Getty Images

Troy Aikman knows a little something about what it takes to build a winning franchise in the NFL, himself having three Super Bowl rings to prove it. He also knows what it's like to be on the losing end of the spectrum though, beginning his NFL career with an 0-11 start and seeing the wheels fall off in his final four seasons with the Dallas Cowboys. That said, when the Hall of Famer looks at two-time Pro Bowl quarterback Dak Prescott, he believes he's looking at the recipe for a quarterback built to lead the Cowboys back to a place they haven't been since Aikman was under center -- something he feels the team can't afford to dawdle with in 2021.

So as Prescott and the Cowboys ready themselves for a third go at contract negotiations -- following the conclusion of the 2020 season -- Aikman remains on the hill he's stood atop for a long time now. The Hall of Famer isn't exactly ready to identify what sum of money is supposedly too much to pay an elite NFL quarterback, but whatever it is, Aikman says what you're getting with Prescott is likely still worth more than you'll end up paying, even if it's $40 million per year or more. For him, it's not simply about what the former fourth-round compensatory pick has done in his record-breaking first few years in the league, but also what he means to the locker room as the heart and soul of the Cowboys.

Prescott is 43-29 as a starter with 18,428 passing yards and 137 combined touchdowns to only 42 interceptions in his career, with a regular season passer rating of 97.3 and a postseason rating of 95.7. If not for a continually questionable and often dismal defense, Prescott's record would be even better.

"I would sleep real good if I had Dak Prescott locked up with a big contract and not worrying about his commitment to the team and commitment to winning," Aikman told 105.3FM the Fan ahead of the Cowboys regular season finale.

From the benching of Carson Wentz to the release of Dwayne Haskins, from the career arc of Josh Rosen to the uncertain future of Sam Darnold and more, there is a list of examples of just how difficult it is to find what the Cowboys already have in Prescott. It's a point not lost on Aikman whatsoever, having also witnessed what the team went through following his retirement and prior to lucking into Tony Romo -- Romo himself being of the belief the Cowboys the two sides will eventually reach an agreement.

"The deal will get done," the four-time Pro Bowler told CBS Sports in September.

And as for Aikman, well, he can't be any more clear on where he stands. 

"There's a time when it's too much, but I'm a big fan of Dak," said the six-time Pro Bowler. "As I've said many times, and we've seen the quarterback that got released in Washington, and we've seen those types of situations over the years. And I think when you start handing out money and you start talking about franchise quarterbacks, yes, the play on the field is where it begins, but there's more that factors into that, more so than any other positions. These guys that are quarterbacks are the face of your franchise. 

"They're the CEOs of your franchise. They have to be the ones who really establish the culture and the accountability within the football team. And if you don't have the right guy in that role, then I think you're really going to struggle as an organization, and Dak checks every box in my opinion. And, so, that's why I've said for the last couple of years that I wouldn't hesitate at all to pay him."

For his part, Prescott has not only progressed ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation from season-ending ankle surgery, but he's also remained emotionally active in motivating the Cowboys, even when it looked as if all hope was lost for their season -- time and again. 

"For me, as I talk about the mental capacity, it's about creating and making small victories," he said of his progress in early December. "Each and every day, when I wake up and I go in for rehab, it's about, for me, seeing my leg or seeing my body do something that it didn't do the day before or creating a feeling that I didn't have the day before -- so I know that I'm continuing to get better. And at the end of the day, I know my team needs me. 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."

This is the added oomph Aikman is alluding to when framing the value of Prescott to the Cowboys and the NFL as a whole.

"I've been most impressed with what he has shown when he came in as a fourth-round pick, where he was, what he was capable of doing at that time, and the work that was involved in making himself the player that he has become," said Aikman. "And he won't stop. I just know it. It doesn't matter how much success he's had. 

"He's just wired that way." 

The team's front office believes that as well, which is why the Joneses continue to toe the line regarding the status of Prescott going forward. On track to be present and accounted for when the team's offseason conditioning begins, assuming it starts on time and there aren't delays stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Cowboys would like to lock Prescott in before being forced to utilize a second franchise tag that will serve as a $37.7 million placeholder against their salary cap -- granting them until July 15 to get a long-term deal done. 

"He's our future," team exec Stephen Jones told 105.3FM the Fan in mid-October. "If anyone can overcome anything, it's Dak. Feel very good that he can come back stronger and better than ever."

As it stands, the floor for the 2021 salary cap is set at an encumbering $175 million, but there's a chance it could be roughly $20 million higher and if that happens, the Cowboys will be in better position to iron things out financially. If it doesn't, it becomes that much more paramount to agree to terms with Prescott before the franchise tag deadline in February, which isn't impossible, considering they were nearly able to do so in 2020 -- if not for a last-minute game of chicken pushing them past the buzzer in the witching hour.

Then, it was about the Cowboys wanting Prescott on a five-year deal (proving they're all-in on him for the next half-decade, at the very least) while he wanted to hold firm to four, CBS Sports initially breaking the story in February 2020, and that remains a key talking point going into the next round of negotiations. Now, however, there's also the added variables of market value driven by new deals like that of Deshaun Watson, along with the absence of Prescott this season putting his value on full display, and likely nudging his bar to the aforementioned $40 million annum mark (if not slightly more). 

Considering the franchise tag option is only $2.3 million less, but comes tethered to a new round of questions, speculation and pressure from inside the locker room, the Cowboys aren't naive to what their best play is -- as does Aikman. 

"I would pay him," Aikman said. "He will get paid. I'm not saying the Cowboys don't already know -- they will pay him. He's going to make a lot of money.

"And I think he's going to be the quarterback of the Cowboys for a long, long time and continue to have a great career."