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It’s hard to guess the Cowboys strategy towards Dak Prescott, if they even have one

The Cowboys front office seems befuddled on this one.

David Benavidez v J’Leon Love Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The pertinent question to ask today is just what is the Cowboys strategy toward quarterback Dak Prescott? Not getting a long-term deal done on Wednesday makes it seem like the Cowboys don’t really have a strategy here. For a front office that makes no bones about the fact that they always get their man if they want him, the question becomes do they really want Prescott? Despite their protestations that they do, their actions do not match their words.

So just what are they thinking?

There is a group of observers that don’t believe that Dak Prescott is the guy for the job. They are the one group probably happy at this moment that a deal wasn’t reached. But even they shouldn’t be happy. Prescott is costing the Cowboys $31.4 million this season. For what is now a one-year rental. Committing that much of your salary cap to a player you don’t plan to sign-long-term would make no sense. Especially after Dallas signed a decent “bridge” candidate in Andy Dalton. They could have rescinded the franchise tender and used the money to sign a Jadeveon Clowney, an Everson Griffen, a Logan Ryan, or some other free agent. While a strategy such as that might have satisfied some of the no-Dak crowd, that is most definitely not the Cowboys strategy. The Cowboys have made it clear they want to ride with Dak into the future, which makes Wednesday’s failure so curious.

If the Cowboys believe that Dak is their franchise quarterback, something they have said repeatedly especially since these negotiations have been going on, then they really aren’t understanding the lay of the land. The only way that the failure to reach a long-term deal with Dak would have been the right move is if Prescott is awful in 2020. If that happens and Prescott regresses from all the good stats he has put up recently, then we can say the Cowboys front office was prescient. Of course, if they were that prescient then they should have gone with the strategy outlined above.

The ideas above are just covering all lines of thought, because we all know that the Cowboys believe in Dak and want him to be the franchise QB far into the future. At least that is what they have told us repeatedly. Somehow, though, they keep botching the signing of Prescott.

The most likely scenario for the 2020 season is that Prescott performs similar to 2019 and the Cowboys are in contention for the playoffs, or make the playoffs, or make some real noise in the playoffs. Any of those scenarios will lead to Prescott being a coveted commodity on the 2021 free agent market. If the Cowboys don’t franchise tag him again, then they will have to either reach a long-term deal, or they will watch him walk to another QB-hungry team that is ready to pony up the big bucks.

So the Cowboys will likely be right back here in the 2021 offseason, only a little worse off. For a few reasons. One is that the current pandemic could have a detrimental effect on the salary cap. For the first time the salary cap could go backwards. The other half of that equation is that a second franchise tag value is fixed to Dak’s 2020 salary. It will be around $38 million. As Bill Barnwell points out in a table in his article, Prescott’s percentage of the salary cap under a second franchise tag in 2021 could be enormous if the cap drops due to the pandemic. If that occurs then Dallas will have to finagle their cap to get Prescott under it. And don’t believe the idea that a smaller salary cap will preclude other teams from going after Prescott with aggressive offers, it won’t. Teams in the NFL know that the most important thing you can have is a quality quarterback, and Prescott is a proven one. He will get the offers if he hits the market. There will be no saving money on that front.

So the Cowboys will want to sign a long-term deal again in 2021, but Prescott will be one year away from free agency. For the Cowboys to keep him a third year on a franchise tag would be untenable given the price, so 2021 is the last time Prescott will be tagged. Why wouldn’t he just take his $31.4 million from 2020, his roughly $38 million in 2021, and then hit the open market in 2022? To stop him from doing that would take a heck of a contract, one that will be more than it would have taken this year. His price is going to continue to go up unless, for some unknown reason, his play suddenly drops off.

There is also the added detriment that not signing him this year means his cap number for 2020 is higher than it needs to be. Contrary to some opinion, signing Prescott to a long-term deal before the deadline would have likely dropped his cap number in 2020. Almost all deals are structured in such a way that the early years cost less than the later years. Go ahead and look at Patrick Mahomes’ deal if you don’t believe it. The Cowboys could have saved money on the cap with a long-term deal by lowering Prescott’s 2020 number. Could that saved money have been used to grab another free agent to help the team?

All of this is just baffling. Was is really about getting a five-year deal instead of a four-year deal? Are the Cowboys really ready to toy around with their future just to get that one extra year of control? If so, that’s bad management. There is no position in the NFL like the QB position. Exceptions have to be made. If it was about the numbers, then maybe the Cowboys front office were sticking to their plan. Still, was that the right plan? Was offering Prescott and extra million or two on AAV going to break the team? Was offering more guaranteed money than Jared Goff got somehow unjustifiable?

Maybe Dak Prescott’s agents really were asking for an impossible deal. Maybe that will come out in the future and we can all see that the Cowboys front office was right to not cave in. But they caved when DeMarcus Lawrence wanted a deal. At least he played a money position. They caved when Ezekiel Elliott wanted a deal. The debate about paying running backs continues since it’s not considered a money position. But the most money position of all? The quarterback? The Cowboys didn’t cave. And it makes no sense.

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