FRISCO, Texas — Sunday’s victory against the New York Giants was quarterback Dak Prescott’s finest moment.
All three of the Dallas Cowboys’ Pro Bowl offensive linemen — Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin — were spectators for health reasons. Ezekiel Elliott, the NFL’s leading rusher, wasn’t in uniform, either.
In a game viewed as meaningless by many, Prescott played every snap, throwing for 387 yards and a career-high four touchdown passes in the 36-35 victory.
It was the 32nd win in three years for Prescott. Only Tom Brady has more victories since Prescott took over as the Cowboys’ starting quarterback in 2016.
It was the 14th game-winning drive in three seasons for Prescott, the most in a quarterback’s first three seasons in NFL history.
With 22 touchdown passes and six rushing touchdowns in 2018, Prescott became the first player in history with at least 20 touchdown passes and five rushing touchdowns in each of his first three seasons.
It was the perfect way for the quarterback to go into Saturday’s wild-card game against the Seattle Seahawks (8:15 p.m. ET, Fox), potentially setting the stage for the franchise’s first run to a Super Bowl since 1995.
It also could help set the stage for a long-term contract extension this offseason, which is when the window opens for negotiations with Prescott.
Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones has said Prescott is the Cowboys’ quarterback of the future. Jones said Prescott will get a contract extension. What he hasn’t said is when.
The Cowboys could have more pressing matters than extending Prescott this offseason, with DeMarcus Lawrence set to be an unrestricted free agent and Amari Cooper and Byron Jones on their fifth-year options in 2019.
Waiting on a deal for Prescott would allow the Cowboys more time for growth to help their evaluation. He is signed through 2019, and his salary will be roughly $2 million as a result of the proven-performance escalator for non-first round picks.
It is more than what he was supposed to make — $720,000 — but a pittance compared to what he could make.
Determining where Prescott will reside in a pricey quarterback neighborhood will require a lot of work. To get there, you have to determine what type of quarterback he is after 48 regular-season starts and what he can be in the future.
“With this being his third year in the league, I think you’re seeing what he is,” one league personnel chief said. “He’s someone that you can’t put the whole team on his back. His play has been a lot better since they traded for Amari. He’s got to have weapons around him. He’s going to be kind of a game manager, get out of trouble, make plays with his legs. That has to be a part of the offense. He does not put fear into defenses when he sits back there if you’re thinking he can dice them up with his arm. But he can make the throws. He’s got a good arm, but his ball placement is inconsistent.
Said one AFC offensive coordinator who studied Prescott in 2016, “You kind of see why he was a fourth-round pick. It’s just consistency, lack of accuracy. He’s got everything you want in a guy at quarterback. Guys want to play for him. But things have to be right around him.”
Prescott threw for a career-high 3,885 yards in 2018, which ranked 15th in the NFL. He had 22 touchdown passes, which ranked 16th in the NFL, but his six rushing touchdowns were second-most among quarterbacks. For the second time in three seasons, he had fewer than 10 interceptions (eight).
Are Prescott’s numbers a product of the Cowboys’ preferred style of play, controlling the tempo with Elliott, or have the coaches chosen this style because it’s the best for Prescott to succeed?
“If I were Dallas, I would trade him if he didn’t want to sign an extension in that $15-18 million range, and I’d sign one of the many QBs on the market this offseason.”
Anonymous NFL executive
“We’re going to run the ball and possess the ball, and he’s going to make plays when he has to, but we’re not asking him to throw for 400- and 500-yard, 300-yard games,” Cowboys receiver Cole Beasley said. “Anytime we ask him to go win the game on a two-minute drive, he comes through. That’s what you want. And people don’t really understand how hard it is to do that, when you’re not really doing it all game and you’ve got to just turn it on and go do it.”
There are 16 quarterbacks with a deal averaging at least $20 million, with Brady coming in at $20.5 million. Rodgers has the highest average per year, at $33.5 million.
Miami’s Ryan Tannehill’s deal is worth on average $19.25 million. He has never won more than eight games in six seasons as the Dolphins’ starter. The San Francisco 49ers paid Jimmy Garoppolo a deal worth $27.5 million on average and included $48.7 million guaranteed after seven career starts, five in San Francisco. The Minnesota Vikings fully guaranteed Kirk Cousins’ three-year deal worth $84 million as a free agent last offseason.
