On Sunday, a Dallas Cowboys team that was seemingly going through a nightmare season saw its worst fears realized. In the third quarter, Pro Bowl quarterback Dak Prescott suffered a gruesome ankle injury. If you were watching the play, you’re not going to forget what you saw for a long time. If you didn’t see the play, consider yourself lucky. Injuries are part of football, and they don’t discriminate against good or bad people or between stars and ordinary players, but it was difficult not to be overwhelmed as a crying Prescott was carted off the field.
The Cowboys put in backup Andy Dalton, who led a late drive to set up the game-winning field goal and a 37-34 win over the Giants. The 2-3 Cowboys are now in first place atop the putrid NFC East, but what happens next could go many different ways. Let’s reset the scene and establish everything you need to know after Prescott’s heartbreaking injury:
With Dallas leading 24-23 in the third quarter, the Cowboys dialed up a designed quarterback draw. Prescott broke through one tackle attempt and then tried to stiff-arm Giants defensive back Logan Ryan. As Ryan dragged Prescott down, the quarterback’s ankle got caught underneath Ryan. We often see players suffer high ankle sprains when their ankles get caught at that sort of angle, but when Prescott came out of the tackle, his foot was facing the wrong direction.
There was nothing malicious or untoward about the tackle or anything anyone could have realistically done to prevent the injury. The Cowboys use Prescott as a runner on designed plays, but his workload isn’t exorbitant or unreasonable. He had been remarkably healthy as a pro, as the 27-year-old had never been on the injury report before he went down Sunday.
Officially, the Cowboys announced that Prescott suffered a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle, which means the bone penetrated his skin as part of the injury. ESPN’s Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen reported that Prescott underwent surgery on the ankle Sunday evening. His season is likely over, and the Cowboys will place him on injured reserve sometime this week.
Could this be a career-threatening injury?
By all accounts, Prescott should be able to return. Although the injury was unquestionably gruesome, players across sports have returned from similar injuries in the past and continued their careers. In baseball, Jason Kendall, Moises Alou and Robin Ventura returned from compound ankle fractures and sustained long careers. In basketball, we recently saw Celtics forward Gordon Hayward dislocate his ankle and fracture his tibia, miss an entire season and return the following year.
Most importantly, we’ve seen football players overcome this injury, including ball carriers. Veteran running back LeSean McCoy suffered a compound ankle fracture in high school. At the pro level, Connor Barwin and Allen Hurns were able to overcome dislocated ankles and return to the sport. No two injuries are identical, of course, but there’s precedent for players making it back to play at the highest level.
Given that Alex Smith made his return to the field the day Prescott was injured, it’s only natural to try to compare Prescott’s injury to the Washington quarterback’s. They aren’t the same. Smith suffered a broken tibia and fibula and then dealt with a life-threatening infection, which led doctors to perform a total of 17 surgeries. We won’t know until Prescott leaves the hospital and begins rehabilitating, but the hope is that he will avoid any infections or other complications after surgery.
No one can say for sure that Prescott will be the same player upon returning. Ankle injuries can cause serious problems for quarterbacks. Although his injury is nowhere near as severe, take Jimmy Garoppolo as an example. When the 49ers quarterback suffered a high ankle sprain in Week 2, I mentioned that quarterbacks who suffer high ankle sprains have a habit of sailing their throws when they come back, leading to sailed passes and interceptions. Garoppolo made his return Sunday and was 7-of-17 passing for 77 yards with two sailed picks before he was benched at halftime.
Prescott will have to reestablish his footwork as a passer. He might not be as explosive or impactful as a runner, which has been an underrated and valuable part of his game the past five years. He might come back as the same guy, looking like the injury never happened. He could also come back as a less mobile and versatile player, which would take a chunk out of his game.
How does this impact his future with the Cowboys?
In the short term, nothing changes. Prescott is playing on the franchise tag, which guarantees him $31.4 million for 2020. He’ll collect that money even after being placed on injured reserve. As was the case before the injury, he is not under contract after Week 17, though Dallas has ways to keep him around.
The franchise’s three choices on what to do with Prescott also haven’t changed. The Cowboys could let him leave and hit unrestricted free agency. If that happens, they would not get direct compensation, though they would likely collect a third-round compensatory pick in the 2022 draft if they didn’t sign a similarly expensive player in free agency. They could also sign him to a contract extension, something they’ve tried and failed to do the past two offseasons.
The most likely outcome both before and after the injury is the third option: a second franchise tag. The Cowboys can offer Prescott another one-year deal, with this one guaranteeing the Mississippi State product $37.7 million for the 2021 season. The move would amount to a $6.3 million raise, but with the cap set to drop from $198.2 million in 2020 to $175 million as a result of the hit in local revenues, the team would feel the pinch of a second tag even more. Prescott currently takes up 14.4% of Dallas’ cap space, but he would be in line to take up something closer to 18.9% next year. With a $175 million cap, $37.7 million is the equivalent of paying Prescott something close to $42.7 million on this year’s cap.
