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Why Dak Prescott’s contract really doesn’t cripple the Cowboys ability to build a roster

Let’s do some more Cowboys myth busting, shall we?

NFL: Preseason-Dallas Cowboys at San Francisco 49ers
Jerry got his guy, and it was a good deal for both.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Many may not get it, but for some of us, watching dogmatic ideas get skewered is a lot of fun. Whether it is science upending superstition or people proving that yes, they actually can do what most assume beyond them, it brings a certain pleasure to those of us with a somewhat unorthodox and wee bit twisted view of the world. I’m certainly among that group, so I truly relish finding something that blows holes in concepts that we are told from on high are just the way it all works. With the Dallas Cowboys signing Dak Prescott to his shiny new deal, another one has cropped up. It has often been espoused by both Jerry and Stephen Jones. The idea is that spending too much on the quarterback, usually expressed as a percentage of the salary cap, severely restricts the team’s ability to build the rest of the roster.

For quite some time, that has seemed a bit fishy to many of us, if for no other reason that we are just dealing with small sample sizes here. And outside the unique circumstances of this year, the cap just keeps growing over time, reducing the impact of big contracts. There is also the fact that teams often reverse their cap position, for better or worse, in just a few seasons. That is largely intuition and a very superficial look at the numbers, seasoned with a bit of distrust concerning the public negotiating tactics the Jones family often uses.

Fortunately for us, this is the age of analytics. There are so many intelligent and talented people willing to use math and statistics to find some meaning in the flood of numbers we have access to in the internet age. It also helps that Prescott’s deal was for some time the biggest story in the NFL. That got some people interested in looking a bit deeper at this entire concept of how ever-growing QB contracts impact the overall roster. One of them is Jason Fitzgerald of Over The Cap.

With Dak Prescott having signed a record breaking contract the focus immediately turned to the future of the Cowboys and how will they keep things together. Speculation started about when they will exit the contracts of players like Amari Cooper, Ezekiel Elliott, and others. It’s probably a bit early for that conversation (and Dallas signed those deals knowing they would have an expensive QB), but that got me to thinking a bit. Do teams pull back significantly on their payroll once the QB comes into the fold?

This is where the often maligned analytics movement is truly of value. They look at things that are just assumed to be true, such as going for it on fourth down being too risky except as a last resort, and find more accurate ways to view things.

They also include much more context than casual stats cherry-picking. That emphasis on the big picture and all the factors that need to be considered to come up with a more complete understanding is one that is so often ignored. For instance, that fourth down decision involves far more than the distance to go, but also has to consider field position and the game situation.

Fitzgerald works hard at getting this to be an apples to apples evaluation.

Initially I was just going to plot those numbers but since the salary cap and revenues constantly rise I thought that would give some false information since it would be valuing a $22M contract now the same as when someone like Matt Ryan was playing around that salary. So I really needed to adjust for the salary cap. So what I did was determine the non-QB payroll as a percentage of the cap in that given year and then converted the players annual contract value to a percentile based on the cap. This can also help take into account the concept that an expensive contract today won’t look as expensive down the line.

At first glance, his research seems to verify the idea that paying your QB does limit you in the rest of your roster building. After going through a few iterations of charting his findings and establishing a baseline of the past six seasons, he does find that there is a real tendency for teams that put more of their cap into the QB position to invest less in the roster around them.

But here is where the context comes in. He uses four tiers to quantify things, and the actual percentage difference is not as much as the dire pronouncements we have become used to would indicate. The teams with the high dollar QBs spend 89.3% of their space on non-QB players, while the ones with the cheapest put 95.3% of their cap in building the rest of the team. That still amounts to millions of dollars, just about $12 million under this year’s cap, but essentially we are talking about one fairly big free agent deal or a couple of mid-range ones. That is hardly the devastating consequence that has been frequently painted for us.

And there is further context to consider. For most teams that aren’t either making do with a journeyman QB or still riding a rookie contract for a rising star, having a higher percentage of the cap is just the norm. Fitzgerald concludes his article with this about Dallas’ situation.

Still it is basically even footing with all the teams in the NFL who have a $20M+ QB, which is over half the NFL. The disadvantage between Dallas and those teams is far less than the difference between Dallas and a team with a rookie QB, more along the lines of $4 to $8 million a year depending on the QB contract of the other team.

That relatively small disadvantage seems a small price to pay for a true franchise QB, and several teams are paying that kind of money for players (cough) Carson Wentz and Jared Goff (cough) that have some big question marks about being able to fill that role.

The real impact for the Cowboys depends on them being right about Prescott, both in terms of his real ability to elevate his team and how well he recovers from his injury. But this all bring us to the decision making about when to pay your quarterback. It is a very simple algorithm.

  • Does the ownership, management, and coaching staff believe that he is the quarterback they need and want?
  • If the answer is no, then let him walk.
  • If it is yes, pay him.

The Cowboys clearly answered that in the affirmative, and acted accordingly, if a bit belatedly. And based on the work in the article this is taken from, it will barely slow them in fixing the issues elsewhere on the roster.