You never fully know how important something is until you lose it. For the Dallas Cowboys, that single statement can define their 2020 season. The Cowboys lost their signal-caller Dak Prescott, and their hopes and aspirations left with him.
Thankfully for Dallas, their investment in a backup quarterback during the offseason paid off. As we all know, Andy Dalton started nine games, posting a record of 4-5 and throwing 14 touchdown passes to eight interceptions. Dalton’s quarterback rating was 87.3. His Pro Football Focus offensive grade for the season was right around 70, very solid for a backup.
The Cowboys have only had two games this year where their quarterback has finished the game with a QB Rating above 120.— Dan Rogers (@DannyPhantom24) December 29, 2020
Both were from Andy Dalton...within the last three games. The veteran quarterback is coming on strong with good accuracy and some very nice reads. pic.twitter.com/GI7c6OAeRv
You could make a solid argument that with Dalton in the picture, the Cowboys had the best backup quarterback in the league. While Dalton was not nearly close to Prescott’s level, he did keep Dallas in the postseason race until the final week of the regular season.
Dalton led Dallas to victories in three of his final four starts. To be fair, these games were against some not-so-talented teams, but Dalton’s seven touchdown passes and an average quarterback rating of 105 in these games was fairly impressive.
So it seems pretty simple, right? Dalton played good, not great, but clearly well enough to bring him back to serve as the backup to Prescott in 2021. Not so fast. There are two big problems with this seemingly simple solution.
One, Dalton may not be looking to backup. The 33-year-old may have put enough on tape that he gets a shot to battle things out and potentially start next season. Say a team like the Panthers or Jets take a quarterback in the top ten. They could be interested in a guy like Dalton to come in and serve as a one-year bridge while their young quarterback gets adjusted to the league.
The second, and biggest obstacle sitting between Dalton and a return to Dallas is the Cowboys’ salary cap situation. Currently, the Cowboys have around $18M in cap space, according to Spotrac. If Dallas is unable to reach a long-term deal with their star quarterback once again this offseason, this number will go down even more. Factor in Dallas retaining at least two or three of their own free agents, and this number could disappear quickly into negative territory.
With all the work Dallas needs to do to fix their defense, is it smart to spend some of their limited resources on a guy who’s going to be a backup? Dalton is likely going to command more than the one-year, three-million dollar deal he got from the Cowboys in 2020. The Cowboys have other options if Dalton is too expensive, like veterans Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jameis Winston, but both will still likely command a sizable amount of money for what Dallas has to work with.
With Prescott coming off an injury, it would be a pretty substantial gamble to not have a proven backup in the fold. But with so many needs to build a championship team around their star, it likely is going to be a risk they have to take.
In Ron Jaworski’s book, The Game That Changed The Game, he mentioned a conversation with at the time Colts’ offensive coordinator Toom More. The Colts had future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning as their starting quarterback, and Jaworski’s colleague, Jon Gruden, asked Moore why he wasn’t giving some snaps to Manning’s backup during practice. Moore responded with, “Fellas, if ‘18’ goes down, we’re [screwed]. And we don’t practice [screwed].”
It may not be the most foolproof plan, but the Cowboys may be forced to have a similar line of thinking with number 4 this coming season.