Should the Cowboys Pony Up for Dak Prescott?

When I traveled to Soldier Field to see my Dallas Cowboys take on the Chicago Bears last December, I braced myself for a lot of taunts and aggressive fan behavior. Bears fans did not disappoint, and as the Bears’ lead grew each demoralizing drive, so did those fans’ voices. The taunts were pretty unimaginative (but still funny), though one taunt stood out in particular: “pay the man” and “oh, there’s the money man” in reference to Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, in the middle of a pretty mediocre performance. I had to grin, because the wild situation of Dak Prescott made the joke all too easy. Allow me to explain.

There is no position as elevated in the sports landscape as the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys. The most important player for the most visible franchise in the most valuable American sport, the leader of America’s Team is a fixture in the public spotlight. On the field, the Cowboy QB must be elite — Super Bowl quarterbacks such as Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach created a legacy in the 70’s and 90’s, while Tony Romo ushered the Dallas QB excellence into the 21st century. Those standards also amount to constant scrutiny, with a Super Bowl-or-bust mentality year-in and year-out. Off the field, Cowboys quarterbacks reap the rewards of built-in marketability with massive endorsement potential and post-career opportunities (Aikman and Romo are now the game’s most prominent color commentators).

These factors help explain the absurdity of the ongoing contract negotiations between the Dallas Cowboys and their current quarterback Dak Prescott. The topic of whether the Cowboys should pay Dak among the highest salaries in professional football has come up on sports talk shows for nearly two years, with no tangible progress to show for it. I have shown incredible restraint in not discussing the Dak deal before, but today, I will be picking apart all elements and providing my definitive, 3,000-word take on whether the Cowboys should pay the man. 

Track Record

Just like the man he replaced, Dak Prescott took the league by storm after becoming the Cowboys’ starter. After the veteran Romo went down in the preseason in 2016, Prescott, a fourth-round draft pick out of Mississippi State, took over and did not look back. Prescott teamed up with fellow rookie Ezekiel Elliott to boost the Boys from 4 wins to 13 wins and the top seed in the NFC, with Prescott posting arguably the greatest rookie season in NFL history with 23 touchdowns and just 4 interceptions (fewest among all quarterbacks not named Tom Brady). Though the Cowboys lost in a Divisional Round thriller to Green Bay, Prescott’s rookie season seemed right out of a dream, and a decade of contention seemed to be in front of the Cowboys.

The next three seasons were a mixed bag. Dallas struggled to find a rhythm with Elliott’s suspension drama in 2017 as the Cowboys finished just short of the playoffs at 9-7, and while Prescott’s sophomore season fell short of his first, his status as the Cowboys’ star of the future hardly diminished. His efforts were validated in 2018 as Dallas finished 7-1 over its last eight games and won its first playoff game behind Dak, though the Cowboys were foiled again in the divisional round (this time by the Los Angeles Rams). Prescott cut down on the turnovers and saw his passer rating and completion percentage rebound, though the greatest addition was a midseason trade for Pro Bowl receiver Amari Cooper. 

In 2019, Prescott had both his best and worst season. Under first year coordinator Kellen Moore, Prescott set career-highs in yards (4,902 yards, 2nd in the NFL) and touchdowns (30), while keeping mistakes and incompletions modest. Yet the Cowboys failed to finish with a winning record for the first time in the Prescott era, and the Mississippi State product was unable to lead potential game winning drives against Minnesota, Philadelphia, New Orleans, the New York Jets, and New England. Any wins against these inferior opponents would have lifted the Cowboys to a playoff berth.

My first task in laying out Dak Prescott’s negotiations is to look at the numbers. Since entering the league in 2016, Prescott has led the Cowboys to 40 wins (behind only Tom Brady), 14 game-winning drives (behind Drew Brees), and is one of only three quarterbacks to have played in all 64 possible of his team’s games (plus three playoff matches). Prescott ranks within the top 10 over that span in touchdowns, completion percentage and passing yardage, suggesting he is a prolific, if not elite, quarterback. He also defeated Russell Wilson in the playoffs, and arguably outdueled Aaron Rodgers in 2016. 

The positives in looking at his track record are these: he is unquestionably durable (64 of 64 for starts, though a shoulder injury derailed a possible playoff clincher in 2019 vs Philly), wins a significant amount in the regular season, and can lead a top NFL scoring offense. There is no reason to imagine that any of these three will change. The negatives in looking at his track record are also notable: he has just one playoff win with an All-Pro supporting cast in ‘16, ‘18, and ‘19, he plays much better with the comfort of a lead (and a good array of weapons and protection) and he sometimes has trouble matching up against imposing defenses (zero comeback wins in 2019, and zero touchdowns in losses to New England, New Orleans, Philly and New York). 

