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 all the way through Sunday’s loss at the Giants in Week 17.
But the bottom line is, at 6-10, the Cowboys failed to win the division or make the playoffs for a second consecutive season and in their first year under coach MIke McCarthy. Don’t be fooled by the fact their record was just two games worse than their 8-8 mark in 2019, when Prescott was fully healthy. As well as Andy Dalton played at times as his fill-in, Dallas’ shortcomings on offense without Prescott cost it a chance to take a weak, low-scoring division.
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The Cowboys went 2-3 with Prescott, 4-5 with Dalton, 0-1 with Ben DiNucci and 0-1 with Garrett Gilbert. They averaged 32.6 points per game in Prescott’s starts. That total plummeted to 20.2 points per game without him.
Dallas’ defense was a major problem for most of the season. The Cowboys also suffered injuries on the offensive line and in the backfield, on top of Dalton needing to miss games early in his replacement stint after landing on the COVID-19 list.
Prescott had started every game after being drafted in the fourth round in 2016 until his unfortunate break not far into his franchise-tagged season. During his absence, there’s no doubt the Cowboys’ heart grew fonder for his high level of play at the most important position.
There’s also no doubt now that the Cowboys need to re-sign Prescott to a lucrative long-term extension. Dalton was one of the better backups in the league but he couldn’t cut it in Kellen Moore’s system until late, which mostly wasted Dallas’ skill position talent. Dalton couldn’t put it all together with wide receivers Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb often enough.
The Cowboys retained Moore before the season — and put him under the offensive-minded McCarthy — to keep him attached to Prescott. That’s also why they gave their 32-year-old offensive coordinator a multiyear extension this week to keep him from pursuing the head coaching job at his alma mater, Boise State.
Now that they’re eliminated from the playoffs and avoided their inevitable fate against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers next weekend, the Cowboys can turn their full attention to figuring out the best deal for Prescott, which is also the best deal for them.
Forget about trying to replace Prescott with a first-round rookie on a manageable contract or finding another later-round gem. After Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields go 1-2 off the board, there’s equal promise and uncertainty with the rest of the 2021 QB draft class. Forget also about thinking there’s any kind of viable free-agent bridge option that will allow Dallas to table QB to the 2022 draft and use money saved on Prescott to boost other positions.
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The Cowboys know what they have when Prescott is working with Moore — a special leader and passer, athletic and tough, locked into a big-play passing attack. Prescott has been better at this best than first-round draft mates Jared Goff and Carson Wentz. The Rams and Eagles might regret overspending 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 likes to take care of his superstars, and he is smart enough to realize, after seeing how limited those players’ production was without Prescott, that paying them means little without also keeping Prescott. Lamb in the first round was a luxury pick; the Cowboys knew he would dominate in the slot with Prescott, and that was the case right away.
The Cowboys’ defense had an awful season; things broke down on every level. Only Prescott could give his team a chance to overcome that, and more times than not, he did. McCarthy, despite his time off from the Packers to become a more forward-thinking coach, made a lot of the same situational mistakes predecessor Jason Garrett did in the Cowboys’ closer losses. Dallas needs to get better in both areas, and that needs to happen independent of keeping Prescott.
The Cowboys weren’t sure of much in 2020 and things quickly got more discombobulated when Prescott wasn’t keeping everything the offense together and masking the club’s other issues. If they needed more conclusive evidence of what Prescott means to them before committing to him under his terms, then they’ve gotten it. All signs point to Prescott being their only QB plan for next season — and many more to come.