Intended or not, the Cowboys made a chess move in Dak Prescott negotiations

We’re less than a week into the Dallas Cowboys’ acquisition of Andy Dalton, and everyone is right on message with the new veteran quarterback, saying all the right things, sending all the right signals, keeping any controversy at bay.

Dalton is the backup. Dak Prescott is the man.

This is only about smart insurance. One guy is constructing his one-year bridge to the 2021 free agent class while the other remains in line for a massive extension in Dallas.

Get to know these messages because they will be vigorously rinsed and repeated.

Dak Prescott is looking to top Jared Goff's four-year, $134 million extension. (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)
Dak Prescott is looking to top Jared Goff's four-year, $134 million extension. (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Here’s the thing about all this — something just changed. The Cowboys can downplay it as they should. Prescott’s camp can ignore it as it should. And Dalton’s camp can refuse to acknowledge it altogether as it definitely should. But the fact remains that Dallas added something it hasn’t had over the past year-plus of choppy contract extension negotiations with Prescott: A capable veteran quarterback with talent, whom the new staff can become familiar with over the next year.

That hasn’t existed since Tony Romo was cut in 2017, and it certainly hasn’t helped in negotiations with Prescott. Make no mistake, if this dance with Prescott drags and gets nastier, Dalton will factor into some of the closed door conversations. He’s not a talentless hack. Call him what you will, but Dalton managed three Pro Bowl nods and took a moribund Cincinnati Bengals franchise to the playoffs his first five years in the league. If Cowboys fans were paying attention to Cincinnati, they’d know Dalton was ultimately undercut by a cheap team owner, who let his QB’s top-level offensive line get poached into oblivion following the 2016 season.

Your opinion might be that Dalton isn’t a younger or better player than Prescott — and that’s completely fair. But you can’t ever argue that he’s a nothing option. The reality is Dalton is quite the opposite. And that’s good news for Dallas in every imaginable way, especially where it concerns how things are going with Prescott’s contract talks, which have driven the front office and ownership to some extremely frustrating places.

Cowboys seek leverage with Dak Prescott after caving to Ezekiel Elliott

Seriously, what did the Cowboys’ braintrust expect with Dak’s contract talks?

They never engaged any other serious alternative behind him, essentially dealing a royal flush of leverage into Prescott’s hands. Not only was team owner Jerry Jones praising Prescott into the stratosphere at every turn, he wasn’t putting anyone into the quarterbacks room who could give Dallas another option if things went bad.

This is how management gets its ass kicked at the negotiating table. And maybe the franchise learned that lesson when it played the same game with Ezekiel Elliott, trying to bluff some fake leverage into the situation by grabbing Tony Pollard in the fourth round of the 2019 draft. Elliott’s camp laughed at that pump fake, then took Dallas to the cleaners with a lengthy holdout that produced one of the last remaining gargantuan running back deals.

Guess who was watching that Zeke situation closely? It was Prescott’s agent, Todd France. And all France needed was to see Dallas ownership fold once with a centerpiece player to make him believe it could be replicated. Especially when the next chess piece in question was a quarterback who could make or break the next decade of a franchise, a fact that tends to be important when the team owner is super-yachting into his late 70s and getting more championship-starved by the year.

This is how a team ends up in a situation where Dallas offers Dak a contract that’s fundamentally better than the four-year, $134 million extension Jared Goff signed with the Los Angeles Rams — and Prescott says no. It’s also how a franchise ends up in a fistfight over the length of a deal, with Prescott’s camp insisting on four years and the Cowboys drawing the line at five years of control.

When you give yourself no outs with a player, he and his agent treat you like you have no outs. Zeke did it first. Now it’s Prescott’s turn.

Andy Dalton came up late on Cowboys’ radar

All of which takes us back to why Dalton’s presence should matter — and why he’s not just the handy-dandy insurance policy storyline that seemingly everyone has been buying.

Let’s talk about what Dalton isn’t. He isn’t a weak-armed-coach-in-waiting like Kellen Moore. He isn’t some try-hard developmental guy like Cooper Rush. And he sure as hell isn’t some bottom-rung rookie addition like Mike White.

Dalton is a player multiple teams saw as a potential starting option in 2020. Going back to the scouting combine, the Indianapolis Colts had a conversation about targeting Dalton for a trade if their plans to sign Philip Rivers fell through. The Chicago Bears were posturing themselves to deal for him until it was clear Nick Foles could be had for next to nothing. And no less than four other teams were weighing a run at Dalton in the past several weeks, including two as a potential starter (the New England Patriots and Jacksonville Jaguars) and two others who wanted him as a top-level backup option for 2020 (the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills).

The Cowboys weren’t even mounting a search for a high-caliber backup quarterback up until several weeks ago. Amid a survey of teams and agents who had veteran quarterbacks available heading into free agency, Dallas never came up as a franchise poking around at a valuable backup. There was no sniffing at Jameis Winston or Cam Newton. There was no calling about Foles. Case Keenum and Marcus Mariota? Brian Hoyer and Chase Daniel? Nothing on any of those fronts.

Andy Dalton's run in Cincinnati ended after nine seasons. (AP Photo/Gary Landers)
Andy Dalton's run in Cincinnati ended after nine seasons. (AP Photo/Gary Landers)

Two important things changed between late February and late April. First: It became clear the Bengals might cut Dalton, freeing up a veteran starter who had massive experience, no medical problems and a track record of success inside a bad franchise. And not only that, he could be had for a hometown discount that will land somewhere between $3 million and $7 million for one season.

Second: It became clear that Prescott wasn’t in any hurry to sign his franchise tag. That means Prescott can’t take part in whatever the team ultimately does this offseason — at least until he accepts his one-year deal, which he likely won’t until the July 15 deadline, keeping the pressure on Dallas to get an extension done.

So if you’re Dallas, what do you do in this scenario? Do you go the Elliott route again and willingly take it in the teeth? Or do you put someone with talent and experience on the roster who can step in and immediately start communicating with the coaching staff and head coach Mike McCarthy?

The answer is simple. Apply the lesson learned from last offseason’s standoff debacle and ready yourself for the slightest possibility that Prescott will not only sit out of any offseason program, but that he also won’t sign the lucrative contract extension that you’ve laid down. Prepare for 2020 to be played under the tag — but also bring in a veteran with talent who can spend the next season showing the coaching staff what he still has to offer and how he prepares himself every single day.

Prepare. For anything. For everything.

Prepare for a potential quarterback injury that could change everything. Prepare for a drawn-out contract negotiation that might get worse. Prepare for the possibility — however small it might be — that Prescott has a ceiling and we’ve already seen it. And prepare the nuclear option: That maybe McCarthy will like Dalton better and that management would suddenly be weighing his starting value at a drastically smaller financial commitment than Prescott in 2021 and beyond.

Will any of those worst-case scenarios unfold? Maybe not. If anything, the deck remains completely stacked for a Prescott extension this summer. That doesn’t mean the Cowboys can’t add a new wrinkle to a conversation with Prescott that hasn’t gone well.

It doesn’t mean that they can’t learn from the past 12 months. It doesn’t mean they can’t discover something new in the next 12 months. And it doesn’t mean that they can’t push for something to change — knowing that if they don’t, the only one left for the Cowboys to blame will be the same braintrust that bumbled into this mess in the first place.

More from Yahoo Sports: