The hype the Dallas Cowboys enjoyed entering the 2020 season was counteracted in the end by an implosion in Week 17, and their reboot for 2021 now officially begins. A key part of the mulligan will be the return of a list of starters, with none being more important than quarterback Dak Prescott. Currently on schedule to return when the team begins offseason conditioning this spring, Prescott is technically a free agent at the moment, much like his backup, Andy Dalton. The two are currently on two different trajectories this offseason though, with one having deepened his value with the club while the other is anxious to see how he's viewed on the open market.
The moment Dalton tossed his backbreaking interception against the New York Giants to begin the funeral concession on the Cowboys season, the front office began shifting its focus to readying for it's latest round of contract negotiations with Prescott -- something that could officially begin the moment the clock hit all zeroes at MetLife Stadium. The end of Dalton's one-year contract in Dallas was gut-wrenching, and capped an uneven season that saw him play well at times (e.g., Week 16 against the Philadelphia Eagles) and quite poorly at others (e.g., Week 17).
Still, Dalton feels he's put enough good on film to warrant landing a shot as someone's starter, which would put him out of Dallas as they welcome back their two-time Pro Bowler from injury -- hopefully with an agreement on a multi-year deal.
"There's a lot to be decided this offseason," said a dejected Dalton after the loss to Big Blue, via the team's website. "This is my first time being a free agent when the new league year starts, so I'll go through the process of everything and weigh all of my options and see what I got."
A former second-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2011, the TCU alum spent his entire NFL career in Ohio before being benched in 2019, and ultimately released by incoming head coach Zac Taylor. He'd join the Cowboys on a one-year, $3 million contract to backup Prescott -- the plan never having been for Dalton to be some sort of leverage or replacement at QB1 -- and his signing turned out to be a wise move when Prescott went down in Week 5 with a compound fracture in his ankle that required surgery to repair and ended his season.
And with that, Dalton got his opportunity to attempt a brand rebuild in his home state.
It's arguable if he achieved that mission or not, finishing with a 4-4 record and eight interceptions to 14 touchdowns, but the 33-year-old believes so, and it's possible there are those around the league willing to invest in him as a starter to buy development time for an incoming rookie quarterback. A return to the Cowboys isn't yet ruled out, but it seems unlikely, and not because the team wouldn't have him back. It'd be because Dalton wants the driver's seat in someone's car, and not to continue riding shotgun in 2021.
"I feel like I can play, and I feel like I can help a team win," he said. "Hopefully, with the film that I put out this year, people see that and value me in that way. I obviously feel like I still got a lot of good football left, and we'll see how it all plays out."
At minimum, Dalton has proven himself a viable backup, and it's thanks to an opportunity given by the Cowboys.
"I've really enjoyed my time in Dallas," he said, notably speaking in past tense. "Just a good chance to play back at home where I've had a lot of family and friends that are able to come to games. I'm very thankful for the opportunity that I had this year, with the ability to play and just put some tape out there. So I'll see how everything goes, and when that time comes and a decision has to be made, I'm going to do what's best for me and my family."
As far as the season-ending interception to rookie safety Xavier McKinney goes, Dalton wishes he made a different decision on that haunting third down and lived to fight the next play.
"I tried to extend the play and tried to throw it up and give somebody a chance," he said. "In hindsight, I wish I wouldn't have done that. I wish I would've just thrown it away."
As Dalton moves forward, likely away from Dallas, the reins pass back to Prescott in another offseason in which he'll try to strike a compromise with the Cowboys. Both sides are highly motivated to get a deal done, and awarding offensive coordinator Kellen Moore a three-year extension to keep him away from Boise State came equipped -- sources tell CBS Sports -- which goes to the "something special" Moore believes the Cowboys offense is building. It's possible they'll get some help via a potential bump in the 2021 salary cap, and the current worst-case scenario approaching spring would see them apply a second franchise tag to buy themselves until July 15 to hash out a new contract.
Terms on a long-term deal can be agreed to as early as Monday, Jan. 4, but the deal can't officially be signed until the new league year opens in March.
The problem is that tag is worth $37.7 million and doesn't make good on assurances they've made Moore, Prescott or the team as a whole regarding the franchise QB, while a new deal would not only provide security and peace of mind, but it would also potentially only cost a couple million dollars or so more as an annum -- Prescott likely being able to command upwards of $40 million or more based upon the aforementioned deepening of his value and the added fact the now long-term OC wants him onboard to steer the offense into the next several years.
Prescott was on pace to shatter Peyton Manning's single-season NFL passing record before the injury, and all sides are confident that's the form in which he'll return to in 2021.
"At the end of the day, I know my team needs me," Prescott said when discussing the progress in his injury rehab. "I know that they need me now for support but they'll need me again later, so it's about helping them, whichever way that I can and however I can.
And not that the Cowboys were considering moving on from him in 2021, because they weren't, those that would suggest it should not only note, but additionally in how it's not plausible they'd give up the capital needed to move from the 10th-overall pick (where they will select in the coming draft) to move to leapfrog to the front of the line -- especially considering how badly they need to revamp their defense.
The latter point is one Jerry Jones himself made clear recently when, the future Hall of Fame owner working up a lather when thinking about the coming opportunity to throw the kitchen sink at his defense for the coming season.
The Cowboys have a plan for 2021, and the blueprint for a prolific offense is rooted in the retention of Prescott. They wouldn't mind keeping Dalton around if he'll have them, but they won't press the issue on an older QB who wants to explore other pastures when they have a much more pressing matter before them regarding one of the young, elite signal-callers waiting for his contract. The two sides came close to agreeing at the NFL deadline in 2020, which should make this next round of talks a bit easier, but not until one or the other budges on the length of the deal -- the talking point that prevented it from getting done in the sequel -- the team wanting five years while Prescott stood firm at four.
Prescott will be in uniform for the Cowboys in 2021. It's the years to follow that still need to be hashed out, and that begins (again) effective immediately. As for Dalton, however, his time in Dallas likely ended the moment McKinney intercepted that pass, as he searches for a role somewhere else as a starter.