|Wednesday, March 7
Updated: March 8, 4:11 PM ET
Time, and money, ran out for Aikman in Dallas
By John Clayton
Leigh Steinberg and Jerry Jones received a surprise call from the NFL Management Council on Wednesday. The organization that polices the salary cap told them that the deadline to pay Troy Aikman's $7 million bonus was Wednesday afternoon, just 90 minutes away, not Thursday as originally thought.
After two months of talking about, but dodging, any final resolution, Steinberg, Aikman's agent, and Jones, the Dallas Cowboys' owner, had to make the decision about keeping Aikman or cutting him. For 90 hectic minutes, they debated whether to postpone payment of the bonus until June. Steinberg explained Aikman wanted to play, but waiting for a June decision could kill chances for him to go to San Diego or elsewhere.
"Time just ran out," Steinberg said an hour after Aikman was released Wednesday. "The salary cap doesn't give a player or a team a gracious way to end their careers with a team. But that's the way it is with this system."
In reality, the 90-minute, league-imposed scramble only pushed forward what probably would have been decided in June -- that it was time for Aikman to move on and the Cowboys to go back to where they were when they drafted Aikman in 1989. Let the rebuilding begin.
Having Aikman, perhaps the most accurate passer of the modern era, teased Jones into thinking every year that the Cowboys were a contender, so he was always borrowing against future salary caps to stay competitive.
Releasing Aikman, right tackle Erik Williams and defensive tackle Chad Hennings leaves the Cowboys with approximately $23 million of dead money in their salary cap. When you also consider that incentives from the cap last year left the Cowboys almost $600,000 shy of the league-wide $67.4 million salary cap, the Cowboys are working with two-thirds of a cap. The entire 2001 team must fit into $44 million of cap space.
Aikman alone counts $10 million against the Cowboys' cap even though he's no longer on the team. The Cowboys had to cut Hennings and Williams and restructure a handful of contracts to accommodate the huge Aikman cap hit. That won't leave them much room to sign a veteran quarterback such as Tony Banks or Trent Dilfer, or anybody else for that matter.
Steinberg and Aikman each say the quarterback doesn't want to give up the game, and that's why Aikman didn't want to have a long delay in the Cowboys' decision-making process. He knew Doug Flutie visited the Chargers on Wednesday and could easily land there because John Butler, the new Chargers' general manager, was the GM who brought Flutie to Buffalo.
Aikman knew his former offensive coordinator in Dallas -- Norv Turner -- probably would have a place for him in San Diego. Though Butler knows Flutie, Aikman's deep throwing ability better suits Turner's offense. The Kansas City Chiefs are another possibility. Coach Dick Vermeil and president Carl Peterson always have homes for former UCLA players.
Even though Aikman might not mind teaming up with Miami coach Dave Wannstedt, the Dolphins won't be an option. Former Cowboys coach Chan Gailey is the Dolphins' offensive coordinator. Aikman didn't enjoy his time with Gailey.
"Had Troy given the Cowboys until June to decide, he wouldn't have had any options," Steinberg said. "The Cowboys weren't going to give him $7 million to play just this year."
Aikman's sudden departure also illustrates the cold nature of the salary cap, something that might be cleaned up in negotiations for a two-year extension to the collective bargaining agreement. Patriots owner Robert Kraft forwarded a concept that could allow veterans to finish careers on their long-time teams.
What Kraft proposes is a separate incentive pool to be established outside of the salary cap to accommodate veterans. That would allow the veterans to have a salary that fits within a team's cap and maybe earn as much as another $1 million or so in incentives.
Now, for a veteran to stay with a team in his final years he almost has to take his salary down to the minimum of $477,000 and be satisfied that it would be enough.
For the Cowboys, an era ended Wednesday with the release of Aikman. For Aikman, it's a new beginning, but one in which he is no longer considered a franchise quarterback. If he does sign with the Chargers, he's only buying the franchise a year or two to groom Michael Vick.
John Clayton is the senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.