San Francisco 49ers president Carmen Policy could have been talking for the entire league last week when he spoke of the Dallas Cowboys' newly announced, eight-year, $42.5 million contract with running back Emmitt Smith: "To tie up so much capital in this player and two or three others is a terrible risk. The long-term question is, Will they be able to field a competitive team down the road because of these signings?"
The Smith deal—combined with several others, notably the monster contracts given over the last three years to quarterback Troy Aikman (eight years, $47 million) and defensive back-wide receiver Deion Sanders (five years, $25 million)—means that the Cowboys have locked up their top players through their primes. For the rest of the 1990s Dallas will have intact the best eight-or 10-player nucleus in recent NFL history.
But signing stars to megadeals has a flip side: A team doesn't have much left to spend, so it has to rely on low-priced talent at numerous positions. SI estimates that this season Dallas will have a league-high 27 of its 53 players at or below the NFL minimum salary for veterans of five or more years, $275,000. Soon the Cowboys may have to do even more of their shopping in the discount bin: The combined cap values of Smith, Aikman and Sanders will rise from $11.56 million this season to $22.5 million in 1999.
"We're in a very risky, dicey business," Dallas owner Jerry Jones says. "I've seen more people in my life go broke by being conservative than by being risky. Having said that, because I'm in the game for the long term, it'd be out of character for me to be such a Mississippi riverboat gambler that five or six years down the road I've made it impossible for us to win."
Jones continues to defy the capologists who said he wouldn't be able to please all his stars. Not only has he given big deals to Aikman, Sanders and Smith, but he has also locked up wideout Michael Irvin (five years, $14.5 million) and defensive stalwarts Charles Haley (four years, $12 million), Kevin Smith (four years, $11 million), Tony Tolbert (five years, $14.1 million) and Darren Woodson (six years, $18 million). He has done it by giving players huge signing bonuses—$13 million to Sanders, $10.5 million to Emmitt Smith, to cite the two biggest—and, for salary-cap purposes, prorating the bonuses over the life of long contracts. In the first three seasons of his deal, Smith will cost the Cowboys a very manageable $4 million, $2.5 million and $3 million against the cap, but his price tag swells to $7.35 million, $7.5 million and $7 million in 2001,2002 and 2003. Jones may be counting on the current $40.75-million-per-team cap level to jump significantly after the next TV contracts are negotiated. (The current pacts expire after the 1997 season.)
A relaxed Emmitt Smith sat in his dorm room at the Cowboys' training camp in Austin last week and reveled in his new fortune. "I didn't break the bank, but I got a pretty good piece of it," he said. "Jerry did just what he said he'd do, and I'm grateful." Smith knows Dallas has sacrificed depth to pay him and the Cowboys' other stars. That weakness has been exposed by a litany of injuries that has caused Dallas, after beginning the exhibition schedule with a one-point defeat of the Oakland Raiders, to look dreadful in losing preseason games by a combined score of 83-16 to the Kansas City Chiefs, the New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos. In last Saturday night's 20-3 loss to Denver, the first-string offense made only two first downs and one field goal in six Aikman-led drives. "We have a very slim margin for error. Very slim," said Smith, who limped off in the second quarter with a sprained medial collateral ligament of the left knee that will sideline him for at least two weeks. "We can't afford to be hurt. We're at the point where, after our first string, we might be in trouble."