At the same time, a second tag would make sense for both sides. The Cowboys might not want to commit to Prescott in the long term until they see that their starter has returned to full health, which they won’t be able to see on a football field before the franchise tag deadline in March. Franchising Prescott is the only way the Cowboys could retain his rights before free agency, and that would give them five months to negotiate an extension in advance of the July deadline for handing franchised players long-term contracts.
Likewise, for Prescott, a franchise tag seems preferable. He has repeatedly declined contract extensions from the Cowboys in the hope of going year-to-year and getting the exact sort of deal he wants, whether it be from the Cowboys or another organization. This summer, although the two sides were reportedly close on the average salary of a new deal, talks fell apart over disagreements about length.
Dallas, which typically likes to hand out the longest contracts in football to retain control of its players while leaving cap flexibility, wanted a longer deal. Prescott sought a three- or four-year deal, hoping to sign a short-term contract and then get back to free agency after the league signs its new television deals over the next two years, at which point the cap is expected to rise dramatically.
It’s possible that Prescott’s injury could change his outlook and encourage the veteran to take whatever the team is offering as part of the longest possible deal. Given that he has continually bet on himself and made more than $31 million in base salary alone this year, though, it wouldn’t be shocking if he continued along that path, even after the injury.
Should Prescott have taken Dallas’ long-term offer?
In the aftermath of the injury, the worst people on Twitter were excited to talk about how Prescott was foolish to decline the team’s long-term offers before he suffered his injury. Never mind that we haven’t seen any of the contract offer specifics or how much money he realistically would have been passing up as part of a deal. Every player has to deal with risk, and as often as a player passes on a long-term option and then gets hurt, we see players who take below-market value deals before staying healthy and regretting their choices, as with Chris Harris Jr. and Adam Thielen.
While we don’t know what a Prescott deal would have held, the reality is that he was guaranteed $31.4 million by the franchise tag. Unless he is unable to play in 2021, the Cowboys are likely to franchise him again and pay him $37.7 million for a total of $69.1 million over two seasons, at which point Prescott would be able to either collect a third franchise tag for $54.3 million or hit unrestricted free agency. He almost definitely would have had his 2022 base salary guaranteed as part of an extension, but I’m not sure that he would have made that much more money by signing an extension than he would by going year-to-year.
If Prescott isn’t able to play in 2021, he might also be protected. During the quarterback’s negotiations in 2019, Schefter reported that Prescott had loss-of-value and disability insurance and endorsement deals worth more than $50 million. It’s unclear whether he is still carrying that sort of insurance, but it’s clear that he thought about what might happen if he got injured over the past couple of years. At the very least, Prescott was aware of this possibility and the risk he was taking.
Andy Dalton is now the Cowboys’ starter. Is he good?
Dalton was solid Sunday. Although a bad exchange led to a fumble, a short field and a Giants touchdown, the longtime Bengals starter went 9-of-11 passing for 111 yards after taking over. With the game tied at 34, Dalton completed three passes for 72 yards to set up a game-winning field goal from Greg Zuerlein. That was the one positive to take away from an awful Sunday for the Cowboys.
There are two questions here. One of them is easy to answer: I don’t think Dalton has any hope of matching Prescott’s production in this offense, whether it be what we saw in 2019 or over the first four-plus games of 2020. Remember: Prescott threw for more yards than any other quarterback in football history through the first four games of 2020, and it wasn’t particularly close. Dalton won’t absorb that kind of volume.
Can Dalton be good enough to win games, though? That’s within the realm of possibility, though he had a much better shot at leading the Cowboys as constructed on paper heading into this season than he does with the current version of this team. Dallas is missing five starters on offense, including Prescott. Three of them are along the offensive line: Center Joe Looney is out for a few weeks, but starting tackles Tyron Smith and La’el Collins are out for the season. On Sunday, the Cowboys started three offensive linemen with one combined start in the NFL before 2020 in Tyler Biadasz, Terence Steele, and Brandon Knight.
Michael Gallup makes a spectacular sideline catch to get the Cowboys in field goal range and set up Greg Zuerlein’s game-winning field goal.
Dalton has a borderline-MVP season on his résumé from 2015 in Cincinnati, when he had prime weapons such as A.J. Green, Mohamed Sanu and Tyler Eifert and arguably the league’s best offensive line. The Cowboys can give Dalton the weapons, but their pass protection is suspect. Over his last two seasons in Cincinnati, a decaying offensive line let Dalton down, and the TCU product wasn’t able to compensate. The Bengals ranked 31st in pass block win rate between 2018 and ’19, and Dalton’s numbers nosedived in the process. He ranked 28th in both passer rating and QBR when pressured over that two-year span, and though the Cowboys still have one star lineman left in Zack Martin, their line otherwise might be worse than what Dalton worked behind in Cincinnati.
