Spears missed the second half of last season because of a calf injury. Plus, the Cowboys had salary cap issues and were hoping to retain Stephen Bowen, the defensive end who had replaced Spears in the starting lineup after he got hurt.
But Spears got to stay, suddenly getting a new five-year contract from the Cowboys only after Bowen took a five-year deal from Washington. That came once the NFL lockout was settled just in time for training camp to start.
"I might not have been the first guy they wanted to bring back, but it worked out that way," Spears said. "The day I agreed to terms, everybody was excited about it and we just moved on. I understand that it's a business aspect to this. And then it's this part, it's football."
During training camp Monday at Cowboys Stadium, the defensive front seven was going through some alignment drills with new coordinator Rob Ryan at one end of the field. Lined up to the right of Spears was linebacker DeMarcus Ware, the 11th overall pick by the Cowboys in 2005, nine spots before they got Spears out of LSU in the same draft.
Dallas switched Ware from defensive end to linebacker in their 3-4 defense. He has since developed into one of the NFL's top defensive players, a five-time Pro Bowler.
While Spears has been a solid starter at end throughout his career, his primary job often is to occupy offensive linemen so linebackers can make plays. That means he doesn't pile up a bunch of big stats.
"I appreciate it, he's one of the best at what he does and he just gets after it," linebacker Bradie James said. "Spears, he's great. He's great in the locker room, he's a great person and taking those blockers. Taking two guys is tough, but he does it, and he does it with grace and style."
There were questions last season about whether Spears was still part of the Cowboys' long-term plans. Consider that backup ends Bowen and Jason Hatcher were both paid more after Spears, then a restricted free agent, accepted a tender offer at an "original draft choice" rate of $1.2 million last year.
"From the way it happened, there was some doubt," Spears said. "I got injured, didn't play eight games, and you know it was made a point that they wanted Bowen to come back. ... I went by what I was getting from them, and I got a phone call and said they wanted me back and I was happy to be back"
Now Spears has some stability with his new contract and is still starting.
Coach Jason Garrett said the 6-foot-4, 311-pound Spears understands how to use leverage and his hands in the run game, and gets a push in the pocket as a pass rusher to get in the backfield.
"He is a strong guy. He loves to play. He's very passionate about it," Garrett said Monday. "He's a great teammate to a lot of these guys, which is something we think is a positive thing."
Because of the salary cap issues, Garrett said the Cowboys didn't think they were going to have a chance to re-sign Spears and Hatcher. They got both after Bowen decided to go to the NFC East rival Redskins.
"All along, this is where I wanted to be. ... Now that I'm here, I don't have anything to complain about," he said. "You can let it get personal, but I've seen it get personal and I've seen it get ugly. I'm a football player, I don't deal with peoples' emotions and why they make decisions."
Spears insisted that he "wasn't trying to pick Stephen and Jerry's brain" — referring to Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and executive vice president Stephen Jones — about the team's plans for him since his contract was up again.
"As it turned out, they appreciate and value what I do," Spears said. "And I value the type of guys they are and how they run the organization, and it worked out. ... I like the fact that I have to earn some things, and I like the fact that they made a commitment to me and I'm making a commitment to them to just give them good work."
Notes: Backup QB Jon Kitna missed practice with soreness in his lower back. Stephen McGee took second-team snaps. ... Garrett said G Montrae Holland (back stiffness) is making progress and that "hopefully that he'll be practicing next week." ... Bill Nagy, the rookie center from Wisconsin, got some work at left guard with the first-team offense. ... WR Dominique Edison was released. The Cowboys still have 87 players on their roster.