In terms of looking at a franchise quarterback, I would say that these positives outweigh the negatives — what more can a team ask for then a quarterback who is durable and who wins? There is significant reason to expect improvement, with the Cowboys’ receivers drop totals likely to regress to the norm in 2020 and Jason Garrett now replaced by a Super Bowl-winning coach in Mike McCarthy. This type of quarterback just isn’t found easily (ask the Browns), and Dak slots in as a top-10 quarterback in the NFL:

Tier One (Elite): Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson

Tier Two (Franchise): Carson Wentz, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Dak Prescott, Matt Ryan, Tom Brady, Matt Stafford

Tier Three (Potential Franchise): Kirk Cousins, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, Jimmy Garoppolo

Prescott slots nicely into the second tier, among quarterbacks who either have a track record and are on the downturn (Brees, Rodgers, Brady) or are just finishing their primes (Ryan, Stafford). Both Prescott and fellow NFC East quarterback Carson Wentz could very well make the jump to the next tier, and that alone should be reason for a contract. 

Talent

Prescott enjoyed a storied college career at Mississippi State, but was hardly a first-round grade coming into the NFL and fell to the Cowboys in Round 4. He has been wildly productive for a mid-round pick, but he does lack the high upside of a top-five pick like Wentz. Prescott is not outstanding as an arm talent, but has made strides in this area (he ranked first in the NFL in exceeding expected completion percentage, according to NFL Next Gen Stats). LIkewise, he is not tremendously accurate (he sits around 65 percent on his career) and has missed big throws in clutch situations, with last year’s loss to Philly coming to mind. Yet he is not terrible, or even mediocre, at any of these areas, and can be relied on to be an above-average starter. There will always be a quarterback who throws farther, or hits more targets, or makes more flashy plays than Prescott, but he does each of those well enough to be a Pro Bowl-level quarterback.

Mobility is another crucial element to evaluating Prescott’s game. Since entering the league, Prescott leads all quarterbacks in rushing touchdowns, with 21, by a whopping six scores and averages just over 5 yards per carry. Many of these rushes come under duress and Prescott turns his fair share of lost third downs into first-down scrambles. Combined with the power of Ezekiel Elliott and backup Tony Pollard, Prescott’s opportune, hard-nosed,  Sam Ehlinger-esque scrambling ability adds a weapon to the ground game that defenses have to account for. He’s not a dual threat in the way transcendent stars Lamar Jackson, Russell Wilson, and Deshaun Watson are, but he also has a stronger frame and can make plays that aren’t scripted QB runs.

Poise

What stood out to me about Prescott as a rookie, and what I believe is his strongest trait now, is poise. Prescott did not make freshman mistakes early in his career, opting for throwaways or checkdowns rather than tantalizing slot machine throws, and that tendency fit well with a ball-control team where he could be a game manager. He can make plays when the defense foils his plans, and he has proven that he can bounce back from mistakes and that no stage is too big. He’s less of a gunslinger than Tony Romo, and that’s probably a good thing. 

Where the poise also matters is in the locker room. The Cowboys’ quarterback position requires a certain unique type of person to handle all of the attention, and Prescott has performed admirably. The locker room has held unwavering faith in him, and he has said all the right things to the press. Even in the contentious negotiations, Prescott has never badmouthed ownership and instead has shown a willingness to stand his ground to owner and general manager Jerry Jones. That the wild contract situation is still treated with civility within the Cowboys’ doors is a testament to Prescott’s character. He is an active force within the Dallas community and a voice for social justice. There is absolutely zero evidence, despite all of the scrutiny and contract negotiation, that Prescott has divided the locker room, and for the Cowboys, a franchise with a target on its back, that should be a major plus.

Financial Implications

The stats, tape, and optics establish it — Dak Prescott is a franchise quarterback. Where it gets tricky is in the negotiations, where the bottom line goes beyond simply paying Dak like a franchise quarterback. Prescott entered the league on a fourth-round rookie deal, meaning he didn’t even crack a million dollars in annual salary until a couple years as a starter (that in a league where Russell Wilson makes 36 mil a year). The Cowboys reaped extreme value by paying relative pennies to the most important position of their team, while Prescott got the raw end of the deal. Now, Prescott is asking not simply to be paid the highest salary in the NFL, but even more, around 40 million a year (or, as some recent estimates put it, 35 for four years and 45 for a fifth year). 

