FRISCO, Texas – The calendar has flipped to July, and I'm wondering if the Cowboys realize they can't win.
Yes, it's time to talk about Dak Prescott again – and more urgently than ever. After an endless amount of discussion, the deadline is finally in sight. By 3 p.m., Central Time, on July 15, the Cowboys must either sign their quarterback to a long-term contract or break off the conversation until after the 2020 season.
Prescott removed an element of the drama last week when he signed his franchise tender, committing to a one-year, full guaranteed contract valued at $31.4 million. Regardless of whether he gets the deal he seeks, he's going to be the Cowboys' quarterback when they get back to playing football.
And therein lies my point. If Dak Prescott is going to play in 2020, is his asking price going to get lower?
Think about this for a second. We have been hotly debating Prescott's worth for a long time. We've heard every rumor in the book, starting with the idea that he wanted to become the NFL's first $40 million per year player. We've also heard the rumor that he turned down a deal that would have paid him about $33 million per season.
The current talking point is that the two sides can't agree on the number of years on the deal – Prescott seeking a four-year contract, while the Cowboys prefer a five-year deal.
All of that is coming on the heels of a season that saw Prescott enjoy his best season as a quarterback while the Cowboys simultaneously suffered through bitter disappointments as a team.
He was second in the league in passing yards with 4,902, and he finished fourth in touchdown passes with 30. He finished third in Expected Points Added, trailing only Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes. He ranked fourth in total QBR, behind Jackson, Mahomes and Drew Brees. His current career mark for Adjusted Net Yards per Pass Attempt, sitting at 6.92, is tied with Philip Rivers for seventh-best in NFL history. Per NFL.com's findings using NextGen Stats, he was the most accurate deep ball passer in the NFL last year.
And again, all of this came during a disappointing 8-8 season. If we've learned anything during the careers of Tony Romo and now Dak Prescott, it's that the individual ability of your quarterback doesn't always correlate to your record.
But for those of you that aren't sold on Dak Prescott, please ask yourself this question: what is he going to do in 2020 that will depreciate his value?
Even after the retirement of Travis Frederick, Prescott will likely be working with five offensive linemen who have started in front of him before. He still has an All-Pro running back behind him in Ezekiel Elliott. He still has a pair of 1,100-yard receivers. His new starting tight end, Blake Jarwin, averaged 11.8 yards per reception last season, which is a mark Jason Witten hasn't hit since 2011.
Oh, and his front office drafted one of this year's best rookie receivers, CeeDee Lamb, to be the third option in this offense.
It's impossible to say whether the Cowboys will make the playoffs in 2020. But it's hard to imagine Prescott won't put up similar – if not better – numbers. And we have already seen countless times that quarterbacks don't need playoff success to earn themselves big pay days. Consider Derek Carr, Jimmy Garoppolo, Kirk Cousins and even Romo as food for thought.
Let's extend this hypothetical even further and suggest that Prescott plays another solid season in 2020, but the Cowboys don't make the playoffs. Even if the Cowboys don't offer him a long-term deal, they'd have to franchise tag him again to prevent him from hitting free agency.
Adjusting the price for a second-consecutive tag would put Prescott's 2021 salary somewhere around $37.7 million. Putting it more bluntly, that's likely the starting point for any contract negotiation that starts next year. That's especially true when you consider the eventual contract extensions that Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes are likely to get. It's fairly likely that the $40 million threshold gets crossed in the next 12 months, and that could have a huge bearing on Prescott's future demands.
Of course, this entire conversation is ignoring a particularly large elephant in the room – the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19 and the ways it will affect the league.
It's impossible to say right now what an NFL season would look like in these circumstances. I doubt most of the league's decision makers even know.
Consequently, it's hard to say how the salary cap might be affected from a major loss of revenue – either from a shortened season or a season full of games that fans cannot attend.
I recognize the problems that poses for a major contract discussion, but I also recognize that the NFL's big picture outlook should be fine. A new Collective Bargaining Agreement was enacted in March, promising a decade of labor peace. New TV deals will follow suit. And if anyone was for some reason worried about the NFL's long-term popularity, I doubt that will be a problem after fans have gotten this taste of just how dull things can be with no sports to watch.
Bottom line: if the salary cap doesn't grow next year, or even if it dips, the league will rebound. The Cowboys should be able to accommodate a Dak Prescott contract in the long term, regardless of what lies ahead with COVID-19.
Which leads us back to the current stalemate. The old cliché says that the deal has to work well for both sides. But I'm not convinced the Cowboys have as much leverage as they seem to think.
Unless the organization is committed to the possibility of moving on from Prescott, the price is only going to go up – and depending on the circumstances, it might even skyrocket.
It might be a tough pillow to swallow. Nobody wants to be the loser of a negotiation. But for the Cowboys, the best way to win in the long run is probably to lock up their quarterback right now, before the price gets any higher.