The Cowboys have been pass-friendly and have played at one of the league’s fastest rates this season, in part because of circumstances: Teams have to throw a lot and play fast when they go down by two touchdowns in the first half every week. With Dalton in the lineup, even given the line issues, I would expect Dallas to slow down and rely more heavily on Ezekiel Elliott. Slowing down also reduces the pressure on the Dallas defense, which ranked 24th in DVOA through four weeks. Dalton still has one of the NFL’s most talented wide receiver groups, but he isn’t going to use his receivers as frequently.
Can the Cowboys still win the division?
Absolutely, though that’s more of a commentary on what has unaffectionately become known as the NFC Least than Dallas’ performance. The Cowboys were the only NFC East team to win Sunday, and they jumped into first place at 2-3, putting them a half-game ahead of the 1-3-1 Eagles. Washington (1-4) has lost four straight and is down its top two quarterbacks, while the Giants are 0-5 and trying to hide behind the Jets on the back pages of the New York tabloids.
The Eagles haven’t lost their quarterback, but they have brutal injury issues in their own right. If you listed their top 11 players on offense on paper, just four are healthy and playing right now: Carson Wentz, Miles Sanders, Jason Kelce and Zach Ertz, the latter of whom caught one pass for 6 yards on six targets on Sunday. Ertz had 70 yards in the Week 3 tie with the Bengals and has 76 yards in his other four games despite playing virtually every snap. He’s on the field, but the tight end doesn’t look like his usual self.
As of Monday morning, the Cowboys were favored to win the division, with the ESPN Football Power Index (FPI) giving Dallas a 47.6% chance of claiming the NFC East. The Caesars sportsbook listed them with +1100 odds of winning the NFC on Sunday night, well ahead of the Eagles at +2200 and good for the sixth-highest odds in the conference.
Nobody in the Dallas organization would have wanted to start 2-3 and lose Prescott for the season, but if those two things were going to happen, these are basically the best possible surrounding circumstances in which the team could find itself.
Should the Cowboys go out and get another quarterback?
The Cowboys will move forward, for now, with Dalton and seventh-round pick Ben DiNucci under center. Former backup Cooper Rush is a free agent after he was cut by the Giants in September, and if Dallas were going to make a move to add replacement-level depth behind Dalton, Rush would seem like the first option for the Cowboys. Clayton Thorson, who was on the Dallas practice squad in 2019, is on the Giants’ practice squad and could be claimed. The Cowboys would likely prefer one of those two to other practice squad options such as Davis Webb, Trevor Siemian or Garrett Gilbert.
The Cowboys signed Dalton for the scenario in which Prescott got injured, so I don’t think they would make a move for a more significant quarterback immediately. If Dalton were to get hurt or struggle, though, remember that Jerry Jones has been aggressive making in-season moves in the past. The Cowboys sent a fifth-round pick to the Bills for Matt Cassel and a seventh-round pick when Tony Romo was injured during the 2015 campaign and then inserted Cassel into the lineup ahead of Brandon Weeden. (Kellen Moore, now the team’s offensive coordinator, finished the season as the Dallas starter.)
There are a few quarterbacks who could be on the market, though some of them aren’t great fits for the Cowboys for one reason or another. Possible trade candidates:
Dwayne Haskins could be available after Washington benched its 2019 first-round pick in favor of Kyle Allen. Haskins wasn’t at the stadium Sunday as he dealt with a stomach virus, and his future with the team seems murky. Haskins was reportedly a choice thrust upon the prior football regime by owner Daniel Snyder, and new coach Ron Rivera apparently had enough clout within the building to bench him. The former Ohio State star has two years and $4.2 million in guaranteed money left on his deal after this year, but while the money wouldn’t be an issue for the Cowboys, Washington probably wouldn’t deal Haskins within the division.
Nick Mullens was benched by the 49ers for C.J. Beathard after a disastrous run against the Eagles last Sunday. The 49ers resisted trade talks for Mullens last offseason, but the 25-year-old is a restricted free agent after this season and an unrestricted free agent the following campaign. With Jimmy Garoppolo struggling and the 49ers likely eyeing a wild-card spot after falling to 2-3, they might not be willing to ship Mullens to a possible rival, especially given that the 49ers play Dallas in Week 15.
Blake Bortles was signed by the Broncos and is on the active roster as one of four Denver quarterbacks. If Drew Lock is able to return from his shoulder injury and play the Patriots next week, the Broncos would probably be ready to move on from Bortles or Jeff Driskel. Dalton is likely better than Bortles or Driskel, but the Cowboys might be able to pick one of them up for free in a week or two.
