Five seasons into his NFL career and Dak Prescott’s biggest victory is over Jerry Jones.
Twenty-five years into a Super Bowl drought, Jones was forced on Monday, mainly due to his own poor negotiations, to bank the Dallas Cowboys' championship hopes on dropping a whopping $160 million over four years on Prescott.
The good news is a deal got done, because Dallas was done without it.
Good for Prescott, who went from fourth-round draft steal to (depending on how you calculate it) the highest-paid quarterback in the league. And good for Jones, who acknowledged his mistakes, overcame his famed stubbornness and moved forward with what’s best for the franchise.
The bad news? Now the hard part begins. For both sides.
Start with Jones, who bought the Cowboys a chance via a huge sticker price for Prescott — $126 million guaranteed. The alternative was prohibitive. Applying the franchise tag to Prescott again, to the tune of $37.7 million for 2021 and essentially giving him the chance to walk away next offseason, was a recipe for disaster.
If Jones had handled this properly — namely signing Prescott two years ago, not running back Ezekiel Elliott — he would have wrapped up the QB for something close to $32 million per year. That was a past mistake, though. At least Dallas dug out from it.
As much as Dak is getting paid, his salary-cap hit for 2021 actually dropped to $22.2 million, so the Cowboys saved $15.5 million by reaching a long-term contract and avoiding the franchise tag.
Now Jones has to figure out how to fix the team around Prescott. Dallas is still about $3 million to $4 million over the projected cap for the upcoming season, but that’s low enough that it can be flexible and still active in at least the mid-level free agent market. The Cowboys also have the draft which, thanks to a 6-10 record secured mostly without Prescott, they own the No. 10 pick.
There is much work to be done. This was a marginal title contender the past few years. The Cowboys always get hyped, but the reality is that even in a weak NFC East they haven’t truly separated themselves.
Prescott has led them to the playoffs following the 2016 and 2018 seasons, but other than a wild-card win over Seattle in the 2018 season, there isn’t anything to show for it.
Last season, defense ranked 28th in the league in points allowed and 23rd in total yardage allowed. Last year the offensive line was injured and inconsistent. It’s part of why Elliott’s 1,317 total yards from scrimmage was 31.5 percent below his career high of 2,001 yards in 2018 and his yards per target dropped 20 percent. He scored just eight touchdowns.
Key players still need to be re-signed and new ones are needed to plug holes. A ton has been spent on offense — Prescott, Elliott and wideout Amari Cooper all have big deals — including a first-round draft pick on receiver CeeDee Lamb last year. Something has to happen defensively, and cornerback is likely to be addressed with that 10th pick.
Jones hasn’t built a great team in a long time, but if he still has it in him, now is it. Finally putting the Prescott saga behind him is no reason for a celebratory Johnnie Walker Blue. He needs a shrewd free agency and a genius draft or else all this money is just a generational transfer of wealth.
Prescott isn’t just a good quarterback, he’s an undeniable leader in the locker room and the community. The team began to fray last season when he went down with a knee injury. There is no denying his impact.
That’s why Jones is banking everything on him. Jones is 78 years old and while everyone wishes him another three decades of ownership, the reality is that if he wants to be handed another Vince Lombardi Trophy — and he certainly does, even if he doesn’t always make the decisions that assure it — then time is ticking.
That also means Prescott has to elevate the team around him. He’s no longer this plucky underdog prospect out of small town Louisiana and Mississippi State University. He’s making more the next three seasons (including a whopping $116 million between 2020 and 2021) than Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and so on.
That’s MVP money. That’s Super Bowl money. The expectations have to be to win it all, especially coming out of a dreadful division (the NFC East) and a conference that lacks the slew of young quarterback talent of the AFC.
To whom much is given, much is expected and no quarterback in league history has been given what Prescott is about to be given. That’s a credit to him — in both his play, his professionalism and his negotiating skills. He earned it.
Still, the fans want what they want. If Dak isn’t truly elite and the team stumbles about as a slightly above average contender, then this will fall on him. ESPN trotted out a stat on Monday that Prescott is just 7-18 in his career against teams with winning records. In those games, he has thrown 37 touchdowns against 36 interceptions.
That won’t cut it. Not at this salary.
The opportunity is there though, for both the team owner and the quarterback. The deal that should have been done two years ago finally got finalized. It was bumpy. It was expensive. It was unnecessary.
The future is secured. The future is here. So is the hardest part of making it all work.
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