Time to look for Ware's replacement

IRVING, Texas -- We've spent so much time the past couple of years focused on finding Tony Romo's eventual replacement that we've ignored a significant development: Defensive end DeMarcus Ware's body is breaking down.

Ware's eventual replacement is not on the roster. Just so you know, the only position on an NFL roster harder to fill than elite pass-rusher is quarterback.

No one wants to talk about the 31-year-old Ware taking a pay cut. Or getting released.

He has been so good. For so long.

Then you remember that Troy Aikman was released. Emmitt Smith was released. Larry Allen was released.

It's the worst part of this sport. Any sport. As my father often says, either you deal with reality or it will deal with you. The cap situation represents reality.

Ware, who signed a six-year, $78 million extension before the 2009 season, has a strained quadriceps that kept him out Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles and will probably keep him out this week against the Detroit Lions. He had never missed a game in his nine-year career until last week.

The Cowboys want to be cautious because rushing Ware back could lead to him missing a substantial chunk of the season. In 2012, Ware fought through a litany of injuries -- a hamstring, an elbow, a broken wrist and a torn labrum -- that affected his ability to perform and limited him to 2.5 sacks in the past eight games.

Smart teams understand it's always better to end a relationship a year early than a year late. New England does it all the time.

So did the San Francisco 49ers back in the day, which is why Hall of Fame players Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott and Jerry Rice all played for other teams at the end of their careers. Jerry Jones hardly ever does it. He's too emotionally invested in his players -- a wonderful trait for an owner, but an awful one for a general manager.

General managers need to be pragmatic, not emotional. This is where Jason Garrett, like Bill Parcells, can separate himself from every other coach Jerry has had since Jimmy Johnson.

The Cowboys are projected to be $31 million over next year's salary cap. It's not the end of the world, because the Cowboys could probably create the cap space they need in about 30 minutes by restructuring contracts or releasing some well-paid players.

It's easy to tell oft-injured Miles Austin, who has had 100 yards receiving twice in the past 30 games, to either take a significant pay cut or he's going to be released. He has been hurt, unproductive, and Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams are on the roster.

Hey, it was easy to give right tackle Doug Free an ultimatum in the offseason because Dallas was prepared to start Jermey Parnell at tackle.

It's considerably more difficult to ask Ware to take less money.

He's a future Hall of Fame player. No question. No player has more sacks since Ware arrived in the NFL as the 11th player taken in the 2005 draft.

But is he worth $12 million next season? Has defensive line coach Rod Marinelli's ability to maximize the talents of street free agents such as George Selvie, Drake Nevis and Nick Hayden made Ware more expendable?

Would he play in Dallas for $8 million in 2014 and $8.5 million in 2015?

You have to figure Chicago's Julius Peppers is going to take a pay cut next season, so he won't be earning a league-high $13.9 million for a defensive end. St. Louis' Chris Long, scheduled to earn $13.2 million in 2014, is the only other defensive end scheduled to make more than Ware next season.

Then the next-highest salary for a defensive end belongs to Carolina's Charles Johnson at $8.7 million. Clearly there's room to work a renegotiation.

Understand, when he's healthy Ware remains a force, regardless of the chatter that he doesn't make enough plays in the fourth quarter.

He intercepted Eli Manning's first pass of the season and set a tone for the game and the Cowboys' 2013 campaign with that play. Not every key play occurs in the last two minutes of the fourth quarter.

At this point, we don't know how Ware's story will end. If he returns quickly, plays well and logs his eighth consecutive season with at least 10 sacks, then any discussion about his money will be moot.

If he doesn't, then it must be a topic of discussion. These are difficult conversations. But if the Cowboys ever want to escape the stench of mediocrity, these are the discussions that must be held.

However the conversation ultimately turns out, we all know it's time to start looking for Ware's eventual replacement.

It's a much higher priority than searching for Romo's replacement.