Tyrod Taylor lost his job to rookie Justin Herbert in Los Angeles after suffering a punctured lung at the hands of team doctors. Taylor is a safe pair of hands and has a $1 million base salary for 2019, but the Chargers might want him as a veteran backup behind Herbert, and we’re now three years removed from Taylor’s most recent effective run as a quarterback in Buffalo. It’s unclear whether he is a viable pro starter outside of offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s scheme.
Brian Hoyer is another quarterback who lost his job after a brief run as the starter, with the Patriots benching him midway through the second half of his Week 4 start against the Chiefs. New England spent all offseason talking up Jarrett Stidham and would likely continue with the second-year quarterback if Cam Newton is unable to play. Hoyer wouldn’t cost much, and he has been a competent backup in years past. He might be the most plausible trade addition for the Cowboys if Newton is able to return next week.
The most fascinating deal would be for Sam Darnold, who was the subject of some preliminary trade chatter this weekend. The Jets are 0-5 and on pace to finish with the worst record in football, which would clear a path for them to take Clemson signal-caller Trevor Lawrence with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft. Darnold, who missed Sunday’s loss because of a shoulder injury, has flashed moments of potential during his time with the Jets, only to be let down by subpar decision-making and one of the league’s worst supporting casts.
The Darnold situation looms large for the Jets because of a change in the league’s fifth-year option language. After this year, they will have to decide whether to pick up Darnold’s option for the 2022 season, which would include a substantial raise. In years past, the fifth-year option was guaranteed only for injury at signing, which allowed teams to move on if a player wasn’t impressive in Year 4. Under the new CBA, the fifth-year option is fully guaranteed at the time a team picks it up, which means the Cowboys would then be on the hook for Darnold in 2022, when they might not use Darnold as their starter.
If the Jets decline the option, though, 2021 turns into a lame-duck year for the third overall pick of 2018. If the Jets can get Lawrence, declining the option would be the obvious move, and moving on from Darnold would give the Jets a better chance of grabbing Lawrence. Schefter reported that general managers around the league didn’t see the Jets picking up a first-round pick for Darnold via trade, but a second-round pick could be a more realistic haul.
The Cowboys would be able to surround Darnold with significant weapons. Trading for Darnold would also put them in a fascinating situation. If Darnold stepped in and played well, the Cowboys could pick up his option and move on from Prescott, trade Darnold or decline Darnold’s option and pick up a compensatory pick when he moves elsewhere. If he struggles, well, the Cowboys would be out a second-round selection minus a possible midround compensatory pick. I’m not sure the Jets are willing to deal Darnold, and I don’t think it makes sense for the Cowboys to go after him unless Dalton is not as good as expected, but there’s a narrow band in which a Darnold trade could make sense for Dallas.
What happens if the Cowboys decide to move on?
There are a few scenarios in which Prescott could become a free agent in the spring. If he’s dealing with complications from the injury, the Cowboys might not be willing to use a second franchise tag. If Dalton excels, the Cowboys might try to sign Dalton to a Teddy Bridgewater-sized deal and use the savings to shore up their defense. If they trade for someone such as Darnold and he breaks out, they could try to go with a cheaper option at the position. None of these scenarios is especially likely, but they’re worth discussing as we wrap up.
If Prescott were to become a free agent, as long as he’d be able to prove that the ankle is healing, I don’t think he would have much trouble getting a significant contact, albeit something short of Deshaun Watson’s extension with the Texans. It isn’t difficult to imagine Prescott signing a three-year, $105 million deal on the open market, giving him the chance to hit free agency again as he turns 30.
As it stands, there could be as many as eight teams in the market for a new quarterback, including the 49ers, Bears, Broncos, Colts, Jaguars, Jets, Patriots and Washington. The Buccaneers, Saints and Steelers would join if their future Hall of Famers retire this offseason. Some of those needs are going to be met by draft picks, and the Saints probably don’t have the cap space to go after Prescott, but there would be a significant market for the former fourth-round pick.
Of those teams, the Colts come to mind as the most obvious suitors. They’ll have the cap space and a clear path to a starting job, given that Philip Rivers is on a one-year deal. They value accuracy and are an analytically inclined organization, suggesting that they might see more in Prescott than other teams. General manager Chris Ballard also places significant importance on character, and Prescott is regarded as a leader and an excellent presence in the locker room.
The most likely outcome, though, is that not much changes at all. I still think Prescott is earmarked for a second franchise tag, and it’s an outcome both sides will likely see as a fair option after a difficult 2020 campaign. Prescott and the Cowboys hoped for 2020 to be a coronation year, with the fifth-year quarterback living up to lofty expectations and leading the team on a deep playoff run.
Instead, Prescott’s big year came to an end in the middle of October in front of a quarter-full AT&T Stadium. The season isn’t over for Dallas, but its dreams of making it to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1995 probably rode off on a cart Sunday evening.
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