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For nearly 20 months, going back to the offseason before the final year of Dak Prescott’s rookie contract, the pressing question in a tense extension negotiation with the Dallas Cowboys was what would it take to generate middle ground.
One side or the other was pressured to move things forward, whether it was an aggressive overture, a good-faith gesture, a fair compromise or an outright surrender on terms.
The product was failure and frustration, which is now further complicated by a season-ending injury to Prescott. This was the one scenario nobody wanted to plan for: A catastrophic detour that would leave the two sides looking at each other and wondering, “How are we supposed to play this?”
So here we are. With Prescott sidelined 4-6 months and left to ponder whether a less-than-perfect extension would have been worth avoiding the current uncertainty. And on the other side of the table, the Cowboys are staring at Prescott’s $37.7 million franchise tag for 2021 and wondering whether there might be a fresh opportunity to leverage a long-term deal.
Make no mistake, this injury will factor into negotiations. The Cowboys will once again try to get a more favorable long-term deal in place. And once again, Prescott will have to make a decision on whether to bet on himself and risk it all on 2021, a gamble that looks more precarious coming off serious ankle surgery.
If that sounds like the setup to another messy offseason, it’s because that’s precisely what it is, particularly given the fact that Dallas will have to make a decision to apply that $37.7 million tag in March — and Prescott will likely have to make a quick decision on signing it — long before he’s 100 percent healthy. That carves out a canyon of speculation between now and then, from whether or not Dallas could change its mind, to what Prescott’s market would look like if he hit free agency while recovering from injury, to whether the uncertainty of the current predicament could cause one or both sides to yield on some things and find common ground.
Will a second franchise tagging of Dak Prescott help?
It’s an abyss of unknowns right now. But at least one side of the negotiating table could dramatically impact the tone of things. That side is the Cowboys, who have the opportunity to stand as firmly behind Prescott as they ever have while showcasing the kind of faith that might engender the willingness to strike a compromise that the team has been seeking for two years.
Prescott is in arguably his most vulnerable position to date in his extension negotiation. And the best thing Dallas can do is the opposite of what most NFL teams would: ignore that vulnerability, send a clear message that Prescott is the future of the franchise, then make sure he has the 2021 tag firmly in place the first minute that Dallas can guarantee it.
That move isn’t the five-year, $200 million offer that would get Prescott to sign next offseason (and yes, I firmly believe those numbers would get an extension done). But the Cowboys immediately triggering the $37.7 million tag would be an unmistakable gesture. One that swats away any notion the team is apprehensive about Prescott’s future coming off ankle surgery.
This is the unfortunate opportunity Dallas has been given. A chance to be graceful in the face of Prescott betting on himself in 2020 and having that gamble go wrong. A chance to say, “This is awful, but we love you as much now as we ever have … and we’re willing to pay you $37.7 million for a season that could end with you becoming the highest-paid player in the NFL.”
In a league that is driven by business decisions — and a team that has excelled in making the most lucrative ones — that would have to mean something to Prescott because there’s no escaping the position he’s suddenly in. It’s close to the worst possible thing that could have happened. Perhaps the only upside is that it happened in 2020, when there’s still one more viable tag on the table for the two sides to ride another season out.
That’s why you have Jerry Jones, Stephen Jones and Mike McCarthy all on the same page right now, leaving essentially no oxygen for anyone to consider whether Prescott is still in the same position with the team. It’s a trend that started almost immediately, when Jones quickly put out a statement after the injury about Prescott’s secure future with the franchise. Then following that up by telling the flagship radio station that nothing had changed for the team.
Here’s why Dak’s agent is a big part of this story
If you’re a cynic, your reaction is that of course Dallas is saying all the right things. After all, what would it look like if the team wavered, even a little bit, in the wake of Prescott’s gruesome injury? You could posit that the Cowboys have the luxury of time to see what happens with Andy Dalton in the coming months, not to mention letting Prescott think long and hard about the contract advice he has gotten from his agent, Todd France.
That latter point can’t be ignored. As this negotiation has dragged on, France has gotten to be a much bigger part of the story. Behind the scenes, the Cowboys have spent more than a year grousing about what they felt was an odd lack of motivation by France, coupled by a refusal to compromise on what they believed is a competitive deal. It’s fair to say some have questioned France’s motives inside the Cowboys, particularly as it appeared to put Prescott into escalating injury risk over the 2020 and 2021 seasons.
It’s common for teams to feel this way about an agent in the middle of a tough negotiation, particularly if that negotiation spans years rather than months. The longer it goes on, the more likely an element of the blame game sets in. There is also a reality that Dallas painted itself into a corner in terms of the leverage it gave Prescott when it didn’t try to get ahead of a rising market in 2018 and then again before the 2019 season.
But all of that said, it hasn’t gone unnoticed that France himself became a free agent in the sports representation community this past summer after his deal expired with high-powered agency CAA. It also hasn’t gone unnoticed that before France hit the open market, he represented three players who didn’t nail down long-term extensions prior to France coming free from CAA. Not only did France play hardball with the Cowboys over Prescott’s extension, but he also finished two other summer negotiations with Pittsburgh Steelers edge rusher Bud Dupree and Denver Broncos safety Justin Simmons landing on franchise tags. And when France hit free agency as a sports rep, all three of those players and their future long-term extensions went along with him.
That’s the kind of thing that makes an agent attractive on the open market — the reality that the agent very well may be able to bring three major contract extensions in Year 1. It surely couldn’t have hurt France in his talks with Athletes First, who France signed with in September to some considerable industry fanfare. Now when he sits down to negotiate the expiring one-year deals of Prescott, Dupree and Simmons next March, he could be doing it under the flag of Athletes First, a considerable public relations coup for that agency, not to mention whatever share of fees it draws from the new deals.
There’s no proof that France complicated deals or played hardball with teams just to benefit himself. But his departure from CAA in the middle of tough negotiations over big upcoming deals isn’t the kind of thing that flies under the radar in his fraternity. Agents notice it. CAA surely did. Teams notice it, too. And now they’ll all be paying very close attention to how France’s negotiations with those players goes next offseason, when he won’t have his own contract expiring in the middle of the process.
Not that any of this matters in the grand scheme for Dallas. All that counts now is whether or not the franchise can get the Prescott deal done and leave behind the chaos of the 2020 season. How that comes to pass could be rooted in what is said over the course of the remaining season, and then what is financially done as soon as Prescott becomes eligible for the $37.7 million tag in March.
Dallas is saying the right things now but the financial commitment later is what ultimately matters. Like Jerry Jones has said — nothing has changed. Even now, that’s a sentiment that is echoing on both sides of this negotiation.
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