Six of the seven highest-paid quarterbacks, in terms of average per season, did not make the playoffs in 2018.
Should the Cowboys pay for other teams’ mistakes at quarterback?
Will they go all-in on Prescott, especially if he delivers playoff victories? Or will they press their luck and remain fiscally sound?
The next few weeks could tell the tale.
“In every negotiation, there’s at least one deal the team wants to throw out and one deal the agent wants to throw out,” one long-time agent said. “So you better have more than one deal ready to get your client paid.”
In the offseason, Prescott switched agents, signing with Todd France of Creative Artists Agency. That firm represents Brees, Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and other highly paid quarterbacks.
“By going with CAA, you’d have to assume he’ll look for a deal at the top of the market, and remember, none of his marketing dollars are going to them,” another agent said. “So it could get to the franchise tag [in 2020] before any deal is done.”
The best comparison for what a Prescott contract could be is the quarterback he faces Saturday: Russell Wilson.
Wilson was a third-round pick in 2012 and surprisingly won the Seahawks’ starting spot as a rookie. In 2013, Seattle won a Super Bowl. In 2014, the Seahawks returned to the Super Bowl but lost to the New England Patriots. In a run-centric offense, Wilson threw for 9,950 yards with 72 touchdown passes and 26 interceptions in his first three seasons.
In 2015, he signed a four-year extension worth $87.6 million. That included a $31 million signing bonus and $60 million in guaranteed money.
In his first three seasons, Prescott has thrown for 10,876 yards in a run-centric offense with 67 touchdown passes and 25 interceptions but has not had Wilson’s postseason success.
One NFL executive said, “Dak is great for Dallas while he’s cheap, but at $25 million, he might be a drain on their resources because of how limited he is.”
The executive went on to say that the Cowboys should consider trading Prescott if the price is too high.
“If I were Dallas, I would trade him if he didn’t want to sign an extension in that $15 (million to) $18 million range, and I’d sign one of the many QBs on the market this offseason,” he said. “If they don’t like the trade market for Dak, maybe that tells them what the free-agent market will be like.”
Like his predecessor, Tony Romo, Prescott is a polarizing figure as the Cowboys’ quarterback. One segment of the fan base sees Prescott as a young quarterback just three years into his career, continuing to grow, while another sees him as a game manager aided by the league’s leading rusher and a top defense.
Neither side appears willing to see the other’s point of view.
Rodgers did not start a game in his first three seasons. Brady wasn’t asked early in his career to carry the New England Patriots the way he does now. Brees was 10-17 as a starter when the San Diego Chargers made the trade for Rivers at the start of the 2004 draft. This season with the New Orleans Saints, Brees became the NFL’s all-time leading passer.
“Brees, Brady, Manning, Aikman, Romo, that doesn’t happen overnight,” Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said. “Those guys have had a lot of ballgames and seen a lot of defenses and been seasoned like no other. Dak, I keep reminding everybody, is in his third year. No one wants to be better at what he does than him. And he’s got an insatiable appetite to be great. He’s got rare leadership skills and rare ‘it’ factor. The best thing I like about him is he’s a winner.”
For every argument in Prescott’s favor, there is a counterargument.
He was sacked 56 times this season, the most allowed by the Cowboys since 1986, and while the line contributed greatly to the number, so did Prescott, who would not or did not throw the ball away or scramble to get out of danger. He fumbled 12 times, losing six.
He completed 67.7 percent of his passes, just off his career-best 67.8 percent in 2016, but he missed many opportunities for big plays.
Playing into Prescott’s favor could be the Cowboys’ inability to find a quarterback from the time Aikman retired after 2000 to the ascension of Romo, a former undrafted free agent, in 2006 through the likes of Quincy Carter, Chad Hutchinson, Vinny Testaverde, Drew Henson and Drew Bledsoe.
As lucky as the Cowboys got with Romo, they were equally lucky to land Prescott in the fourth round in 2016.
“The guy’s a winner,” Martin said, “and at the end of the day, that’s what we need from our quarterback.”
ESPN senior writer Mike Sando contributed to this report.