Dak Dilemma Looms In Dallas
By Matt Mosley
Special to FOX Sports
Editor's Note: This is the second installment of FOX Sports' four-part series, "How To Fix The Cowboys." In Part 1, we examined why the 2020 season was so disappointing for a Dallas team that had Super Bowl aspirations.
The popular opinion is the Cowboys' dreadful 2020 season has increased Prescott's leverage within the organization. His dislocated ankle against the Giants in Week 5 sent the team into a tailspin, and his return in 2021 offers hope that coach Mike McCarthy can redeem his credibility.
The Cowboys continue to say publicly Prescott is their quarterback of the future. Executive Vice President Stephen Jones praised Andy Dalton on Monday while reiterating his support of Prescott.
"At the end of the day, and Andy knows this, this is Dak's football team," Jones told 105.3 FM The Fan. "We're obviously very committed to getting Dak signed."
But Prescott's resolve not to sign the five-year contract the Cowboys had in mind has likely strengthened. He has watched players such as Zeke Elliott, Jaylon Smith and La'el Collins sign long-term contracts while he has patiently waited.
There's nothing to suggest Prescott's injury and subsequent surgery has diminished his market value, although you have to wonder if he’ll continue to thrive as a runner.
I think Prescott has trust issues with the Cowboys after not reaching a deal last summer. Jones never allowed Troy Aikman or Tony Romo to sniff free agency, or playing on the franchise tag. When Romo got off to a hot start in 2007, the quarterback told me he was frustrated the Cowboys weren't moving quicker to sign him long-term. But by midseason, he'd secured the first of two long-term contracts.
In 69 career games, Dak Prescott has thrown 106 touchdown passes and only 40 interceptions, with a QB rating of 97.3, for the Cowboys.
Aikman, who knows better than most how Jones negotiates, remembers how the Cowboys owner fantasized openly about Romo coming off the bench to lead the team to a Super Bowl in 2016, even while Prescott was having a breakout rookie season.
"It’s only human nature. You begin to question, 'OK, well, just how respected am I? How much do they truly appreciate what I’ve done?’ And then when you’re going through contract negotiations, no matter who you are, they’re always a little bit contentious," Aikman told Ed Werder and me on our Doomsday Podcast in May.
"If they can’t come to an agreement, I would think that maybe deep down, there might be those feelings that maybe he’s not appreciated or respected as much as he would like."
Troy Aikman, right, says it would be natural for Prescott to question whether "he's not appreciated or respected as much as he would like."
And of course an agreement wasn't reached in the offseason.
Prescott preferred a shorter, four-year contract, and Jones couldn't convince him otherwise. It was one of the biggest negotiating failures Jones has experienced, and it has put the Cowboys in a situation where too much of the salary cap is tied up in the offense. The owner would later blame it partially on the uncertainty of COVID-19, but that didn’t keep the Chiefs from committing $45 million per season to Patrick Mahomes.
And you can only blame embattled defensive coordinator Mike Nolan for so much. The Cowboys watched their top defensive back (Byron Jones) and leader in sacks (Robert Quinn) leave in free agency, in part because of the failure to sign Prescott to a long-term deal.
Jerry and son Stephen will continue to express admiration for Prescott, but they might dabble in the quarterback acquisition business this spring. Stephen couldn't help himself recently when asked about Jalen Hurts' rise with the Eagles.
"We looked really hard. Certainly obviously our guy is Dak, but at the same time, Mike [McCarthy] is a big proponent of continuing to look at quarterbacks," Jones told The Fan in December. "[Hurts] went off the board as he should of there in the second round. We certainly had interest in him, but as I’ve said all along, our complete commitment is to Dak Prescott and look forward to getting his deal at some point finished and getting him back on the field. He’s certainly the leader of this team, and we certainly miss him."
If the Cowboys had selected Hurts at any point in the first three rounds, it would've been a monster story. Jerry Jones never used a premium pick on a quarterback during Romo's tenure, and it would've been a shock to see him do so last April. Having Hurts in the fold would've added more drama to the negotiations with Prescott.
Jerry Jones would like to lock up Prescott with a five-year contract, but the QB has insisted on only signing a four-year deal.
Jones' comments about Hurts might be his way of saying the Cowboys will do their homework at quarterback in the upcoming draft. It sounds like the type of posturing the Joneses are known for.
All this will only make things more awkward with Prescott. It will likely cause the quarterback and his agent to dig in even more in negotiations. Mahomes’ 10-year contract with the Chiefs won’t be appealing to Prescott despite the enormous payout. The most likely scenario is Prescott playing on the franchise tag again next season at $37.7 million.
But if the Cowboys fell in love with, say, BYU's Zach Wilson and selected him with the 10th overall pick, they could let Prescott walk and re-sign Dalton as insurance in case Wilson needs time. It doesn’t really sound like Jerry to me, but remember he had to be talked out of taking Johnny Manziel in the first round in 2014 — even though Romo was healthy. In Wilson, you get the mobility without the nightlife.
I assure you folks in the media will shoot this down and talk about Prescott's value to the Cowboys. And I agree he has rare leadership traits.
I'm just saying it's not out of the realm for Jones to become enamored with another quarterback. After all, it looked like Romo would play another few years in 2016 before he was injured and replaced permanently by a certain fourth-round pick out of Mississippi State.
Prescott took over the starting job as a rookie in 2016, when Tony Romo was injured, and the five-year veteran has never looked back.
It seems counter-intuitive to let a prolific quarterback in his prime walk, but Jones would love the financial flexibility it would afford, especially with the salary cap likely decreasing due to the pandemic. What he’s probably trying to figure out is whether he could sell this strategy to his fan base. And fortunately for him, Cowboys fans know how to turn on quarterbacks.
Watching Prescott lead a team such as the Vikings or Colts to a Super Bowl would be tough for Jones to stomach. But that's something he might have to live with. It's a position the owner has never been in with a star quarterback, and Prescott is unlikely to let him off the hook.
The Cowboys' season came to a merciful end in Week 17. What follows should be much more entertaining than watching them play.
Matt Mosley has covered the Cowboys for The Dallas Morning News, ESPN, FOX Sports and Texas Monthly Magazine. He also co-hosted afternoon-drive radio in Dallas for 10 years and is now heard on ESPN Central Texas, home of his alma mater, Baylor. He makes regular appearances on "The Herd" on FS1 and Fox Sports Radio.