Miles Austin’s contract is another recent example of the kind that Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones needs to stop writing.
The Cowboys cut the wide receiver on March 12, designating him as a June 1 release. That means the Cowboys can spread his cap hit out over two seasons, as opposed to one. So in 2014, Austin will count $5.5 million against the salary cap; in 2015 he’ll count $5.1 million against it.
It helps get the Cowboys out of a contract that, frankly, shouldn’t have been written in the first place.
Austin was making the type of money NFL teams pay No. 1 receivers. Since the 2009 season, he never approached those numbers.
Jones rewarded Austin’s meteoric rise after the 2009 season with a six-year, $54 million contract. Entering 2009, Austin had a combined 18 catches in his first two NFL seasons and was no factor in the offense. In 2009, Austin caught 81 passes for 1,320 yards and 11 touchdowns. Seems worth the money, right?
Not when you consider that Austin, to that point, was a one-year wonder with no real track record in the NFL. Say what you want about the amount of money Jones paid DeMarcus Ware, but he was worth the price tag up until last season. Ware had a track record when Jones rewarded him with a second contract.
Austin’s contract was tinged with a bit of desperation. He emerged because the Cowboys parted ways with Terrell Owens after the 2008 season and because Roy Williams was out with an injury. Williams had one more year left on his deal, and he wasn’t producing at the level of a first-round pick. Aside from Jason Witten, there wasn’t much for Jones to look forward to at the position.
So Jones rolled the dice and handed Austin a ton of money. That contract included an exorbitant base salary in 2010 of $17 million, which came during the NFL’s uncapped year. The NFL punished the Cowboys with $10 million in cap penalties, due in part to Austin’s deal.
But the bigger issue is that Austin was making the type of money NFL teams pay No. 1 receivers. Since that 2009 season, he never approached those numbers.
Two seasons came close. In 2010 and 2012, he caught at least 66 passes and at least six touchdowns. In fact he reached the Pro Bowl in 2010. But he also fought injuries, most notably a pesky hamstring that seemed to crop up repeatedly. He missed six games in 2012 due to an injury and only caught 43 passes. He still managed to catch a half-dozen touchdowns.
But last season Austin bottomed out. His hamstring robbed him of five games. Rookie Terrance Williams took care of the rest. Austin ended up with just 24 catches and no touchdowns. Even when Austin got right, Williams had taken Austin’s place in the lineup.
The downturn in production, the upturn in Austin’s injuries and the emergence of Williams collided with the remaining years of Austin’s contract and forced Jones’ hand. The Cowboys combined Austin’s poorly written deal with a restructure in 2013 that deferred more of the cap hit to the end of the contract. So heading into 2014, the Cowboys faced a cap hit of nearly $40 million on the remaining four years of Austin’s deal, mostly due to huge base salaries.
Jones didn’t have much choice. The longer he kept Austin, the worse the cap hit became. Plus, Austin is about to turn 30, so his hamstrings aren’t getting any younger.
Jones was right to let Austin go. He was wrong to sign Austin to that kind of a deal in the first place. Wednesday’s decision was a tacit acknowledgement of that mistake. Had Jones been a little more prudent a few years ago, Austin might still be a Cowboy.