By MICKEY SPAGNOLA
Feb. 17, 2004, 5:24 p.m. (CST)
IRVING, Texas - Beware the free-agent quarterback - especially if you are in the market for a starter.
Cleveland signed 34-year-old Jeff Garcia to a four-year, $25 million deal last year. Handed him a $5 million signing bonus. The Browns will officially release the 35-year-old quarterback on Tuesday. They will take a $3.75 million hit against the salary cap.
Washington signed 34-year-old Mark Brunell to a seven-year, $43.36 million contract last year. Handed him an $8.6 million signing bonus. He's no longer the Redskins' starter, making him an awfully high-priced backup or an expensive cap casualty within the next two years.
The New York Giants signed 33-year-old Kurt Warner to a two-year deal, which was voidable after one, and handed him a $1.5 million signing bonus. He's chosen to void the deal, and will charge $750,000 against the Giants cap this year.
And then there is the Buffalo Bills. They wanted New England backup Drew Bledsoe so bad in 2002 that they handed the Patriots a first-round draft choice (14th overall) in 2003 for the right to acquire Bledsoe. That not being expensive enough, they then reworked Bledsoe's contract, handing him a signing bonus last year, and now will be responsible for $4.3 million of amortized charges against the 2005 salary cap when they officially release him next week.
The Cowboys, they have never had to do this - never had to play this game of high-stakes quarterback-jack, betting dearly to get something out of someone else's castoffs. Let us count another way Troy Aikman helped the Cowboys.
And even when it was time for the Cowboys to step to this table of trepidation, back in 2001 after releasing Aikman, they didn't have any cap money available to spend, so they went the thrifty route, signing castoff Tony Banks to a one-year, minimum deal with no signing bonus and then drafting Quincy Carter in the second round.
On top of that, when they needed a veteran insurance policy just in case Carter went south in 2004, the 40-year-old Vinny Testaverde was there, willing to work for Bill Parcells on a one-year, no-signing-bonus deal that included handsome performance incentives.
Well, this charmed quarterback existence has expired. Come March 2, the Cowboys will have two quarterbacks on their roster: Drew Henson, a second-year guy who has started nine football games since his final 1997 high school season, and Tony Romo, who hasn't played in a real football game since 2002 back at Eastern Illinois.
Belly up to the table, Cowboys.
Because unless they know something about Henson or Romo we don't or they haven't said, the Cowboys will need to sign a veteran free-agent quarterback capable of being more than just an insurance policy for 2005. They will need a guy.
They will need a guy capable of becoming the full-time starter if Henson isn't the answer or still isn't ready. They will need a guy capable of starting 16 games, if he must.
"I look at it very similar to the way we looked at it last year," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said of the quarterback issue. "We just can't bet the house how these two young guys will be evolving. That's just not smart."
Totally. But, guess what? The usual suspects and their agents will know that, too, and they realize the market is much higher than the one-year, $1.1 million deal the Cowboys signed Testaverde to last year. These guys don't want to play for just-in-case incentive money. They want real deals.
They want signing bonuses. And I'm guessing, even Vinny, too, this time around, since the Cowboys' alternatives are rather iffy and Jones continues to reiterate having no desire to use a first-round pick on a quarterback in April.
Now the Cowboys could always wait and wait until the market dries up, then rescue some leftover who probably would be only too glad to sign somewhere. But that there would indicate they are willing to hand Henson the keys, and judging from Jones' comments Thursday, he's not quite ready for this car.
So just look at the free-agent quarterback market, suddenly minus Drew Brees, franchised by San Diego on Thursday, and likely minus Matt Hasselbeck, surely to be franchised by Seattle by Tuesday's deadline. These free-agent guy all want starting jobs. That's what Bledsoe wants, no matter his ties to Parcells. Otherwise, he could have remained there in Buffalo tutoring J.P. Losman.
Same with Warner. He elected to void his second year instead of mentoring Eli Manning. And I'm guessing the likes of even Garcia and Kelly Holcomb want starting jobs, and Cleveland might have no other choice but to bring back Holcomb.
