<
>

Behind Dallas' move to tag Dez Bryant and let DeMarco Murray walk

play
DeMarco Murray explains why he signed with the Eagles (2:17)

DeMarco Murray talks about the factors that led to him signing with the Philadelphia Eagles. (2:17)

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's September 28 Transactions Issue. Subscribe today!

IN THE WORLD of wedding planning, this had to be a first. On June 20, when DeMarco Murray married Heidi Mueller inside an intimate, luxurious, chiffon-draped banquet tent at the Four Seasons in Dallas, the NFL rushing champ had already endured the most eventful and exhausting offseason of his life, one that saw him leave the Cowboys and sign with the hated Eagles. And so it was that Murray, rather than celebrating amid one big happy Dallas football family, found himself constantly reversing field at the reception -- from his new bride and their 2-year-old daughter, Savannah, to his old bosses, owner Jerry Jones and coach Jason Garrett, to former co-workers like Tony Romo and Jason Witten, and then to his newest teammate, Eagles quarterback Sam Bradford. It could have been even more head-spinning had Dez Bryant, the wideout who'd benefited from all the stacked boxes against Murray, not reportedly been a no-show.

The unspoken tension in the room was this: Murray had carried the Cowboys to an NFC East title and their first playoff appearance in five years, inspiring Garrett to vow that the four-year veteran was now the "heartbeat" of the offense. Yet on March 2, when it came time to pick a cornerstone for the future, Dallas passed on Murray and placed its franchise tag on Bryant. That single choice, to invoke the tag -- one of sports' most unique, and divisive, fiscal gimmicks -- set in motion a wild chain of events that ultimately led to Murray's becoming the first running back in 68 years to switch teams after leading the league in rushing. It also shifted the balance of power in the NFL -- and the seating chart at Murray's nuptials.

With training camp and the next chapter of the nasty Cowboys-Eagles rivalry looming, the dance floor was about the last place any of these players wanted to be in such tight proximity sans pads.

So as Murray and Mueller gazed at their five-tier white wedding cake with gold fringe, the innocent bystanders say no one was sure exactly what to expect next.

In a word: awkward.

THE FRANCHISE TAG is the NFL's version of a promise ring, a token from teams that says, "We like you enough to make sure you can't date anyone else, at least for another year." And in the annual game of matchmaking that is free agency, the deadline for teams to put a ring on it can be the most significant day in a player's contractual life.

Take this year's deadline of March 2, when the high-drama decisions -- to tag or not to tag? -- involved more than a dozen of the game's top names and prompted roster moves across the league that reverberated well into the summer. The Lions let defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh hit the open market rather than tag him at $26.9 million, and he instantly landed in Miami, turning the Dolphins into playoff contenders. The shake-up in the AFC East continued when corner Darrelle Revis jetted back to New York largely because the Patriots prioritized cash and cap space by tagging Pro Bowl kicker Stephen Gostkowski (at $4.59 million) and extending safety Devin McCourty (five years, $47.5 million) before either could become a free agent. In the AFC West, the Chiefs took advantage of the Eagles' decision not to tag wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, who signed with Kansas City for five years and $55 million, and also used their own tag as a placeholder until they could agree on a record-breaking six-year, $101 million deal with linebacker Justin Houston, who led the league in sacks last season. The Giants were similarly hoping to secure a sack artist when they put aside $14.8 million to tag defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. Then he, um, blew up contract talks and the Giants' salary cap plan, as well as his right index finger, in a fireworks accident on July 4. Pierre-Paul avoided signing the tag all summer, and when the Giants faced Dallas on Sunday, the two sides were still at an impasse over his ability to play right away this season -- and how much the Giants were on the hook for that $14.8 million cap hit.

But the most prominent tag decisions happened in Dallas and Denver, where the Cowboys and Broncos, trying to navigate the inflated and volatile receiver market, franchised Bryant and Demaryius Thomas. It was fitting that the Broncos and GM John Elway were front and center on March 2. The tag was owner Pat Bowlen's brainchild, a negotiating tactic he cooked up during the 1993 offseason, when federal courts ordered the owners to finally allow real free agency. Bowlen was terrified by the idea of losing Elway, his future Hall of Fame quarterback, to the highest bidder, so he and the owners persuaded the NFLPA to agree to a provision that would allow each team to keep one free agent for an extra season. In return, that player would get a guaranteed one-year deal equal to either 120 percent of his previous year's cap number or the average salary of top-paid players at his position based on a complicated formula.

