The most bizarre free-agent saga in recent Dallas Cowboys history is still unfolding. The only thing certain about Randy Gregory’s pivot from Dallas to Denver this morning is that it’s a lot bigger than the pass rush. StrongSide’s Mike Piellucci and Jeff Cavanaugh hopped in a Google Doc to hash it out.
Mike Piellucci: What makes Gregory’s departure a capital-S Story lies in two things. First, the Cowboys’ decision to make a last-minute tweak in the wording of their contract offer after a deal was already agreed to and the possible language of that change. Second, the question of what, if anything, the organization is owed after keeping him on the roster as he struggled off the field earlier in his career, which led to being suspended for a total of 54 games for violations of the NFL’s substance-abuse policy.
I want to start with the former. It’s worth noting that while we don’t know for certain that the language inserted into his contract for the sake of “protecting themselves” expressly concerns something related to his mental health or previous marijuana use versus, say, his injured knee, we’ve got at least some reason to believe that’s what this could be. The Morning News‘ David Moore contends it has to do with the team being able to void or withhold money if a player is fined by the NFL; it’s not hard to imagine how that could turn off a player whose discipline by the league has overwhelmingly been rooted in off-the-field matters versus anything he’s done in game.
We do know that whatever this is, it’s not in Denver’s offer. CBS Sports’ Patrik Walker also reported that Jerry Jones didn’t propose it, either, during a flurry of negotiations yesterday. (I’m going to go out on a limb and presume no one needs me to pass along that Jerry is, uh, supposedly less than enthused about the outcome here.)
All of which is to say: no matter the language of the clause, what went down is hardly standard operating procedure in a normal NFL organization. Hell, it’s not even standard operating procedure in one as abnormal as the Cowboys’, either, given that the team’s owner and chief negotiator on this deal reportedly didn’t bring it to the table before the deal was agreed to.
The latest round of leaks contends that this is standard contract language, which, even if that’s true, doesn’t explain why all but one credible source so far has contended this was slipped in after a deal was agreed to, why Gregory would walk for the same deal elsewhere if it were so universal, and that, since it doesn’t apply to Dak Prescott, how ironclad is it, really? And, if it is indeed malleable, as the NFL Network’s Jane Slater reported, why there wasn’t some measure of negotiation and understanding about it on both sides well before the Cowboys released a since-deleted announcement of the deal?
Perhaps answering some of those questions: ESPN’s Ed Werder reported that while this language may be common in Dallas, that’s hardly the case elsewhere. Gregory’s camp contends that no other team in the league uses it. And, per Yahoo’s Charles Robinson, he had asked the Cowboys to match the deal other teams had offered without such language in the contract.
There’s a lot of conflicting information out there. What I do know is I’ve yet to read something that makes me put the blame on Gregory.
Jeff Cavanaugh: As you’ve noted, I can’t say for sure what was involved in the language the team tried to sneak in at the last minute. But using context clues like him hitting the “like” button on one of my posts (welcome to modern journalism!), it hits me kind of personally. I work in sports. I like sports. And as a person who has dealt and does deal with mental health on a daily basis with conditions like depression, anxiety, and ADHD, perhaps my interpretation of this might be viewed as unfair to the team. I honestly don’t care all that much.
If the language the Cowboys tried to sneak into the contract related to Randy’s suspensions for marijuana use—which he’s described on record as a coping mechanism for larger mental health struggles—and trying to protect themselves against the potential of any of that popping back up, good for Randy pivoting to Denver. I can’t speak for him, but I’ll offer what my perspective would be in that situation:
You stood by me all these years, and I appreciate it. You did it because of what you thought the payoff would be on the field. Thank you. Now? My value has been established across the league, and I was prepared to offer you a discount because of our relationship. (No, it’s not mutually exclusive for Gregory to offer a discount to Dallas and then prefer to take the same deal in Denver if he felt slighted by the organization instead of starting from scratch on the open market.)
What you’ve tried to do at the end?
First, it breaks my trust. You want a discount because of our relationship, then you try to change things when we’re already agreed? No.
Second, here comes my mental health perspective. A glorious thing happens when you put in the work to battle inner demons that constantly tell you, “You don’t deserve this,” and, “You aren’t worthy.” I noticed it in Randy. He told me in an interview once that, when he was asked to name things that he liked about himself during a therapy session, he initially drew a blank. I’ve been there.
Then you do the work. Lots of it. There’s never a “Eureka!” moment when your depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or anything goes away. But you do build a sense of worthiness and belief in yourself. I’ve done the work to create the person I am, and guess what? I’m proud of that person. That person has value. And the world—in this case the NFL—is confirming what my value is. What I’m not going to do in a competitive work environment if someone else is showing me my worth and doing it without a caveat is let you leverage my life experience and the work I’ve done against me. Absolutely not. Denver it is.
Mike Piellucci: All of that is valid, and I want to add a key caveat on those last two points, especially. Given that context, it actually doesn’t matter much what’s in the clause. Whether it concerns his knee or his mental health or the color car he drives, the endgame is this is someone who has done the work to better himself, both on the field (the production that led Dallas to offer him that five-year, $70 million deal) and away from it (by earning a place on the team’s leadership council). He understands his value, which is a hard-earned victory. So baiting and switching him in any way is a surefire recipe to make him recognize he can and does deserve to be treated better in negotiations.
Which I suppose is where the question of what he owes the Cowboys comes in, given that this is a dominant narrative floating around. Because, yes, Randy Gregory did miss a whole lot of games, and the Cowboys did keep him in the fold, and it did take something in the neighborhood of half a dozen years to see really good return on their investment in him.
About that investment: it was a late second-round pick, and it was only that low because Gregory’s struggles in Dallas had already manifested themselves all the way back in high school. He was transparent about it during the pre- and post-draft processes. So were the people around him. Gregory’s struggles were baked into the Cowboys’ acquisition cost, and so, going beyond the obvious shortcomings the media and society at large have considering mental health matters or marijuana use by Black men, it was always a little gross to see Gregory’s suspensions framed as him embarrassing or letting down or failing the organization instead of very foreseeable risks the Cowboys were comfortable taking to land a top-five talent in his draft class 55 picks after where he would have been selected otherwise.
Just today, we got another headline about how the team “stood by him” through four suspensions. Did they stand by Blake Jarwin in the wake of his career-threatening hip surgery? How about Reggie Robinson after torpedoing his rookie season with an aborted switch to safety, then after he missed his second year due to a foot injury? Nope and nope. The team—probably correctly—decided their resources were better devoted elsewhere. Just as they—also correctly—understood that 6-foot-4 edge rushers with quick-twitch muscle fibers and minimal bad body weight are exceedingly rare commodities. That makes it well worth allocating less than $7 million total over six years to play the odds that a homegrown one could recoup a fraction of that value.
And he did! Gregory’s 2021 season alone probably justified his career earnings to date, let alone the $2.1 million he took home last year. He then, as you noted, proceeded to offer Dallas something of a hometown discount.
So what, exactly, is he supposed to owe them beyond that?
Jeff Cavanaugh: Nothing. Just as the Cowboys owe nothing to their players outside of the guaranteed portions of their contract. One day we’ll get to the point where everyone realizes that it’s just business to the owners of pro sports teams. If something doesn’t make business sense, they cut ties. That’s true here, like everywhere else: see Dez Bryant, DeMarcus Ware, and so on. Players owe their effort on the field and organizations owe what a contract says they owe.
When you as a team allow a player to hit the open market and then try and pull a fast one after you’ve agreed to a deal, smart business for the player is to go where they’re doing honest business.