IRVING, Texas -- The Dallas Cowboys are moving on without franchise sacks leader DeMarcus Ware.
Now they have to figure out how to rebuild their defensive line.
The Cowboys released Ware on Tuesday, a salary cap move that owner Jerry Jones called "extremely difficult" after the worst season of the star pass rusher's career. Ware broke Harvey Martin's 30-year-old franchise record for sacks in 2013, but got to the quarterback a career-low six times and missed games for the first time in his nine-year career with a thigh injury.
The 31-year-old Ware also had off-season elbow surgery and was set to count $16 million against the salary cup. Negotiations on a reduced salary failed, so his release saves about $7.4 million and gives Dallas about $9 million to spend at the moment.
"A decision like this, involving a man who is a cornerstone player in the history of your franchise, is extremely difficult," Jones, also the team's general manager, said in a statement announcing the decision just as free agency opened. "We were also in very strong agreement that playing for the Dallas Cowboys would be one of the options we would both be exploring."
Still, Ware has likely played his last down for an owner who always had a tough time letting aging superstars go.
Without Ware and with 2013 team sacks leader Jason Hatcher already headed for free agency, all the projected starters from a year ago are gone from a defence that gave up the most yards in franchise history and finished last in the league in total defence. Rod Marinelli is taking over for the demoted Monte Kiffin as defensive co-ordinator after both joined the staff last year. Marinelli was in charge of the injury-riddled front last season.
Anthony Spencer, who like Ware had to make the transition to defensive end in a four-man defensive front, missed almost all of last season with a knee injury and is a free agent. Dallas released defensive tackle Jay Ratliff in the middle of last season.
Nick Hayden signed as a free agent last year to be a backup but ended up starting all 16 games because of injuries and the uncertainty surrounding Ratliff.
The most accomplished player on the Cowboys' defensive front right now is George Selvie, who wasn't even on the roster when training camp started last year. Dallas added him when injuries hit.
The switch away from a 3-4 defence forced Ware to play with his hand on the ground closer to the offensive line rather than a stand-up outside linebacker who could get a faster start on the snap.
Still, Ware looked good in training camp and even intercepted a pass by Eli Manning on the first play of last season. But he never did find his form as a pass rusher after fading late in 2012 and finished third on the team in sacks behind Hatcher and Selvie.
"DeMarcus Ware, through his performance on the field and his outstanding character, is someone who is held in the highest regard within the Dallas Cowboys family," Jones said in the statement. "He is worthy of our greatest respect, and we want what is best for him and his family."
A first-round pick under coach Bill Parcells in 2005, Ware finished with 117 sacks, three more than Martin. He set a club record with 20 sacks in 2008 during a seven-year streak of at least 10 sacks per season. The four-time All-Pro is ninth in club history with 710 tackles.