Just before halftime on Sunday, Dak Prescott could not stop smiling. With Dallas down three points to the visiting Giants, the Cowboys called a Philly Special: The quarterback handed the ball off, ran to the pylon, caught a pass, and backed into the corner of the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown. Prescott is not normally one to admire his own work, but after the score he stared up at the JumboTron and watched the replay with a huge, childlike grin. It was the happiest Dak has looked in the middle of a game in a long time.
About 45 minutes later, Prescott was sobbing. He had just run for 9 yards on a scramble, and then his ankle buckled beneath Giants defensive back Logan Ryan’s tackle. At first it looked like his cleat had come off his foot, but the reality was so much worse than that. Prescott suffered a compound ankle fracture—meaning that his bone pierced through his skin—and was moved to a cart that would soon take him off the field. As he was driven away, Dak wiped the tears from his cheeks, allowed more tears to stream down his face, and raised a fist to a Dallas crowd that roared in support of its QB.
The Cowboys went on to win Sunday’s game 37-34 to move to 2-3 and into first place in the NFC East. Yet the result was hollow. Dak’s injury will end his season. Upon exiting the field, he was immediately transported to a nearby hospital, where he had surgery on his ankle. His brother Tad tweeted a photo with Dak from the hospital on Sunday night, and on Monday the NFL Network’s Jane Slater reported that Prescott’s recovery is expected to take four to six months. From the moment that a then-rookie Prescott replaced an injured Tony Romo as the Cowboys’ starting quarterback in 2016, his defining quality has been calmness. After watching him weep on Sunday, the football world is left to contemplate what comes next for Dak, for Dallas, and for their future together.
Through four weeks in the 2020 season, Prescott was on his way to having a career year. He entered the Giants game with 1,690 passing yards, 364 more than the second-place Josh Allen. He was on pace to finish with 6,760 yards, a figure that would’ve surpassed the league single-season record of 5,477, set by Peyton Manning in 2013. But even those lofty numbers fail to capture what Dak means to Dallas.
Prescott is the heart and soul of the Cowboys. The moment he cried on that cart was made all the more emotional because Prescott has already shed so many tears this year. In April, Prescott’s older brother, Jace, died by suicide. This September, Dak said in an interview that he had been experiencing depression and anxiety around the time of his brother’s death. (“I’ll never get another hug in my life like the ones he gave,” Prescott said.) When he was criticized for speaking out about his mental health, Prescott said, “Being a leader is about being genuine and being real.”
From a performance standpoint, Prescott was the one thing that was going right for Dallas during its 1-3 start. He led a legendary comeback against Atlanta in Week 2, threw for a career-high 472 yards in Week 3, and then topped that by passing for 502 yards against Cleveland in Week 4. Over the past four seasons, Prescott has transformed from a fourth-round draft pick into a competent backup into an overqualified game manager into one of the league’s top players. For years, the Jones family tried to make Ezekiel Elliott the centerpiece of this team; in 2020, Prescott was finally given the reins. He responded by seeing the field well, spreading the ball around, and turning the Dallas offense into a juggernaut.
On Sunday morning, Cowboys fans wondered how good this team could be if it ever learned to play defense. By Sunday evening, they wondered what Prescott’s relationship with Dallas would be—next year and beyond.
Prescott’s contract saga was one of the biggest stories of the NFL offseason. Dallas owner Jerry Jones said he was adamant about keeping Dak long term, but Dak reportedly wanted a four-year contract and the Cowboys insisted on a five-year deal. Both sides held firm, so the Cowboys handed out a big contract extension to receiver Amari Cooper while placing Prescott on the franchise tag. For those who don’t read the league’s collective bargaining agreement for fun, the franchise tag is a nonnegotiable guaranteed one-year contract. Most players hate it because it’s a short-term raise that fails to provide any long-term security. But Dak embraced the tag. Playing on the tag this season guaranteed Prescott $31 million, or six times more than Dallas had paid him in the first four years of his career combined. The tag also gets more expensive if teams use it multiple years in a row. If Dallas tags Prescott again in 2021, it would cost the franchise almost $38 million. Prescott and the Cowboys were in a staring match, and Prescott felt that Dallas would have to blink first.
After his injury, Prescott will still get all of that $31 million that the tag guarantees this season, but what happens beyond that is an open question. All the progress the Cowboys have made on negotiations with Prescott may have now been rendered irrelevant. It is too early to speculate on his health, or his availability for 2021, but there are only three real options for next season.
