The desultory offseason continues for the Dallas Cowboys. Given the biggest move since the draft is signing Lirim Hajullahu to provide some competition for UDFA kicker Jonathan Garibay, this remains one of the most boring offseasons in memory. Other teams are making more significant moves. One of those is very interesting for Cowboys fans, however. The Cleveland Browns just traded QB Baker Mayfield to the Carolina Panthers for a conditional fifth/fourth-round pick. It is another reminder of just how hard it is to find a quality starting quarterback in the league. It also further reinforces the fact that Dallas has had unearthly luck at the position going back almost two decades.
It started in 2003 when the team took a very minor flyer on Tony Romo, picking him up as a UDFA. He would not start until 2006, but he would go on to have a very strong career with the Cowboys despite the lack of playoff success. Injuries and a roster that was at times somewhat weak around him probably limited his career, and there is the hurtful memory of the playoff game when a combination of Aaron Rodgers, a DeMarco Murray fumble, and the Dez Bryant catch that was ruled incomplete sent them packing despite finally having a roster that could have done so much more. Had that game not gone so wrong, Romo’s legacy could be very different.
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Then in 2016, Dallas was trying to draft a solid backup for Romo. After missing out on Paxton Lynch and Connor Cook, they wound up settling for one Dak Prescott, using a compensatory fourth-round pick. You know how that played out, including ending Romo’s career with something of a whimper.
Twice in a row, the Cowboys landed legitimate starting quarterbacks for little to no cost. QB is the hardest position to get right in the NFL. The Browns themselves are evidence. Mayfield was the first overall pick in the 2018 draft. Unfortunately for both him and the team, there wasn’t much talent surrounding him. Still, in 2020 the Browns won their first playoff game since 1994 with him leading the offense. It was a momentary thing, however, as the team fell to 8-9 last year. The relationship between player and team was already badly frayed. It was sundered completely when the team traded away a fortune in draft capital to acquire Deshaun Watson and his huge contract. Given that Watson is under a very real threat of a lengthy suspension, Mayfield read the bold print handwriting and requested the trade that eventually happened.
If you look around the league, there are simply not 32 capable starting QBs. Fully half the franchises have projected starters this year that are iffy or worse. Many of those players are former first-round picks who have either not panned out or been badly supported by their teams. One of them, our old friend Carson Wentz, has cost multiple teams future draft capital as he has meandered around the league to land with the Washington Commanders this year. Yet since Romo was signed, the Cowboys have had to do almost nothing to have a a true starting quarterback. That is one reason they have been able to look good in the draft, because they have mostly hung on to their picks. The one exception, trading the next year’s first-round pick for Amari Cooper, worked out for a while.
More remarkable is the staggering amount of pure, dumb luck involved. Romo was an unknown from a small school who really wanted to play for the Green Bay Packers, but there was no interest there even in signing him to a UDFA contract. Dallas, or perhaps Bill Parcells/Sean Payton, saw enough to give him a shot and he parlayed it into a long, lucrative career and potentially even more lucrative broadcasting job. But he gave the team a decade when they did not have to worry about finding the next starter. Then Prescott fell into their laps as their third choice and turned out to be far better than either of those other options. He also benefitted from a very strong roster around him his rookie year, including that year’s first-round pick Ezekiel Elliott, and received Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.
There have been some struggles with the roster since, but in spite of that he is one of the top quarterbacks in the league. They may be five QBs that are better than him, but not many more. If the Cowboys can solve a few roster questions, Prescott should have another good year. He certainly has all the skills you need. What may limit him are the unsettled situations for the offensive line and the receiving corps. Kellen Moore also has to do a better job coordinating the offense. But a healthy Prescott is a player most NFL teams would take to replace what they have for this year.
Dallas has won the quarterback lottery twice, and invested almost nothing in doing so. That is not a testament to the job Jerry and Stephen Jones have done running the team. It is about luck, which may prove the old adage it is better to be lucky than good.