The Cowboys and veteran pass rusher Greg Ellis aren't waiting for another offseason spat before splitting up, apparently for good.
The 12th-year pro with a recent history of complaining about his role, his contract, or both will likely play elsewhere in 2009, owner Jerry Jones said Tuesday.
The only question is whether the departure comes through a trade or the 33-year-old linebacker's release. Either way, the Cowboys figure to get about $4 million in salary cap relief while remaining on the hook for $1.5 million in guaranteed money.
Jones said an admittedly contentious relationship had nothing to do with a divorce from the player he chose after passing on receiver Randy Moss in 1998, when the Cowboys were trying to repair their image with fans.
The No. 8 pick of the '98 draft delivered on the character issue, staying out of trouble while steadily piling up 77 sacks in 11 seasons. Ellis led the team in sacks six times, the second-best total in club history. But he showed he had a mouth, too.
Ellis complained in 2006 about moving from defensive end to linebacker, saying the Cowboys and former coach Bill Parcells were setting him up to fail in the new 3-4 defensive alignment. After that turned out OK, Ellis squawked again a year later when the Cowboys drafted Anthony Spencer, another college defensive end they planned to move to outside linebacker.
Back then, Ellis said he was sure they were trying to replace him and demanded a new contract that showed the team's commitment. He got the new deal in 2007 and responded with his best season, a Pro Bowl year with a career-high 12.5 sacks despite missing the first three games recovering from a torn Achilles' tendon.
It turns out the notion of Spencer replacing him was merely delayed by two years. Jones said Spencer's development and the promise of other young players figured into the decision.
"Certainly we had some issues regarding business -- contracts," Jones said of his dealings with Ellis. "But that hasn't been reflected relative to how he's played the game and how he's competed for the Cowboys. I feel like we have a very good relationship."
Ellis and his agent didn't return phone calls seeking comment.
His soon-to-be former teammates spoke fondly of a leader who remained popular in the locker room even as he publicly questioned the team's commitment to him.
"He was a mentor to me when I first came in and also we became really good friends," said defensive end DeMarcus Ware, who led the NFL with 20 sacks last year. "Now we're sort of like brothers. We did everything that we could to sort of help the team. But now he's going probably somewhere else to benefit that team, and I've got to do what I need to do to help this team out."
Ware stands as a potential beneficiary of any Ellis move. The Cowboys are trying to sign their best pass rusher to a long-term contract. He doesn't feel any guilt over that.
"You've got to help your team out, but also protect yourself," Ware said. "I don't feel good about it. But at the end of the day, its a business."
Spencer said Ellis helped him make the transition from end to linebacker the past two seasons. Cowboys coach Wade Phillips said he believes Spencer is ready to be a full-time starter.
"At the end of training camp, I thought he was going to have a tremendous year," Phillips said. "He got hurt early and that stopped his progress. As long as he doesn't get hurt, I don't think his progress will be stopped. He's a real talented player."
The Cowboys acknowledge they have a leadership void to fill, though. Even receiver Roy Williams, who has only played part of one season in Dallas, noticed the voice of Ellis in the locker room.
"He's an old head," Williams said. "He was telling me a story about Troy Aikman. I was like, 'You played with Troy Aikman?' That seems like a long time ago. But he's a great player. A great leader. He's going to be missed."