One of the very real — but largely overlooked — dynamics arising from the question of whether Cowboys tight end Jason Witten will retire relates to the money he already has received from the team.
Witten’s base salary is in the neighborhood of $1 million because he restructured his contract earlier this year by taking $4.7 million of it up front, in the form of a signing bonus. If he retires, Witten will have to pay it all back, with an important caveat.
The labor deal gives the Cowboys the discretion to not collect the money already paid to Witten. It would be similar to last year’s decision to cut quarterback Tony Romo, which allowed him to keep $5 million in unearned bonus money.
There’s a major difference in this case, however. Witten only recently took what amounts to a $4.7 million advance on his 2018 salary, to help the Cowboys manage the cap. The Cowboys would essentially be giving him free money if the team were to choose not to ask for the $4.7 million back.
Witten will earn the bonus at the rate of $1.175 million per year for each of the next four years, unless and until the Cowboys cut him. So if he plays this year, he lowers the potential repayment obligation to a maximum of $3.525 million.
Regardless, whether and to what extent the Cowboys would want the previously paid money back could (or at least should) be a factor in whether Witten walks away from football for an ESPN salary in the range of $4-4.5 million that would get him basically to zero if he has to write a giant check to Jerry Jones.
UPDATE 8:17 p.m. ET: Clarence Hill of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports that the money hasn’t actually been paid to Witten yet. Regardless, his entitlement to it was triggered when he re-did his deal. Under the CBA, the Cowboys could still choose to let him have (keep) the money, if they want.