By Jordan Schultz
On May 2nd, Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys sent shock waves around the NFL by signing free agent quarterback Andy Dalton to a one-year, $7M contract, with $3M guaranteed. The timing is a bit curious, as Dalton, the long time, oft-criticized Bengals’ signal-caller, enters the fray as Dak Prescott’s backup - just as Prescott seeks a long-term contract that would make him the highest-paid quarterback in NFL history.
Throughout the years, the pressure cooker of playing under center in Big D has produced some of the game’s greatest quarterbacks: Roger Staubach, Troy Aikman, Tony Romo. Entering his fifth season, the 26-year-old Prescott makes a strong case to be next in line.
The former fourth-round pick has registered a playoff win, started 64 of a possible 64 games, accumulating two Pro Bowls and Offensive Rookie of the Year honors to boot. His 97.0 passer rating currently ranks seventh all-time and he comes off a career-high 30 touchdown passes in 2019 - good enough for fourth-best in football - along with 4,902 passing yards, trailing only Jameis Winston.
Off the field, Prescott has been a model citizen and measure of consistency, a quality that Jones has always valued from his quarterbacks. And, while Jones has been publicly supportive - referring to Dak as “family” and even comparing him to his son Stephen - the Dalton signing sends an alarming message and gives pause as to whether or not Prescott remains the future.
To be sure, Dalton is not without his faults, but he’s a three-time Pro Bowler who took Cincinnati to the postseason during each of his first five seasons. Better yet, Dalton ranks inside the top 10 in passing yards, touchdown passes and QB wins since his rookie year in 2011. His 24 game-winning drives during that span slot him fifth, ahead of Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger and Phillip Rivers, among others. He also has the Texas stamp of approval: Hailing from nearby Katy, TX, he was a college star at nearby TCU.
Meanwhile, Jones remains a world class marketer who still sees all the angles. He knows that when you’re the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys, the actual football comprises merely a sliver of your responsibilities. The marketing and perception are nearly as important: How do you relate to the fans? What type of symbol do you project for the franchise? Can you be marketed as the centerpiece of America’s Team?
There is no denying that Prescott has been that face for the team thus far. According to Fanatics, his jersey sales ranked fifth in the league last season, trailing only Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes, Elliott and Kahlil Mack. Playing at “The Star” for the foreseeable future will only help his star ascend even further.
Make no mistake: Prescott has not only won over his team and endeared himself to the local fan base, but he’s quickly entered the superstar stratosphere as well. The Cowboys have meanwhile, have deployed a litany of quarterbacks since the Tom Landry/Staubach days, but only three have maintained enough success to become household names: The strong-armed, cool as a cucumber Aikman, the swashbuckling, free-spirited Romo and now the not-so-flashy, but highly productive Prescott - who’s done so in just four years.
As things currently stand, there are two realistic ways we can approach the Dalton signing: Option A is that he’s a proven veteran who provides capable insurance should Dak get injured and/or play this season under the tag. Option B: Dalton is a genuine threat to Prescott’s long-term viability as QB1. League sources contend teams around the league still believe that Dalton - who won’t turn 33 until next season - remains a starting quarterback, citing a poor supporting cast and an injury to A.J. Green as to why he performed so poorly.
That may be true, but it shouldn’t overshadow the fact Prescott has earned a sizable extension. He’s earned the right to seek a $40M deal, not to mention ask for four years and not the five Jones would prefer. That’s not to say Prescott is the best quarterback in the league, because he’s not. In fact, former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann even went so far as to tell CBS Sports Radio: “You’re not a top-five quarterback in the National Football League. You’re a good football player. You have the potential to be better, but what have you done?”
Well, as it turns out, plenty. Prescott is very, very good and certainly prolific enough as an dual-threat option to stand firm on his number - especially as he continues to show tangible improvement. Remember too, that Prescott isn’t the first quarterback to want top dollar, nor will he be the last. In fact, Dalton himself entered the two-comma club when he inked a six-year, $115M extension from the Bengals back in 2014.
One of Prescott’s main selling points is his stout and consistent leadership. Teammates have raved about his demeanor, work ethic and overall command of the locker-room. The Cowboys though, have undoubtedly grown frustrated with the lack of progress regarding his new contract. Moreover, high-ranking team sources contend that his inability to consistently deliver the slant is a legitimate concern moving forward. That’s the bad news for Prescott.
The good news though, is that we’re hardly approaching new territory either. Why? Because Prescott’s camp is armed with the ammo of another high profile stalemate. While the world may have drastically changed since September, we’re still on the heels of Ezekiel Elliott’s record-setting six-year, $90M extension worth $50M guaranteed. Zeke’s 40-day holdout ended right before the 2019 season began, undoubtedly forcing ownership’s hand to succumb. Keep in mind that Prescott just finished the final year of an abysmal rookie deal that paid him an annual average of $680,848, which ranked a laughable 75th among all quarterbacks. He’s been playing on a massive discount, giving even more credence to the four-year extension - instead of the five - he and agent Todd France of CAA are pushing. Doing so ensures the maximum influx of cash Dak will be able to command during his prime.
An additional bonus for Jones is that extending Prescott would send a resounding message throughout league circles that the Cowboys take care of their own: First came prized linebacker Jaylon Smith, then Zeke and now Dak - all recent draft picks and all receiving top market value.
Dak has the upper hand. In a similar situation, the Cowboys eventually backed down and paid Elliott. More importantly, Prescott has done more throughout his four years than anyone on the roster. Earning the record-breaking contract is one thing, but he will also provide an excellent return on investment - both in terms of winning games and operating as the face of the franchise.
Team vice president Stephen Jones recently made the claim that an even pie chart of salary ensures the best chance of success, going so far as to say overpaying the quarterback “decreases your chances to win.”
Jones’ argument is one that dates back to 1994, when the league completely reshaped its salary cap system. And it holds water - or at least it used to. All we need to dispel the claim is consider Super Bowl XLVI - in 2012 - when the Giants toppled the Pats for the second time. That season, Eli Manning made 13.5 percent of the cap - good enough for third-most in the league - while Tom Brady earned 15 percent. In fact, the only two non-QBs ranked among the top 10 in average annual value since 2013 have been the otherworldly Kahlil Mack and Aaron Donald, according to the Athletic. With the restructuring of league rules catering to aerial attacks now more than ever, having a top flight quarterback is no longer just a luxury, but a necessity.
It’s a necessity that involves Dak, whom the younger Jones also called “an outstanding man,” making it abundantly clear who he’d like under center moving forward. “Our strict focus is on signing Dak to a long-term deal,” Jones added.
The bottom line is it would behoove this organization to usher in the Mike McCarthy era with stability at quarterback - someone who will accurately and proficiently deliver the football to one of the league’s best arsenals of skill position talent: Zeke, Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and explosive rookie first-rounder CeeDee Lamb will all benefit from a happy Prescott.
Better yet, Jerry Jones’ unrelenting mission to contend and desire to capture an elusive fourth Super Bowl will as well.