Back in the early 1990s, the tag seemed harmless enough, a way for owners to retain and reward their best player. But two decades later, owners have morphed it into a strategic stopgap, allowing them to hold a player captive, off the open market, while working to negotiate a long-term deal. Even if those negotiations fall through, owners can rest easy, knowing they have one of their top players for at least another year. And when that year is up? They can tag the player again if they so choose. Hence, players and agents have not-so-jokingly come up with a different moniker for the device: the Prison Tag.

That is exactly how Bryant and his agent, Tom Condon, viewed it on March 2, when Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and his son Stephen Jones, the team's VP, officially informed their two-time Pro Bowler that he was being tagged. Bryant, last year's leader in receiving touchdowns, was now staring at a one-year salary of $12.8 million rather than a lucrative free agent contract driven by the open market. Another team still could have signed Bryant but would have had to surrender two first-round draft picks to Dallas as compensation -- a price that no franchise has been willing to pay in the 22-year history of the tag.

And so the only leverage left for Bryant was to not sign the franchise tender, in hopes that Dallas and Condon would come up with a new deal before July 15. That's the deadline for tagged players to agree to a long-term contract or to sign the tag. If they fail to do either, the tag salary automatically kicks in. In the interim, to voice his displeasure, Bryant hinted that he might sit out all of OTAs and camp because, having not signed, he was not technically under Dallas' control and couldn't be fined.

"Everyone who isn't an owner is pretty much in agreement: The franchise tag sucks," says Scott Fujita, a former linebacker with the Saints and Browns who served on the NFLPA executive committee during the 2011 CBA negotiations. To understand why, look at the case of Henry Melton, a defensive tackle who was tagged in 2013 by the Bears. Melton signed the tender for $8.5 million, rather than work out a long-term deal, but tore his ACL three games into the season. Chicago didn't re-sign the damaged goods for 2014, forcing Melton to play out a one-year, $5 million deal in Dallas. This season he is on a one-year contract with Tampa Bay for a base of $3.75 million, less than half his worth just two seasons ago.

Sure, players have benefited from the tag: Former Seahawks All-Pro offensive tackle Walter Jones was franchised a record three consecutive times from 2002 to '04, missed the grind of camp every offseason and collected a cool $17.9 million in the process. But in such a dangerous sport, players loathe the idea of earning their free agency bargaining power through performance and sustained health, only to have that leverage ripped away by the tag-wielding billionaires, leaving them little choice but to assume the game's injury and economic risks for one more season.

"This pisses players off more than anything," says ESPN's Louis Riddick, who spent 12 years in player personnel with the Redskins and Eagles. "They've bled for you, played injured for you and performed for you. All along you're telling them how you can't wait to take care of them, and then when it comes time to negotiate, you start talking about all the reasons you can't pay them."

Which is why Bryant threatened to sit out regular-season games in protest, although that plan of recourse would have resulted in his being docked pay for every game missed. And per tag rules, if he didn't report by Week 10, he'd forfeit the entire $14.8 million, as well as credit for an accrued season toward his pension. And remember: Dallas could slap the tag on him all over again in 2016. No wonder Bryant ended up agreeing to a five-year, $70 million deal ($45 million guaranteed) just before the July 15 deadline.

"That's a big way to prove a point, by losing $900,000 a game, so [a holdout] wasn't really a concern with Dez," says Stephen Jones. "A bigger concern was the distraction of him missing camp. When you feel like you have a good football team and you have a real shot, it's important to eliminate those kinds of distractions, enough for us to stretch a little bit and do more on the contract than maybe we thought we had to."

Jones says the Cowboys had originally been optimistic they could avoid a Catch-22 by getting a long-term deal done with Bryant before March 2, then tagging Murray, allowing the team to secure both. But last November, contract talks were put on hold when Bryant parted ways with agent Eugene Parker for Condon and the management team at Roc Nation. That left Bryant and Murray in limbo entering March 2. And so at 4:01 p.m., nearly half the league's GMs and coaches, like poker players waiting on the river, were glued to computers to confirm whom the Cowboys considered the face of their franchise. 
The very next day, knowing that Murray was about to hit free agency, Eagles coach Chip Kelly traded running back LeSean McCoy to the Bills. In what turned out to be an extra bargaining chip, he then shipped quarterback Nick Foles to the Rams for Bradford, the former No. 1 overall pick and Murray's close friend and roommate at Oklahoma.

As for Murray, after powering through a broken hand to rush for a franchise-best 1,845 yards, he'd hoped to relax until free agency opened on March 10 and wait for an offer from the Joneses in the range of $8 million per season. His downhill style and the Cowboys' loaded offensive line had taken considerable pressure off a banged-up Romo and, more important, transformed the team's identity into that of a physical, dominant offensive machine. Dallas, however, was already concerned with its lopsided spending in 2014 -- $52 million on offense versus $32 million on defense -- and the way it exposed the team in a 26-21 playoff loss to the Packers in which it allowed 416 yards. It also did extensive research and cost analysis on running backs and found numerous studies that portended a drop-off to come for a 392-carry, 27-year-old rusher. A recent ESPN Stats & Information study, for example, found that running backs suffer a nearly 40 percent drop in production between the ages of 27 and 30.

