Can the Dallas Cowboys beat the odds to reach the NFC Championship?

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

Can highly-paid Dallas Cowboys lead the team to their first NFC Championship in 25 years?

In January 1983, the Dallas Cowboys were the first NFL team to make a tenth appearance in a Conference Championship Game in only the thirteenth year of the game. Since then, only six other teams have made at least ten appearances.

In January 1996, the Cowboys beat the Packers in their fourteenth NFC Championship Game appearance going on to win their fifth Super Bowl. Dallas was the first team to have 14 Conference Championship Game appearances and only the San Francisco 49ers, New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers have now made more appearances.

Cowboys Nation is very aware that the January 1996 playoff run was the last time the Cowboys played for anything of importance. Since then, the team has only won three playoff games.

For a team that made a Championship Game appearance fourteen times in the first twenty-six years of the NFC Championship Game, the twenty-four year drought has reached an infamous level. Before the 1995 season, the longest stretch without an appearance was nine years from the 1983 season until the 1992 season.

The Cowboys hope to break the drought this year. Assuming quarterback Dak Prescott signs his franchise tag tender, the Cowboys should have enough talent to contend. There are questions on defense that need to be answered but no team has a perfect roster in the salary cap era.

If the Dallas Cowboys are to be successful, they will become the most top heavy team to reach the Conference Championship since the 2011 CBA was signed. My sample size is limited to the last nine seasons since sites like and don’t have data from before the 2011 season.

Dallas has a top heavy roster because they have done a good job drafting and trading for players that have developed into players worthy of large second contracts. According to Spotrac, the top ten cap hits for the 2020 Cowboys, using the $198,200,000 cap as reference are:

  • Dak Prescott: $31,409,000 – 15.85 percent
  • DeMarcus Lawrence: $21,900,000 – 11.05 percent
  • Zack Martin: $15,000,000 – 7.57 percent
  • Tyron Smith: $13,545,000 – 6.83 percent
  • Amari Cooper: $12,000,000 – 6.05 percent
  • Travis Frederick: $11,346,000 – 5.72 percent (dead cap)
  • Ezekiel Elliott: $10,900,000 – 5.50 percent
  • Tyrone Crawford: $9,100,000 – 4.59 percent
  • Jaylon Smith: $7,771,000 – 3.92 percent
  • La’el Collins: $4,950,000 – 2.50 percent

It’s possible that Prescott will sign a long term deal which will lower his cap hit. It’s also possible that Tyrone Crawford restructures his deal or gets cut or the Cowboys play cap games and move some of Travis Frederick’s dead cap to the 2021 season. But for the sake of this analysis, I am using the data published by Spotrac on May 25, 2020.

The Dallas Cowboys highest paid players will need to deliver

I tweeted a few days ago that the Cowboys will overcome some insurmountable odds if they reach the NFC Championship Game. I compared the salary cap hits for the 36 teams to play in the last nine Championship games and Dallas, any way you look at it, will have the highest portion of the salary cap dedicated to their top players compared to every one of the other 36 teams to play in the Conference Championship.

Dak Prescott’s franchise tender percentage is higher than Aaron Rodger’s 2019 cap hit. Prescott and Lawrence combined salary cap percentage are higher than the Atlanta Falcons 2016 duo of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones.

In fact, every time you add a player up to the top ten cap hits, the Cowboys exceed every other team. Dallas better hope that their highest paid players stay healthy and deliver.

The tweet includes charts for the top three, five, seven and nine cap hits. If you look at the top three chart and find the 80 percent marker on the left hand side of the chart and move across the line until the blue line intersects, you will see that 80 percent of the Conference Championship participants had allocated cap hits of less than 29 percent to their top three players.

In contrast, the Cowboys have 34.5 percent for Prescott, Lawrence and Martin. That is almost a twenty percent premium Dallas is paying. The twenty percent figure holds true through the top nine highest paid Cowboys players.

As a result, the Cowboys top nine highest paid players will need to deliver a 20 percent increase in performance in order for Dallas to have a competitive advantage over 80 percent of the other teams in the NFC.

It is a good problem to have to pay players large second contracts. But when you have too many large contracts, it can be counter-productive for team success.

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The Dallas Cowboys hope to make their first Conference Championship appearance in 25 years. They will beat the odds and be the first team with such a top heavy roster if they are successful.