Another day, another deal-less Dak Prescott.
The Cowboys' star quarterback is ever more likely to play under the franchise tag for the 2020 season, if it comes at all. Despite the growing sense of inevitability, Prescott remains one of the most well-debated players in the NFL in terms of his actual skill level and value, and accordingly, the discussion around his contract extension still holds national attention. It is certainly why Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones made such headlines when he dropped another nugget on the roadblocks between Dallas and Prescott on their road to an extension.
It is important, as always, to place the sound bite into context. Jones mentioned the analytics on highly-paid quarterbacks when talking to ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio and said it’s a limiting factor in the team’s internal discussion on how much to pay Prescott.
Here's the full quote, courtesy of SB Nation’s Blogging The Boys:
"Mike Florio: As it relates to his contract, and I remember you went through this with Dez Bryant. July 15 is the ultimate drop-dead deadline for a multi-year deal. It’s a deadline-driven business. Is it safe to say that that really is the timetable we all need to be watching? Mid-July? It gets done or it doesn’t when that clock strikes 12 or 4 p.m. EST or whatever the case may be for closing the window on a long-term deal for [Prescott].
"Stephen Jones: I think so. I mean at the end of the day I know everybody’s out there, [saying], ‘How have you not paid Dak?’ At the same time, Dak has to, we’ve tried to pay him, and he has to accept what we want to pay him. But the deal’s got to be right for Dak. It’s got to be right for us. As you know, Mike, the salary cap makes this a zero-sum game for owners. This is not something where [owner] Jerry [Jones] and myself are trying to save money so the Cowboys can make more money for the Jones family. We’re just trying to do our very best working with [newly appointed coach] Mike [McCarthy], working with [vice president of player personnel] Will McClay, to really divide up the pie in the best way possible to win a Super Bowl. There are all sorts of analytics out there that show if your quarterback takes up too big a percentage of your salary cap, that it decreases your chances to win. We’re just trying to figure out the right fit. No one wants to sign Dak to a longer-term deal more than Jerry and myself, we’re on the record time and time again of what we think of him as a leader. He has the it factor. He’s a fierce competitor. He wants to win as well. It’s just got to be right for him and right for us. We’ll continue to work to a conclusion on that."
Jones brought up analytics unprompted; it doesn't even answer any part of Florio's question. Florio wanted to confirm the Cowboys are still working with Prescott up to the July 15 deadline, and Jones immediately pivots to a PR blurb on how the Cowboys aren't lowballing Prescott to make more money for the organization and thereby for the Jones family. Jones emphasized they're in a tough contract spot with Prescott because of their efforts to build a Super Bowl-winning team and cited "all sorts of analytics" as evidence that this fight is worthy; that if they are to win a Super Bowl with a Prescott-led team, it is inevitable that Prescott will have to take less money.
Prescott’s contract dispute is reportedly not centered on average annual value. According to The Dallas Morning News, the contract on the table is one of the biggest quarterback contracts ever. It’s high in guarantees and yearly value; Prescott only left it on the table because he wants a four-year deal, at the longest, while Dallas' offer was at least five. ESPN's Adam Schefter echoed much of the same sentiment before the draft, saying: "I think that, to me, sounds like it's the biggest obstacle; not the money, not the signing bonus, not the guarantees. It's the years."
The emphasis on contract duration is likely a move from Prescott's camp to ensure he hits the market at least once, if not two more times, while he can still claim to "be in his prime" and keep a better pace with a skyrocketing quarterback market. If every year there's a new highest-paid quarterback, wouldn't a passer want to sign a new contract as many times as possible? But when Jones discusses the analytics behind highly-paid quarterbacks and Super Bowl wins, he's alluding to a money issue, not a duration issue. So, why bring that up at all?
The less money a team is paying its quarterback, the more money it has to pay other positions; that can help teams attract big-ticket free agents and secure talent for their roster, improving as a whole. This is true of any position — underpaying a star rookie wide receiver, for example, gives teams more money to spend elsewhere — but nowhere is the effect greater than it is at quarterback. It is this fundamental truth that springboards us into claims such as "paying your very good quarterback enough money to keep him on your team is actually bad."
This is the fundamental data behind the analytics Jones alludes to. There are other similarities with each quarterback on this list as well. They were all above 30 in the year referenced, save for Mark Sanchez, who was still on his rookie deal in 2011, which goes to prove just how much the quarterback contract landscape has changed across the timeline of this list, and Jimmy Garoppolo, who was hurt in 2018. The analytics say that expensive quarterbacks over 30 don't make the playoffs. Prescott will turn 27 in the summer, so the Cowboys should be able to pay him big money and feel confident they'll have a shot for the Super Bowl across the next three years.
This is all poppycock, clearly. It isn't enough to look at Super Bowl winners alone and expect to glean the model for consistent NFL success. It isn't enough to look at the individual fattest quarterback contract and expect to divine the ideal cap figure and contract duration for another young, star passer. The NFL is not only extremely nuanced, but it's extremely nuanced only to a point; and there's an unimaginable stretch of dumb, stupid, unmeasurable luck between that point and the Vince Lombardi trophy. Every year, several teams will find enough competitive edges to get to the point. The Ravens will have a league MVP running quarterback, the Patriots will have elite man coverage across the board, the Saints will have the world's most talented roster, the 49ers will run play-action until someone stops them and the Chiefs will have Patrick Mahomes. But only one will end up winning the Super Bowl, and we will all pontificate on that one particular edge that gleams right in front of our noses, cheerfully ignoring the reality that one awkward bounce of one awkward football would have put a different team with a whole different edge on the throne.
The most important thing is that Jones and the entire Cowboys organization knows it is too. It's nice to talk about the valiant team-orientation of Tom Brady, who sacrifices market-value contracts for the sake of the team; and maybe Brady's modest cap hits over the years was, truly, the greatest edge of the Patriots’ dynasty. It remains far more likely, however, that the greatest edge in New England was the marriage between the extremely talented coach and extremely talented quarterback. That's the plain reality of the Cowboys' current situation with Prescott: It may be competitively beneficial for Prescott to take a cheaper contract than the one he's apparently demanding. But it is far more competitively beneficial for Prescott to stay on the team, no matter the cost.
Consider, as a final example, the Chiefs' current contract with Mahomes: In 2020, Mahomes, who is still on his rookie deal, is worth $5.3 million. Kansas City currently has, according to Over The Cap's most recent projections, $5 million in 2020 cap space. If the Chiefs decided to just give that to Mahomes right now — they just slapped it right on to his 2020 cap figure — would they be a worse team?
Technically, yes. They spent the opportunity cost of a one-year, $5 million deal (a middling veteran linebacker or corner) and didn't gain anything in return. But do you feel that they're any less likely to repeat as Super Bowl champions with Mahomes, as you did when he was a $5.3 million quarterback and the Chiefs had that precious $5 million in space to make a roster move?
Probably not. That's because good teams are good not because they have cap space, but because they have good players. Cap space helps teams get good players, but once they have them, they need to retain them.
Prescott is a good player, who the Cowboys certainly intend to retain. Anything else you hear in the doldrums of May is PR drivel and not worth a second thought.