Franchise tag only option for the Dallas Cowboys and Dak Prescott

Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) /

Dallas Cowboys must use the franchise tag to extend Dak Prescott. The consequences of getting this contract wrong will have long lasting impacts.

In sports history, you remember players who win. This is why Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach hold a special place in Dallas Cowboys history despite Danny White and Tony Romo having better stats. Aikman and Staubach have the most important numbers in that they have three and two Super Bowl wins as starting quarterbacks.

Dak Prescott is about to decide to have a Tony Romo career or the potential for a Troy Aikman career (remember potential). It certainly seems like he is intent in following his mentor by choosing to maximize the value of his next contract. That is his right.

No one is suggesting Dak should take less money so that the Cowboys would make more profit. The dialogue about Prescott’s next contract is really about how competitive will Dallas be when one player is making more than 15 percent of the salary cap.

In the history of the salary cap era, only one team has won the Super Bowl with a player making more than 12.5 percent of the salary cap. That was the San Francisco 49ers in 1994 when quarterback Steve Young made 13.1 percent of the cap. Only four other players have won the Super Bowl with a cap hit greater than 11 percent.

Since 2011 when the current CBA was signed, top ten quarterback salary cap percentages have been steadily climbing. In 2011, the top ten salary cap hits averaged 11.5 percent. In 2019, the average climbed to 13.6 percent.

Why are NFL teams valuing quarterbacks more in 2019 than they are in 2011? The answer is two-fold: fear and ego.

NFL teams fear the unknown. When you have a good but maybe not elite quarterback who needs a new contract, do you roll the dice and look for a new quarterback or do you pay your good but not elite quarterback?

Fan bases would be unforgiving if you let a quarterback who has had four solid years leave without a replacement plan. So teams open their check book and a few players benefit greatly.

Ego enters the equation as athletes benchmark themselves against their peers and feel compelled to beat them on contract value just as they try to on the field. This is why the highest average quarterback salary has been bested six times in the last three years when Derek Carr was the first quarterback to sign for $25 million per year. Now the number is at $35 million and is threatening to jump to $40 million this offseason.

In 2018 the Washington Redskins let a good but not great quarterback enter free agency when Kirk Cousins signed with Minnesota after being franchised tagged the previous two years. Washington quickly traded for Alex Smith from the Kansas City Chiefs to replace Cousins and signed him to a four-year contract that averaged 13.3 percent of the salary cap.

Interesting that the Chiefs traded Smith – hold that thought for now. For his career, Smith, the number one overall pick in the 2005 draft, has been the poster boy for good but not great quarterback.

In 2011, Smith led the San Francisco 49ers to a 13-3 record. The following year he had a 6-2-1 record before being replaced by Colin Kaepernick midseason who promptly took the 49ers to the Super Bowl.

Smith was then traded to the Kansas City Chiefs that offseason. In five seasons with Kansas City, he made three Pro Bowls and took the team to the playoffs four times. The Chiefs rewarded him by drafting Mahomes in the first round and trading Smith to the Redskins after he mentored Mahomes during his rookie year.

Two years later the Chiefs are Super Bowl Champions and Alex Smith suffered a gruesome injury in the 2018 season and missed all of 2019 season on the PUP list. There is a possibility that he will never play again. Yet, the Redskins had a $20.4 million cap hit in 2019 for Smith and still face $32.2 million in dead money which will grow another $16 million if he is on the roster in 2020.

Championship teams recognize when their quarterback is good but not good enough to take them past the Divisional Round of the playoffs. Unfortunately, this is a blind spot for the Cowboys.

The team squandered the only year of Prescott’s rookie deal without Tony Romo’s dead money weighing the team down. Now Dallas needs to decide if Prescott at a salary cap hit north of 15 percent can take this team to the Super Bowl.

The 2019 Cowboys went 8-8 when their quarterback made $2 million dollars. If his next deal averages $35 million per year, the Cowboys will have to find a way to replace $21 million dollars in salary paid to other really good players (the 2020 salary cap is projected to be near $200 million dollars which is about $12 million more than the 2019 salary cap).

For example, Robert Quinn‘s $8 million 2019 cap hit will be replaced by Jalen Jelks $500,000 cap hit and Byron Jones $6 million cap hit will be replaced by Donovan Olumba‘s $500,000 cap hit. Randall Cobb‘s $5 million cap hit will be replaced by Jon’Vea Johnson’s $500,000 cap hit with Cameron Fleming‘s $4 million 2020 salary replaced by Mitch Hyatt‘s $500,000 salary.

So when you consider the 2019 Cowboys went 8-8 with Prescott, Quinn, Jones, Cobb and Fleming, how well do you think the 2020 Cowboys will do with Prescott, Jelks, Olumba, Johnson and Hyatt? The Cowboys, seemingly intent on re-signing Prescott, are between a rock and a hard place.

The team has publicly stated that they want Prescott to take a team-friendly deal and Prescott is not interested. So Dallas needs to decide if Prescott is worth what he desires or is Prescott the second coming of Alex Smith?

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This is why Dallas will use the franchise tag on Prescott. They will get to see, assuming Prescott signs the tender, if their ‘franchise’ quarterback can take the Cowboys to the playoffs when the talent around him is less. If he can, Dak will get the long-term deal he craves. If he can’t, Dallas will need to decide if they want a Kirk Cousins second kick at the can or if they should move on to the next young quarterback.