The Cowboys likely could have finished a deal before 2018 in the low 30’s, but that ship has sailed. Prescott built his case further in ‘18 and ‘19 with a playoff win and stellar stats, but even more importantly from a financial sense, fellow Class of ‘16 draftees Carson Wentz and Jared Goff have parlayed their early success into contracts paying them in the mid-30’s a year. Prescott is better than Goff and has enjoyed more success than Wentz, giving Prescott’s side leverage to secure a higher deal and raising the market value for a top quarterback. Since the NFL’s salary cap increases yearly, quarterbacks who enter the market later are often rewarded with a richer deal. And with 2018 MVP and 2019 Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes’ presumably mindblowing contract on the horizon, the Cowboys are on the clock to make a deal before the standard becomes sky high. 

In hindsight, a deal before 2018 would have been ideal, but the hesitation to give Prescott a boatload of money is understandable for Dallas. The Cowboys, as do all other NFL teams, operate under a stringent salary cap. Surrounding a quarterback on a cheap rookie deal with somewhat pricey free agents and additions has been a successful strategy for recent teams such as the Cowboys and Super Bowl champion Chiefs, and giving Prescott top dollar would undoubtedly hamper the Cowboys’ ability to keep all of their talent under the roof of AT&T Stadium and address their needs through free agency. The visibility of the Cowboys, which Prescott has already optimized with various endorsement deals, gives leverage to the Cowboys side as well.

But Prescott isn’t backing down. He got the short end of the stick in his first contract and handled it without complaint. No one can blame him for wanting to get his market value and optimize his earnings, especially with the violence of football and the chance of injury threatening future earnings. The negotiations haven’t negatively impacted Prescott’s on-field results or created a rift in the locker room, either. The Cowboys reportedly offered a five-year contract at 35 million a year, but Prescott knows he can earn more and that he could command more on the open market.

It’s not the first time a major Cowboys star has battled with Jerry Jones across the negotiating table. Emmitt Smith, the Cowboys’ star running back in the 90s, held out through the first couple games of the 1993 season before earning a massive deal, and current running back Ezekiel Elliott held out long before his rookie deal expired and took a record contract as a result. From a quarterback perspective, Tony Romo took a much different negotiating tact, opting for long-term security rather than Prescott’s short-term thinking, and it ultimately worked in his favor as the Cowboys paid two seasons worth of dead money once Romo retired.

The current situation, as reported by those around the Cowboys’ organization, stands as such: the Cowboys are offering five years at 35 million a year, while Prescott wants four years so he can cash out again sooner with a presumably higher market value, or play a fifth year for an exorbitant 45 million a year. Prescott is under the Cowboys’ control through the franchise tag, which allows the Cowboys to keep him for a top quarterback salary (around 32 million) and prevent him from reaching free agency, but an extended holdout is possible. As far as other options, the Cowboys signed former Bengal Andy Dalton as a backup, giving the Cowboys an A-tier backup option but not one that could lead the Cowboys to glory.

The ultimate question should come down to this for Jerry Jones — how does he win a Super Bowl? Jones, who said he made a pact with God to give him a Super Bowl in 1995, then recanted and wanted another after that, should look at the Cowboys’ Super Bowl window and determine how a deal with Dak Prescott will affect his franchise’s ability to win the Big One. 

Here’s where I stand. A four-year window, which Prescott’s side has forwarded, is realistically how long the Cowboys’ window is to win a championship with their current core. The Cowboys have a wealth of young stars under control for that period (receiver Amari Cooper, rookie target CeeDee Lamb, linebacker Jaylon Smith, defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence), though their highly-paid offensive line is nearing the end of its rope. I’m also not sure Zeke Elliott will be there the entire four years given the turnover of the running back position, but the Cowboys can find value in the draft. Some players may have to look elsewhere to get paid if the Cowboys pony up for Prescott (corner Byron Jones already jumped ship for Miami, and receiver Michael Gallup will likely do the same), but the core is intact, and, given the Cowboys’ recent draft fortunes, it is not out of the question that Dallas can plug some of the holes they leave with cheaper rookie contracts for better value. With Prescott and a high-flying offensive arsenal, as well as the experienced coaching of Mike McCarthy, the Cowboys figure to be in the Super Bowl conversation for the next four years.

But the most important priority is getting that man on the field. Pay the man, Jerry! Give him four years at 35 mil a year and try to win a Super Bowl before the chance fades away. Prescott has proven to be a franchise quarterback capable of winning games and making big plays, and at 26 with a superior coaching staff, his best days might be are in front of him. There will be some casualties, namely flashy free agents and your ego, but if winning (and through winning, making money) is what you care about, make the right move. 

Get the deal done, and I will be free to imagine a world where I can go to a Cowboys game, and not be pelted with the “moneyman” taunts all night long. Even if they come, I could still point to the scoreboard. 

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