The Cowboys did their best to recover from losing quarterback Dak Prescott to a season-ending ankle injury in their Week 5 home win over the Giants. They were alive in the NFC East race throughout Sunday’s loss to the Giants in Week 17.
But in the end, at 6-10, the Cowboys failed to win the division or advance to the playoffs for a second straight season and in their first year under coach MIke McCarthy. Don’t be fooled by the fact that their record was only two games worse than their 8-8 mark in 2019, when Prescott was in great health. In addition to Andy Dalton playing as a substitute at times, Dallas’ offensive deficiencies without Prescott cost him a chance to take on a weak, low-scoring division.
The Cowboys went 2-3 with Prescott, 4-5 with Dalton, 0-1 with Ben DiNucci and 0-1 with Garrett Gilbert. They average 32.6 points per game in Prescott’s starts. That total dropped to 20.2 points per game without him.
Dallas’ defense has been a major issue for most of the season. The Cowboys also suffered injuries on the offensive line and in the backfield, in addition to Dalton who must have missed games early in his substitution after landing on the COVID-19 roster.
Prescott had started every game after being drafted in the fourth round in 2016 until his ill-fated break not far from his franchise-marked season. During his absence, there is no doubt that the hearts of the Cowboys have grown more attached to his high level of play in the most important position.
There’s no doubt now that the Cowboys need to re-sign Prescott for a lucrative long-term extension. Dalton was one of the best substitutes in the league, but he couldn’t cut it into Kellen Moore’s system until late, which mainly wasted Dallas’ talent. Dalton couldn’t put it all together with wide receivers Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb often enough.
The Cowboys have retained Moore ahead of the season – and placed him under McCarthy’s offensive command – to keep him attached to Prescott. It’s also why they gave their 32-year-old offensive coordinator a multi-year extension this week to prevent him from continuing as head coach at his alma mater, Boise State.
Now that they’re out of the playoffs and have avoided their inevitable fate against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers next weekend, the Cowboys can devote their full attention to finding the best deal for Prescott, which is also the best for them.
Forget about trying to replace Prescott with a first-round rookie with a manageable contract or finding another gem later. After Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields move away from the table 1-2, there are as many promises and uncertainties as the rest of the 2021 QB draft class. Also forget to think that there is some sort of viable free agent gateway option that will allow Dallas to present QB in the 2022 draft and use the money saved on Prescott to bolster other positions.
NFL DRAFT ORDER: List of choices after week 17
The Cowboys know what they’ve got when Prescott works with Moore – a tough, athletic, special leader and passer locked in a high-profile passing attack. Prescott was better at this better than his first-round teammates Jared Goff and Carson Wentz. The Rams and Eagles might regret spending too much on extensions for them, but that shouldn’t make the Cowboys hesitate with Prescott.
Jerry Jones made heavy investments in Cooper and running back Ezekiel Elliott. He enjoys taking care of his superstars, and he’s smart enough to realize, after seeing how limited the production of these players was without Prescott, that paying them means little without keeping Prescott. The lamb on the first round was a luxury choice; the Cowboys knew he would dominate the slot machine with Prescott, and he did right away.
The Cowboys defense has had a terrible season; things have deteriorated at all levels. Only Prescott could give his team a chance to overcome this, and more often than not, he has. McCarthy, despite his time off from the Packers to become a more forward-thinking coach, made many of the same situational mistakes predecessor Jason Garrett made in the Cowboys’ closest losses. Dallas needs to improve in both areas, and that needs to happen regardless of Prescott’s retention.
The Cowboys weren’t sure of much in 2020 and things quickly got confused when Prescott didn’t keep the whole offense together and hide the club’s other issues. If they needed more conclusive evidence of what Prescott means to them before committing to him on his terms, then they got it. All signs point to Prescott being their only QB plan for next season – and many more to come.