The first is that Prescott and Dallas agree on a contract extension. The Deshaun Watson–like mega extension that Prescott wanted may be off the table, but Dak could theoretically sign for less money (or at least less guaranteed money) than he originally sought. This deal could include incentives that would allow Prescott to make plenty of money if he returns to top form and give Dallas some level of protection if Prescott can’t return to full health.
But this is unlikely. Prescott’s entire negotiating philosophy has been believing in himself when others doubt him. He may apply that same confidence to his recovery process. If he and the Cowboys disagree on how much risk the organization would take on if he were to return as their QB, they would remain far apart in negotiations.
The second option is that the Cowboys let Prescott leave in free agency after this season, likely collecting a third-round compensatory draft pick. This once would’ve seemed unfathomable. And while it is still highly unlikely that Dallas would let Prescott go, it’s now possible if Prescott refuses to take an injury discount and Dallas refuses to hand him a deal otherwise. Prescott already has quite a bit of endorsement money, and in the past he’s filed for large insurance policies protecting him in case of injury. Even while recovering from injury, Prescott would likely be a prized target among teams like the Jets, Jaguars, Bears, and Broncos. But letting Dak leave is probably not how Jerry Jones wants this story to end.
The third and final option is that Dallas and Prescott are unable to agree on an extension but the team is unwilling to let him go. In this case, it could franchise-tag him once again. This would cost the Cowboys $38 million in 2021, but would give them a season to gauge how healthy he is. It could also be preferable for Prescott, as he would have time to recover before either resuming negotiations with Dallas or beginning negotiations with other teams. All things considered, this is the most likely option. But with the leaguewide salary cap set to decline from almost $200 million in 2020 to roughly $175 million in 2021, tagging Prescott again would mean that Dallas would pay almost 19 percent of the cap to a player whose health is uncertain.
Letting Prescott leave would be both coldhearted and short-sighted. Signing him to a long-term contract would carry inherent risk. And franchise-tagging Dak again would eat up a chunk of the 2021 cap and put Dallas in its original bad position of betting against its own quarterback. How the Cowboys and Prescott proceed will dominate discussions in Dallas for months. In the meantime, the team will try to win the division without him.
The man who will replace Prescott as the Cowboys’ starting quarterback this season is Andy Dalton, whom the Bengals cut in April after he had spent nine seasons in Cincinnati. The Cowboys were mocked for paying Dalton $3 million while they were playing contract hardball with Prescott, but now they are lucky to have the veteran. Dalton is not inspiring. Nobody pretends otherwise. (Well, maybe Bills fans.) But compared to many other backup quarterbacks around the league, like Joe Flacco and Brett Rypien, Dalton is divine. During his career with the Bengals, Dalton was exactly as good as the talent around him, and the Cowboys have a lot of talent. Dallas’s starting skill-position players (wide receivers Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup, tight end Dalton Schultz, and running back Elliott) are probably the best group in the NFL. Dalton is not as good as Dak, but the infrastructure of the offense could still allow him to succeed.
While the Cowboys’ receiving options are elite, however, their offensive line is in shambles. All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith is out for the season with a neck injury. Right tackle La’el Collins is out indefinitely with a hip injury. Center Travis Frederick retired this offseason at age 29, and guard Joe Looney has been placed on injured reserve after spraining his MCL. The lone remaining member of Dallas’s once-elite offensive line is right guard Zack Martin. Just a few years ago, the Cowboys had perhaps the league’s best blocking unit and worst receiving corps. Now, the team has the inverse of that. This Dallas team has been playing a different kind of football from what Cowboys fans have been watching for nearly a decade, and now Dalton will have to lead a system designed for Dak.
If Dalton can do a good enough Dak impression, the team could win the NFC East. The Giants are 0-5, Washington is 1-4 and has already cycled through three quarterbacks, and the Eagles are 1-3-1. Dallas’s next three games are against Arizona, Washington, and Philadelphia, and three wins could put them in seriously good shape, even at a mediocre 5-3 on the season. Priority no. 1 is to stop fumbling. The Cowboys have lost a league-leading seven fumbles in five games, putting them as coleaders with the Eagles for the most turnovers in the NFL. Whoever stops handing the ball to the other team will probably win the division.
But no matter what happens with the offense, it is hard for Cowboys fans to envision going far in the playoffs with their forsaken defense, which looks bad on the stat sheet and even worse when lollygagging on the field. Dallas’s hopes of emerging as a legitimate contender this season seemed to rely on Prescott putting up otherworldly numbers and overcoming the defense’s flaws. Even if Dalton is effective, that possibility is gone. So thoughts naturally turn toward next season, and now next season is about Dak, and now Dak is synonymous with uncertainty. Sunday’s game brought tears, but eventually we will see Dak smiling on the field once again.