FRISCO –The Dallas Cowboys sent shock waves reverberating around the National Football League last Saturday when they surprisingly waived veteran place-kicker, Dan Bailey.
The furor erupted because Bailey is the second-most accurate kicker in NFL history with a field goal accuracy of 88.2 percent. But the Cowboys defended their controversial decision while listing a myriad of reasons why they chose to release Bailey and instead hitch their wagon to 28-year old Canadian Football League castoff Brett Maher, who has never kicked in an NFL regular season game.
Bailey suffered a groin injury late last season, and when he returned to the lineup, he was just five-of-eight on field goals and missed the only two extra points of his career. Also, Maher pleasantly raised some eyebrows when he converted a 57-yard field goal in the preseason finale against the Houston Texans last week.
And then there’s the all-important money factor. Bailey was set to earn $3.4 million this season, while Maher will collect less than $500,000.
“There’s a business side to making a lot of decisions we make in the era of the salary cap,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “You have to allocate dollars to certain guys, and you have to decide where you can maybe save some money and save some salary cap space.
“I think the biggest thing you will look at is (Bailey has) had some injuries over the last couple of years. He had a back (injury) two years ago, he had the groin (injury) last year. Obviously he didn’t kick his best down the stretch last year – a lot of different reasons for that — but again, when we put the whole thing together and decided what was the best for our football team, this is the decision we felt like we had to make and it was a hard decision.”
Meanwhile, others remain on the roster
The decision to release Bailey served as the backdrop on a chaotic Saturday for the Cowboys, who will open the regular season Sunday at 3:25 p.m. at the Carolina Panthers. For starters, on Friday night tight end Rico Gathers was arrested in Frisco for possession of marijuana, yet he was still able to make the Cowboys’ final 53-man roster.
“Obviously the incident that happened Friday night was poor judgment on his part, and it’s not something we want from any of our players,” Garrett said. “There will be consequences for that.
“That was poor judgment. Ultimately we didn’t think it was enough to impact the decision that we made with our 53-man roster.”
The Cowboys also decided to place center Travis Frederick on their 53-man roster instead of putting him on injured reserve. Frederick was recently diagnosed with the auto-immune disease called Guillain Barre Syndrome and had he been placed on injured reserve, by NFL rules he would have been forced to miss at least eight games.
“He’s working out on his own, and he’s been able to handle the work so far,” Garrett said of Frederick. “So again, you take it day-by-day.
“From my perspective, the information I’ve gotten, there hasn’t been any drastic setbacks in any way. He’s getting into his program, and hopefully, it’ll continue to respond the right way.”
Is the offense ready for the season?
In the meantime, the season opener will be the first game for running back Ezekiel Elliott since last season. Elliott did not play in any of the four preseason games for precautionary reasons, but all indications show that he’s fired up to face the Panthers.
“Man, Zeke’s been on it since we started (training) camp,” right guard Zack Martin said. “I’m sure you guys have seen it.
“Just the way he’s running, the way he’s approaching every day. I think he’s ready for a good year.”
Joe Looney, who has the difficult task of replacing Frederick as the Cowboys’ starting center, also has noticed how focused Elliott has been during training camp and throughout the preseason.
“Any time you’ve got a player like that on your roster you’re excited to block for him,” Looney said. “You never know what he’s going to do on any given play.
“He’s a competitor who works hard, so I’m excited to watch him out there.”
A kicker’s impact on the team’s fate
The Cowboys are also excited to see the progress made by quarterback Dak Prescott, who led the team to 17 points while playing on just four drives during the preseason. Still, the loss of Bailey could come back to haunt the Cowboys, with Garrett saying they discussed at great length whether to keep the player they signed as an undrafted free agent rookie out of Oklahoma State in 2011.
“Obviously Dan’s been as good a player as we’ve had over the last seven or eight years,” Garrett said. “He’s one of the elite kickers in the game and has been throughout his career. He’s made a ton of big kicks for us. It was not an easy decision for us to make.
“One of the things that gave us confidence is how well Brett Maher has kicked both in practice and in games, and we feel like he has an opportunity to help our football team in that role. Brett kicked along Dan all throughout training camp, and he did a really nice job in practice. Dan did a nice job in practice. We just felt like when you put it all together – all the different factors – this was the best decision for our team right now.”
The Cowboys are coming off a disappointing 9-7 season and have high hopes of advancing deep into the playoffs after missing out on the postseason last year. But with tight end Jason Witten retired, and wide receiver Dez Bryant and Bailey no longer with Dallas, the Cowboys will be banking on a lot of production from their younger players.
“It’s certainly energy and excitement, and we’ve worked very hard to get to this point,” Garrett said. “We’ve had a lot of hard decisions we’ve had to make over the last few days, but we feel good about the 53 guys we have on our roster, we feel good about our practice squad.
“I think we’ve laid a good foundation for our team all throughout the spring and through training camp and during the preseason. I’m excited to see these guys play on Sunday.”