And if not starting jobs, these guys all want to be paid as if they will be the starter, and that there is the catch in this little game of quarterback roulette. Playing sometimes is not as important as getting paid as if you are playing. At least that signing bonus.
So unless the Cowboys have decided to close their eyes so tight their eyelids hurt and go with Henson, and it doesn't seem they are inclined to do that just yet, they are going to need one of these guys - at least for part of the season.
And sure Bledsoe says he wants to play with the Cowboys. Out of a job, he probably wants to play with 30 other teams, too, just as Vinny.
"Dallas is intriguing for obvious reasons, with playing for my old coach and looking at the weapons they have offensively," Bledsoe said. "That's intriguing, but there a number of teams that are possible, and Dallas is one of those. That would be an interesting option, no question."
Now Bledsoe, at age 33 and being a Parcells' former first pick in the 1993 draft in New England, said during a conference call on Wednesday he can't see himself going somewhere to be a backup. True, but he really means that he doesn't see himself getting paid as a backup just yet. All he needs is two teams interested to insure that.
And, upon further review, the Cowboys aren't the only team in need of a quarterback - starter or backup. Check with Cleveland, Miami, San Francisco, Arizona, Chicago and possibly even Detroit, since head coach Steve Mariucci recently alluded to not being settled at quarterback with Joey Harrington.
Plus, it's not as if this pool of quarterbacks has a deep end - when it comes to guys you wouldn't mind being your starter. My guess is, when teams start sizing up these available quarterbacks, the top 10 will consist of (today) in no particular order: Hasselbeck, Bledsoe, Warner, Holcomb, Testaverde, Garcia, Brad Johnson, Mike McMahon, maybe Jim Miller and what the heck, Carter since at least he's started somewhat recently in the league.
After that (see complete list in Mick Shots) . . . . yuk.
The key thing, then, is not to purchase more than you can use - in other words don't pay so much for one of these hand-me-downs that it will paralyze your cap once you find a for-real guy. Or in the Cowboys' case, until Henson - or Romo, for that matter - is ready, if that still is a possibility.
"Not backing off of it in any way," Jones said of his original contention Henson has the potential to someday be the Cowboys' starting quarterback. "We have seen nothing that would indicate he doesn't have that kind of potential."
That would be a good thing . . . a real good thing. Because this free-agent quarterback market is overrun with spoiled goods.
Since Bledsoe technically still is property of Buffalo and with such a competitive free-agent market out there, Jones was very hesitant to say anything of substance about the veteran quarterback. But sources were saying back during the Super Bowl week that the Cowboys were anticipating the Bills releasing Bledsoe and already getting their ducks in a row on him.
According to the list of unrestricted free agents released by the NFLPA at the Super Bowl, here are the quarterbacks who should be available (by team), along with now Bledsoe, Garcia and Warner, and minus Brees: Ty Detmer, Shane Matthews, Kordell Stewart, Jeff George, Kelly Holcomb, Vinny Testaverde, Mike McMahon, Doug Pederson, Tony Banks, Sage Rosenfels, Gus Frerotte, Jim Miller, Jesse Palmer, Quincy Carter, Jeff Blake, Charlie Batch, Jamie Martin, Matt Hasselbeck, Brock Huard, Doug Johnson. Oh, and I suppose lame-arm Tim Couch is out there, too.
Now then, say what you want about Testaverde and Bledsoe, but among these aforementioned quarterbacks, and assuming Hasselbeck there come Tuesday, this is sure slim pickings. Who else? Maybe Warner or Holcomb, but that's about it, no?
As for making the switch to a 3-4 defense, Jones said those ideas still are "evolving and we're looking at everything, personnel-wise." . . . And as for having to make decisions on several veteran players with roster bonuses due come March 2, Jones said, "Yes, we do," and when asked if he's had contact with some of their agents already, he said, "Some yes," but wouldn't discuss anyone specifically - namely Dexter Coakley, due a $500,000 roster bonus.