(John Elway photo courtesy of the Hall of Fame)
(Jimmy Johnson photo courtesy of the Dallas Cowboys)
Talk of Fame Network
Jimmy Johnson used to say the problem with winning is that everyone wants a bigger slice of the pie.
When a team has success and reaches a championship level, the pie doesn’t grow. But everyone wants more of it, and personal values become inflated.
Johnson won with the Dallas Cowboys at a time the salary cap was coming in. You pay to keep your stars, but members of the supporting cast become free to leave in free agency. Everyone suddenly wants your players. And that’s what chipped away at the Dallas dynasty of the 1990s. The Cowboys could keep the Troy Aikmans, Emmitt Smiths and Michael Irvins, but members of the supporting case, often key members, drift off.
Super-Bowl starters Ken Norton, Tony Casillas, John Gesek and Kevin Gogan left in 1994 after the second Dallas championship of the decade. Mark Stepnoski, Alvin Harper and James Washington left in 1995, and Russell Maryland, Larry Brown and Dixon Edwards departed in 1996 after that third Super Bowl. That’s 10 starters out the door with nothing to show for it.
There’s only so much money to go around – as the Denver Broncos are discovering this offseason.
The Broncos captured the AFC West in 2015 with a 12-4 record, then overcame Pittsburgh and New England in the conference playoffs before smothering the Carolina Panthers in the Super Bowl to capture the third Lombardi Trophy in franchise history.
I’m sure general manager John Elway would have loved to have brought that team back intact to defend its title. But there weren’t enough dollars under the salary cap to allow that to happen.
The money was there to keep stars Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and Chris Harris -- Pro Bowl performers on the best defense in the NFL. Elway even scraped together $18 million this offseason to match the contract the Miami Dolphins tendered Denver’s restricted free agent running back C.J. Anderson.
But quarterback Peyton Manning retired. Then the player drafted to be the heir apparent, Brock Osweiler, bolted for the Houston Texans in free agency for $72 million over five years, with $37 million of it guaranteed. That was the third-richest contract awarded in free agency this offseason.
(Brock Osweiler photo courtesy of Eric Bakke/Denver Bro0ncos)
The Broncos also were victimized by the richest contact in free agency -- a whopping $85.5-million deal given defensive end Malik Jackson by the Jacksonville Jaguars. That’s spread out over five years, with $42 million of it guaranteed. Jackson contributed five of Denver's NFL-leading 52 sacks in 2015. Inside linebacker Danny Trevathan, the team’s leading tackler, left for Chicago when the Bears offered him a $24.5-million contract over four years, with $12 million guaranteed.
Both tight ends who started in the Super Bowl, Owen Daniels and Vernon Davis, are gone. Daniels became a salary-cap casualty, and Davis left for the Washington Redskins in free agency. Both guards who started in the Super Bowl, Evan Mathis and Louis Vasquez, also are gone. Vasquez became a salary-cap casualty, and Mathis signed with the Arizona Cardinals. Safety David Bruton, one of the team’s top special-teams performers, also left in free agency for the Redskins.
Elway could have kept all of his free agents home -- but it would have cost him $196.5 million in contracts this offseason. And he would have had to guarantee $98.5 million of it.
Elway is learning what Jimmy Johnson did a couple of decades earlier -- it’s impossible to keep a championship team together in a salary-cap world. The pie doesn’t grow appreciably, and everyone wants your players … and is willing to pay for them.