemented a place on and provided it with so much chemistry and balance? What about the image and prestige that goes along with playing for a team that has such a strong history at your position? Walt Garrison, Don Perkins, Duane Thomas, Calvin Hill, Tony Dorsett, Herschel Walker, and the legendary Emmitt Smith each made their marks as running backs for the Cowboys. Dorsett and Smith are in the pro football hall of fame and along with Perkins are each in the team’s ring of honor. What about the fans and continuing to make them proud and happy? What about the pedigree that the Dallas franchise gives you and with it the platform to develop and market your name? These are all good things or factors that represent good opportunities that Murray could of taken advantage of to attain both team and individual goals. He has now left all of that behind and sacrificed it for money and statistics.
Signing with the Eagles also represents risk and sacrifice for Murray in terms of what he is going into. What about the uncertainties of fitting into a new team in terms of its’ coaches, players, and staff? What about navigating around a new team’s strengths and weaknesses, fitting into its’ offensive and defensive schemes, identifying with the culture in the locker room, and adjusting to a new city? Yes, new surroundings can sometimes not mesh well with players’ off-the-field activities. Sound and wise judgment is needed here which can be easier said than done.
This negotiation came down to money and market value for Murray who is coming off a breakout season in which he lead the league with 1,845 yards rushing which surpassed the single-season club record of Smith, the NFL’s all-time leading rusher. Cowboys’ owner, president, and general manager Jerry Jones and Executive Vice President/COO/Director of Player Personnel Stephen Jones – Jerry’s son – negotiated this contract which seemed to be fair in regards to Murray rising to the top of the league’s rushing charts in 2014. Dallas had offered Murray a four-year deal worth $16 million for $4 million a year. This was a significant increase from the four-year $2.9 million contract that he signed after the Cowboys drafted the former Oklahoma running back in the third round in 2011. That contract included a signing bonus of $662,500.00 and paid Murray an average salary of $743,360.00. Murray made $1.4 million in base salary in 2014.
So surely, Jones and his son knew they were going to have to raise their offer if they had any hopes of re-signing Murray. They did. However once Murray started reaching out to the open market, his services became invaluable and of sizeable demand. Murray initiated some of this by making a personal phone call to Kelly as reported by ESPN and the NFL Network last week. In response to that, Dallas did raise its’ offer to Murray from $4 million a year to closer to $6 million a year. However Murray was able to find what he had sought and that in the end could not even be matched by Jones and company at Valley Ranch. So both Murray and the Cowboys moved on. Yet, this transaction begs the question, what if?
What if there was no salary cap in place in the NFL? In an announcement that was posted on www.dallascowboys.com on March 12, the team’s owner explained how the negotiations with Murray evolved and why Dallas did not elect to raise their offer in an effort to re-sign him.
“We are very grateful to DeMarco Murray for his contributions to the Dallas Cowboys,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. “He is a quality person, a very good football player, and a player that we wanted to keep.”
“We have great appreciation for his skills, and if there was no salary cap in place, DeMarco would be a Cowboy,” Jones added. “This came down to an allocation of dollars within the management of the salary cap.”
“Obviously there is emotion involved in these decisions, but it is critical that there must be discipline involved as well. If it were a question of having an open checkbook with no salary cap constraints, we all know things would have worked out differently,” Jones stated.
“We have recently made significant commitments to top players who are currently on the team, specifically at key positions such as quarterback, left tackle, and wide receiver, and we were comfortable with the offer that we made to DeMarco to include him in that structure.”
“These are difficult decisions that are part of the NFL. They are decisions that take into account the entire team, the current economic structure of the team, and the financial concerns for the short and long term future of the team,” Jones said.
“At the end of the day, this is about finding the best way to collectively fit all of the individual pieces together, in terms of talent, offensive players, defensive players and dollars—under the salary cap structure—that gives you the best chance to have a championship team,” Jones concluded.
Jones points are well taken and make a lot of sense. Murray should of considered all of this before it reached this point because Philadelphia does not possess the same productivity or talent as Dallas. Murray seemed to be more of the stickler here on money. However money does not guarantee one’s place among NFL fame when it comes to credibility, success, championships, statistics, recognition, productivity, lore, or community presence. Those are all important factors that I think players should rate ahead of money, even though they want to get paid market value.
In Murray’s case, this is a critical time in his career. Having already played four years, he is in his prime and these next four to five years will determine how distinguished he becomes. Even though it was time for him to get paid, $4 million a year was a good increase from his initial four-year contract. Murray had to of been looking at the contracts of other top running backs including that of Minnesota Viking Adrian Peterson, regarded as the top running back in the game today. Peterson – who has been mentioned as a player the Cowboys might seek to acquire this offseason – is scheduled to earn $12.75 million next season.
Regardless of all that, Murray still had plenty of reasons to stay in Dallas. There was a big increase in pay even at the $4 to $6 million range that Jones was offering. Plus, one super season does not make a running back’s career, or any player for that matter. Murray and the Cowboys had such a good thing going for the team and now the entire organization is left to pick up the pieces.
So there are no guarantees that Philadelphia will present Murray with the same opportunity for individual or team success that he was having and was still in position to attain in Dallas. I mean, not every team in the NFL has the same pedigree as the Cowboys. Dallas has played in eight Super Bowls which ties them with the Steelers and Patriots for the most appearances all-time. They are one of a handful of all-time great franchises in the history of professional football. In all of sports, the Cowboys are consistently mentioned as one of the most prestigious, successful, and recognizable entities. They are acknowledged in the professional sports world as being on par with The New York Yankees, The Green Bay Packers, The Boston Celtics, and the Montreal Canadiens. This strong association continues in the college ranks with Dallas being on par with the likes of the University of Notre Dame for its’ football heritage and UCLA for its dominance in men’s basketball. Playing for an organization with that kind of prestigious history and pedigree is paramount to gaining revered and legendary status. Murray was on his way to doing so with the Cowboys following his breakout season of 2014. One can only hope that he still has a productive career in Philadelphia and let that take him where it may. However his chance for having both productivity and indelible fame were much greater in Dallas. Yes, loyalty and sacrifice are significant.