“Be careful what you wish for” perfectly sums up the 2018 Cowboys season. In some ways, Dallas’s late-season run was a surprising yet significant accomplishment. After starting the year 3-5, Jason Garrett’s team won seven of its final eight regular-season games, secured the NFC East title, and even stole a playoff game. Division titles and postseason victories are typically the mark of a healthy franchise and often signify that a team is headed in a positive direction. They lead to promotions, accolades, and contract extensions. And for the Cowboys, that’s the problem.
As Dallas toiled below .500 into early November, a desolate mood surrounded the team. Wins were scarce, the offense was stalled, and with only one year left on Garrett’s contract, it seemed the time had come for owner Jerry Jones to cut ties with his favorite son. Two months later, the outlook couldn’t be more different. Following Dallas’s 24-22 wild-card win over the Seahawks, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that the Cowboys were “positive that Garrett is going to be their coach going forward”—likely by way of an extension similar to the five-year, $30 million contract Garrett signed in 2015.
Garrett apologists may wonder why that’s a problem. After a forgettable stretch of three 8-8 seasons to start his tenure in Dallas, Garrett’s team has won three NFC East titles in the past five years. His only losing season came in 2015, when quarterback Tony Romo missed 12 games with a broken collar bone, and Matt Cassel, Kellen Moore, and Brandon Weeden jointly floundered on their way to a 1-11 record. Among currently employed NFL head coaches, Garrett’s .566 career winning percentage ranks ninth.
There’s also reason to believe that the Cowboys will bring back many of the pieces that made the 2018 team successful. Pass-game coordinator and cornerbacks coach Kris Richard is set to return next season, despite getting significant looks around the league as a head-coaching candidate. In his first season with the franchise, Richard transformed the Cowboys defense into one of the top units in the NFL (they ranked ninth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA and sixth in scoring defense at 20.3 points per game). Richard will almost certainly receive a title bump to defensive coordinator, but that promotion is more symbolic than anything—he was the team’s de facto coordinator for most of the season, and a title change shouldn’t alter the team’s power structure.
Keeping Richard and the defensive coaching staff will give the Cowboys their best chance to win in 2019. The problem is that the offensive staff will probably come along, too. For as encouraging as the Cowboys’ defensive improvements were this year, their schematic approach on offense was just as disheartening. Seahawks offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer took most of the heat following an unimaginative play-calling performance in the Dallas-Seattle wild-card game, but Cowboys coordinator Scott Linehan also failed to put his best players in the right positions to succeed—and that’s been a problem for much of the season.
Against the Rams on Saturday, running back Ezekiel Elliott ran into a box of eight or more defenders on 40 percent of his carries. Compare that to divisional-round rates for Todd Gurley (6.25 percent), C.J. Anderson (17.39), and Sony Michel (4.17). Because Elliott is an ultra-talented running back who’s going to churn out yardage no matter the situation, he still finished the season with 1,434 yards rushing and a 4.7 YPC average. But a back with Elliott’s abilities shouldn’t be finishing 18th in both rushing DVOA and success rate. Nowhere does it say that having skilled players means coaches don’t have to help them out schematically. Just ask the Rams and Patriots. That frustrating player usage and play design also extended beyond Elliott. On more than one occasion this season, current and former Cowboys receivers spoke about the predictability of the offense’s route combinations. Before Amari Cooper hauled in a go-ahead, 75-yard touchdown late in the Cowboys’ Week 14 overtime win over the Eagles, he openly questioned a play call that asked him to run yet another comeback route—a concept Philly’s corners had been jumping all day. He and quarterback Dak Prescott altered the call in the huddle, and Cooper broke out for a touchdown deep down the right sideline.
Watching an offensive system stifle talents like Elliott and Cooper can be maddening, but that scheme’s effect on Prescott could alter the future of the entire franchise. Prescott is set to enter the final year of his rookie contract in 2019, and his cap hit will be about $815,000. The Cowboys now have to decide whether to extend him and pay him 30 times that. Jones has said that Prescott is the future of the franchise and would be worth a pair of first-round picks on the trade market, which is a curious negotiation strategy. Prescott and his recently hired CAA agent will likely use the tone of Jones’s comments to set an asking price, one that could be around $27 million in average annual value with a guaranteed dollar figure north of $60 million.
On its own, that figure is palatable. In this era of QB mega-deals and an ever-rising salary cap, that’s the sticker price for quality quarterback play. But the Cowboys’ current offensive construction prevents Prescott from playing at a level deserving of a contract that big. Against the Seahawks in the wild-card round, Prescott recorded an expected completion percentage of 55.9 percent, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Prescott finished the game with a 66.7 percent completion rate. That gap of 10.2 percentage points was more than twice that of any other QB in the wild-card round, and during the regular season, Drew Brees led the league at 7.4 percent. The Cowboys offense routinely asks Prescott to convert more difficult throws than he should have to. In a way, it’s a less exaggerated and less damning version of how the Seahawks misuse Russell Wilson. Unlike Wilson, though, Prescott isn’t a quarterback who can consistently transcend the system around him. He needs schematic help to reach his top gear—the $27 million gear—and that hasn’t happened since his rookie year. Some may be skeptical about whether the current iteration of Prescott is worth top-tier money, and with Garrett and the Cowboys’ staff returning, this iteration is all we’re likely to see for the foreseeable future.
Prescott’s new contract would also have implications across the rest of the roster. The Cowboys were able to franchise-tag defensive end Demarcus Lawrence this season (to the tune of $17.1 million) and pay the offensive line a combined $37 million, which accounted for 20.01 percent of its cap spending—both the highest marks in the league. That type of financial allocation was made possible by Prescott, Elliott, linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, and cornerback Byron Jones all playing on rookie deals. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, rookie contracts end, and the team will have several crucial contract decisions to make in the coming months.
Lawrence will become a free agent if Dallas doesn’t franchise-tag him again, and he’s likely to command a deal in the same ballpark of the monster contracts Khalil Mack and Aaron Donald signed last year. Lawrence may not have the impact that Mack and Donald do week in and week out, but he has leverage neither player did while negotiating their deals: If the Cowboys tag Lawrence again, they’ll be forced to pay him more than $20 million in 2019. That’s likely less than what Lawrence would command in AAV on the open market, but it’d leave Dallas with no recourse to keep him beyond next season. If the Cowboys want to retain Lawrence long term, their best course of action is to negotiate an extension now and not waste time and money with a one-year stop-gap deal.
Dallas is projected to have $54 million in salary-cap space next season, so even with potential extensions looming, that should leave them plenty of financial flexibility in 2019. The new money in Prescott’s deal won’t kick in until 2020; the same goes for a likely Byron Jones extension. Cooper’s fifth-year option puts his cap number at $13.9 million next season, but Dallas can negotiate that number down if they extend him before the season (trading a first-round pick for the former Raiders wideout all but guaranteed that the Cowboys will try to keep him around). Beyond 2019, though, Dallas’s core will be expensive, and it’ll be locked into place for years to come.
The era of Dallas being able to take advantage of Prescott’s rookie contract—and those of the Cowboys’ other established stars—is all but over. The franchise’s best chance to win a Super Bowl with this collection of players has already passed, and now Jones plans to double down on Garrett and a staff that failed to accomplish its ultimate goal. An NFC East title and unlikely trip to the divisional round made for a thrilling winter, but Cowboys fans may look back on this stretch the same way Packers fans view Aaron Rodgers’s “run the table” magic in 2016. That fleeting bit of excitement saddled Green Bay with a coach and plan it never coveted in the first place, and the Cowboys seem like they’re headed toward the same fate.