In this day and age, it's a date on the NFL calendar that doesn't get a lot of attention, but July 15 has a small modicum of significance when it comes to the business side.
For the handful of NFL players whose employers have placed the "franchise tag" on them for purposes of retaining negotiating rights with them in free agency, July 15 is the date by which they must reach an agreement on a long term deal, otherwise the player will be playing the upcoming season on a one year contract that is guaranteed to pay the average of the top five players' salaries at their position.
Honestly, that one year deal is not the worst deal in the world. Hell, for some players, it's a good enough deal for them not to raise a fuss at all. If you think about, as long as you're willing to roll the dice on the minute career-threatening injury possibility, then it essentially pushes the crazy non-guaranteed last couple seasons of most long-term deals a year further into the future. In reality, the only time an NFL player should raise a stink about getting the franchise tag slapped on them is if a) they are indeed nervous about injury (understandable, I suppose), or b) they have an acute, immediate need for an influx of cash greater than the average salary of the top five players at his position.
I don't know which category Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant falls under, but he has indeed chosen to raise a stink about the Cowboys placing the franchise tag on him, which would bring a $12.8 million guaranteed salary in 2015. How big a stink? Well, big enough to sit out training camp and eventually sit out games. Or so he says. Let's examine.
Yesterday, reports surfaced that Dez Bryant had personally called Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones (son of owner Jerry Jones) to inform him that if he doesn't have a new deal by tomorrow's deadline, he is prepared to sit out all of camp and, if necessary, miss regular season games. For what it's worth, Jones denied getting that phone call from Bryant, so Bryant took to Twitter to state (or restate, I suppose) his case:
Here are the tentacles of this story that you need to know for the next 24-36 hours:
1. Bryant has absolutely zero leverage in this case.
Many NFL fans are comparing Bryant's outwardly headstrong position to that of Emmitt Smith back in 1993, when the eventual all-time leading rusher sat out the first two games before getting a long-term deal done. The problem with that comparison is that Smith had no "franchise tag" encumbering him. If Bryant and the Cowboys don't reach a deal by tomorrow, then by the laws of the collective bargaining agreement, they cannot do a long-term deal until 2016's offseason. So if Dez decides to sit out to make a point, he is essentially making a point to a rulebook. The Cowboys' hands are tied as of the deadline tomorrow.
2. Bryant may or may not need the money that comes with a $752,000 game check pretty badly.
Bryant won't lose anything by sitting out training camp. Under the rules of the franchise tag, it is his right to do so with no penalty (the one mulligan ownership has allowed for players to make a very futile point). However, once he starts sitting out regular season games, he will lose 1/17th of his $12.8 million guaranteed salary for each game he sits out. That's $752,000, and if you believe some reports, Bryant can't afford to let $752,000 just go by the wayside.
3. The Cowboys have the cap space to do a deal.
Over the last few years, largely because of a huge deal given to quarterback Tony Romo (deserved) and the team doing a better job of evaluating talent (and therefore having more quality players to sign to second contracts, a la Bryant), the Cowboys have been up against the salary cap ceiling like few other teams. However, right now, according to the salary reference site Spotrac, the Cowboys have plenty of 2015 cap space to do a long-term deal with Bryant. In fact, properly structured, a long-term contract with Bryant, even with crazy guaranteed money, should come in at a smaller 2015 cap figure than the $12.8 million he is set to make under the franchise tag.
4. There is a broader storm cloud of collusion gathering on the horizon.
Lurking in the background of all of this is the possibility that the Cowboys and Denver Broncos could be in some hot water for discussing their "franchise tagged wide receiver" problems with each other. According to Pro Football Talk, here's the story:
Per a source with knowledge of the situation, Jones explained to Bryant that the Calvin Johnson contract, which represents the current peak of the receiver market, has no relevance to other receivers because it was driven by the pre-rookie wage scale deal that Johnson signed when he was drafted by the Lions in 2007. And then Jones told Dez, per the source, that Jones talked to Broncos G.M. John Elway about the situation.
Because the Broncos also have a franchise-tagged receiver in Demaryius Thomas, the admission that Jones and Elway communicated about the situation constitutes evidence of collusion.
The odds of anything substantial coming out of these collusion allegations is minimal. Most collusion accusations involve verbal conversations that parties eventually deny having taken place, making it a he said-she said situation that is tough to pursue.
So if the cap space is there, and if Bryant has been the prototype wide receiver the last few seasons (41 touchdowns the last three seasons, 16 in 2014), then what's the hold up? Well, we all know that Bryant has had maturity issues off the field since coming into the NFL. His transgressions haven't been anything that have gotten him in trouble under the league's conduct policy by the letter of the law, although it's worth noting that one of the incidents was a misdemeanor domestic violence charge for hitting his mother back in 2012, which as we all know precedes the "NFL NOW gives a shit about domestic violence" Era by about two years.
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Would Bryant have been suspended under the new, harsher conduct policy if the incident with his mom took place, say, last month? It's a distinct possibility. That doesn't mean the Cowboys wouldn't sign him. Hell, they signed Greg Hardy, who reportedly threw his girlfriend onto a bed covered with guns last year, and he is serving four games to start the 2015 season.
However, Hardy's contract is an incentive-laden, practically game-by-game deal. Dez would command something more secure than that, but likely not the Calvin Johnson level security he seeks. Perhaps that, along with a mild overall lack of complete trust in Dez Bryant, is what's holding up the blessing on a long-term deal.
Either way, on Dez Bryant's "beautiful babies," it's about to get very interesting in Big D.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast.