Spencer's franchise tag: The Cowboys' answer to a tough self-made problem
WFAA Sports Blogger
Posted on March 7, 2012 at 10:30 AM
Franchise tag. It sounds like a prestigious or glamorous moniker, one only placed on the most accomplished and pivotal of athletes (just pretend like you’ve never heard the name Stevie Franchise and this will flow a lot better). In some ways, from the athlete’s perspective, it's absolutely a sign of respect. It shows you’ve reached a milestone in your career when your team has decided, reluctantly or not, to pay you as a top ten player at your position....for one single year.
That’s the big idea isn’t it? We condition these young men to believe their worth in this life is intrinsically tied to a figure involving commas and dollar signs. Making enough money to not have to worry about money anymore is not the goal here. There have been books and entire college classes devoted to this idea so I’ll move along. The franchise tag is a white cloth up the flagpole for any team that hasn’t handled the business of resigning players that they’d like to keep by the start of the off-season.
It’s incredibly difficult for me to make a case for why franchising Anthony Spencer creates a good situation for the Cowboys. The only logic that carries the slightest bit of weight with me rests in the argument that letting Spencer go requires finding somebody else to fill that role. I’ll address what kind of role that is here shortly.
The fear that the Dallas Cowboys could not find an adequate replacement for a player as inconsequential as Anthony Spencer seems comical, but that fear is real. Is there any faith that this organization could find a player to contribute on the edge without devoting top free agent dollar or a first round pick? You know, that thing called scouting. Because of this deficiency, the Cowboys have chosen the path of paying an exterior pass rusher with 21.5 sacks in 5 seasons 8.8 million dollars to basically not be Victor Butler. 8.8 million is the current franchise tag for outside linebackers. It could buy you twelve Victor Butlers.
The brilliant minds over at Profootballfocus.com do a fantastic job of grading players strictly by performance. They have Spencer’s 2011 performance ranked 10th overall between 3-4 outside linebackers. That’s 10th out of 28, including a handful of part time situational pass rushers. The good news is his play against the run is rated tops in the NFL. The bad part is he ranks 11th in the NFL in pass rush for a 3-4 OLB. That’s behind 3 rookies (Aldon Smith, Ryan Kerrigan, Justin Houston) and the top rated pass rush OLB, his teammate, DeMarcus Ware.
One would hope that with the advantage of being paired with the NFL's best pass-rusher, Spencer would lasso more than 6 sacks in his fifth professional season. The more disparaging numbers that pop out are Spencer had fewer quarterback pressures (35) than rookie Aldon Smith (36) who played roughly half the number of downs. He also led the OLBs in missed tackles. Spencer actually had a very comparable year to the 49ers' Ahmad Brooks, who just signed a six year deal for 37 million with 8.25 guaranteed -- and a minefield of roster bonuses and de-escalators that really only make it a one year commitment.
Brooks’ and Spencer’s careers nearly mirror each other, excluding the fact that Brooks has switched teams once and was a 3rd round selection. With the best pass rusher in the league as your counterpart and a large dose of 1-on-1 situations you would hope that Spencer could be effective in his route to the quarterback. That’s simply not the case and has never been.
He’s excellent at shedding blocks and helping in the run game but that’s not what you draft an OLB in the first round to do. You draft an OLB in the first round to be a schematic nightmare for offensive coordinators, to the extent that they get away from their game plan to make sure and chip you. You take an OLB in the first to keep your corners from having to cover for more than 4 seconds. Anthony Spencer has never come close to fulfilling any of the expectations that being a first round pass rusher comes with.
Franchising Anthony Spencer doesn’t solve anything. The lack of outside pass-rush pressure still must be addressed in this off-season if the Cowboys hope to have a championship caliber defense. What's been achieved? A delay to a franchise-player divorce solely based on a lack of confidence in the ability to replace a skill position player that doesn’t have the exact skill you drafted him to display.