Rather than a big check -- Dallas offered a fiscally responsible $6 million a season with $12 million guaranteed -- the Joneses brought out their big guns, engaging in a technique one agent calls "hot boxing," barraging Murray with attention and emotional appeals. Starting with the Pro Bowl, where Romo appeared panic-stricken when he saw Murray chatting with Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, the Cowboys' QB never seemed to leave Murray's side. They went to the Super Bowl together and traveled to Duke to speak to coach Mike Krzyzewski, and on the eve of free agency, Romo pledged to take a pay cut for Murray. Jerry Jones lit up Murray's cell, and Garrett chewed his ear off at a Mavericks game. But they couldn't talk as loud as money could. "They were betting on that I love the city, love the fans, love my guys," Murray told ESPN's Hannah Storm. "I told myself, if I did get to free agency, it was a high chance I wasn't returning."

When free agency began, interest quickly rolled in from Tampa and Jacksonville, where fans erected a billboard begging Murray to become a Jag, as well as from the Raiders, who, according to a source close to Murray's family, offered a "groundbreaking" amount of money. All the while, a perfect storm was brewing in Philly. After the Cowboys decided against tagging Murray, Bradford called his college buddy to catch up on the free agent news and wedding plans. Before they hung up, almost in passing, Bradford asked, "Hey, think we can get a deal done with you here?"

"Why not?" Murray replied.

Within hours, Kelly was on the other end.

They talked about Murray's north-south running style (which in Kelly's scheme should work better than McCoy's improvisations and penchant for looking for the home run seams rather than simply hitting the hole). They talked about Pro Bowl center Jason Kelce and the Eagles' loaded O-line. They were adamant about winning a ring -- this season. By the time Murray mentioned his pregame ritual of hyper-hydrating with up to 240 ounces of water, Kelly, who is also a mad scientist with sports nutrition, must have already had his checkbook out. The next morning, on March 12, with Witten and other Cowboys still blowing up his phone, Murray was on a plane to Philadelphia, where he says he fell in love with the Eagles before signing a sweetheart five-year, $42 million deal with $21 million guaranteed -- $9 million more than Dallas had reportedly mustered.

When the news broke in Texas, fans started burning their No. 29 jerseys. Meanwhile, sensing that the Eagles had just soared over Dallas as the favorites in the NFC East with one move, Bryant texted Cowboys Hall of Famer Michael Irvin to ask, "What are we doing?"

An appropriate question, considering that the Cowboys' plan to replace last year's No. 1 fantasy running back appears risky: the by-committee approach features Darren McFadden, a seven-year vet signed from the Raiders, and 2013 fifth-round pick Joseph Randle and 2013 second-rounder Christine Michael, whom Dallas received in a trade with the Seahawks. The three combined for just 1,299 total yards in 2014, compared with Murray's 2,261 total yards.

On Sunday night against the Giants, Randle and McFadden combined for just 81 yards on 22 carries and not a single TD. And despite the win, the Cowboys got just five catches for 48 yards before losing Bryant 4-6 weeks with a broken bone in his right foot.

"Dallas has to be looking at this situation and going, 'Oh boy, what did we do?'" says Riddick as Philadelphia opens the season on MNF against Atlanta at 7:10 p.m. ET on ESPN. "The Eagles weakened Dallas twice with this deal. It's not just what they added but what they subtracted from the Cowboys. Even if Murray gets hurt, Dallas still doesn't have him, so it's still a win."

To that, Stephen Jones says: "I don't know what the right words are with DeMarco, but I guess we're at peace with it."

BEFORE THE CAKE was cut and the Dallas-Philly tension dissipated into good-natured trash-talk, Murray's wedding day took one more unexpected turn: Cowboys fans attending another event at the Four Seasons wandered into his reception. Had the fans waited a few minutes, they might have gone undetected. But the rookie crashers entered right during the meal service, and with every seat occupied, they stuck out like Cowboys jerseys at Geno's.

Murray marched over and introduced himself. The crashers were admirers, they explained, going back to his college days at OU. The groom chuckled, turned toward his invited guests and yelled, "Hey, there's wedding crashers here! That's awesome!" Although he would be emphatically overruled by his wedding planner, Murray told them, "Sure, you guys can stay."

After all, no one knows better than Murray that feeling unwelcome in a room full of Cowboys can sometimes be the best thing that ever happens to you.