3 & Out

3 & Out: Where Cowboys Missed Dak Most In 2020

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FRISCO, Texas – Back with three quick topics as Dak-Deal-Or-Franchise-Tag Watch continues:

  • The Dak Factor
  • Critical Month Ahead
  • QB Trend?

I Know…
exactly where the Cowboys missed Dak the most last year.

The Cowboys are working to re-sign Prescott because he brings a lot of tangible and intangible things to a football team. Leadership, for one. As guard Zack Martin said after Prescott's gruesome ankle injury Oct. 11 against the Giants, "He's the heart and soul of the team."

Let's get down to brass tacks, though: if we're simply talking about executing ball plays, the offense wasn't the same on third down without Dak in the lineup.

The Cowboys finished the season with a 40.5% third down conversion rate, ranked 19th. Without Prescott, 36%, which would have ranked 30th in the league over a full season. With Prescott in the first four-and-a-half games: 26-of-46 (56.6%), which would have ranked first.

Sure, that's a small sample size. But the Cowboys were a top-10 third down offense the first four years of the Dak era: 10th in 2016, fifth in 2017, 10th in 2018 and tied for second with Baltimore in 2019, behind only the Super Bowl champion Chiefs that year.

Andy Dalton did a fine job keeping Dallas in contention all the way through Week 17, and he did have 30 first-down passes in nine starts, which would've put him in the top half of the league over a full season. Injuries on the offensive line were no doubt a challenge, particularly in clear passing situations.

But Prescott has proved to be one of the best quarterbacks in the league at sustaining drives. His mobility is a major asset, and as reports say, he continues to be on course with his ankle rehab at The Star in Frisco.

I Think…
this might be the most unique, and most critical, offseason for the Cowboys in at least 20 years.

When you consider the salary cap challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with the current questions about Prescott's contract status, you can argue there hasn't been an offseason in Dallas quite like this since perhaps 2001, when the Cowboys faced an extremely tight cap and simultaneously had to make a decision on Troy Aikman's future.

As John Clayton reported at ESPN back then, the Cowboys ultimately released Aikman, star right tackle Erik Williams and veteran defensive tackle Chad Hennings, but the resulting $23 million in dead money was suffocating against a mere $67.4 million cap level. The Cowboys started over at quarterback, had some misses in the draft, and went 5-11 the next two years.

This is not a direct comparison, of course. Aikman was at the end of his career. Prescott is fully expected to be back next season, either on a long-term deal or the franchise tag. But similarly, the dominant offseason storyline is what Dallas will do with a star quarterback's contract. And similarly, the Cowboys will be hard-pressed to make a splash in free agency because of the $180 million cap floor. They've got to create space, most likely through contract restructures, make shrewd signings and hit a home run in the draft, as always.

And yet, despite last year's 6-10 record, the club doesn't feel they're that far off from contention. It's another reason why they're motivated to finish the Dak deal, which also would presumably give them a little cap wiggle room.

I Have No Idea…
why the recent movement at quarterback elsewhere around the league is viewed as anything more than an aberration.

Yes, several highly-paid QBs have changed teams already: Matthew Stafford to the Rams, Jared Goff to the Lions, Carson Wentz to the Colts. We've never seen a quarterback carousel like this given the amount of per-year salaries involved – and the amount of dead money those teams ate just to make changes.

Sorry, I just don't think this is the start of some league-wide trend. You have to look at each of those decisions individually and understand why they were made. Detroit is starting a full-blown rebuild with a new head coach and accommodated Stafford's request to play for a contender. Wentz struggled mightily in Philadelphia last season and clearly needed a change of scenery. Goff also struggled in LA, to a lesser extent, and reportedly wasn't guaranteed a starting job there in 2021.

But we're still talking about the most important position in football. If teams have a really good quarterback, their chances of contending exponentially increase. Teams want to pay them and hang on to them. That's why the Cowboys want Prescott signed, even though there have been obvious sticking points preventing this thing from getting finalized the past couple years.

And so the Dak Watch continues.

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