Thursday, January 21

Cowboys failure in NFC East, Kellen Moore extension assure Dak Prescott will return

The Cowboys did everything they could to recover from losing quarterback Dak Prescott to a season-ending ankle injury in their Week 5 home win over the Giants. They were alive in the NFC East race until Sunday’s loss to the Giants in Week 17.

But the bottom line is that, at 6-10, the Cowboys failed to win the division or make the playoffs for the second straight season and in their first year with coach Mike McCarthy. Don’t be fooled by the fact that his record was only two games worse than his 8-8 mark in 2019, when Prescott was completely healthy. In addition to Andy Dalton sometimes playing as his backup, Dallas’ deficiencies on offense without Prescott cost him a chance to take on a weak and low-scoring division.

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The Cowboys went 2-3 with Prescott, 4-5 with Dalton, 0-1 with Ben DiNucci and 0-1 with Garrett Gilbert. They averaged 32.6 points per game in Prescott’s starts. That total plummeted to 20.2 points per game without him.

Dallas’ defense was a big problem for most of the season. The Cowboys also suffered injuries on the offensive line and in the backfield, plus Dalton needed to miss games early in his replacement period after landing on the COVID-19 roster.

Prescott had started every game after being selected in the fourth round in 2016 until his unfortunate break not far from his franchise season. During his absence, there is no question that the Cowboys’ hearts grew warmer for his high level of play at the top position.

There’s also no question now that the Cowboys need to re-sign Prescott with a lucrative long-term extension. Dalton was one of the best backups in the league, but he couldn’t cut it into Kellen Moore’s system until late, which mostly wasted Dallas’ skill position talent. Dalton couldn’t tie it all together with wide receivers Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb often enough.

The Cowboys retained Moore before the season, putting him under offensive-minded McCarthy to keep him together with Prescott. It’s also why they gave their 32-year-old offensive coordinator a multi-year extension this week to prevent him from pursuing the head coaching job at his alma mater, Boise State.

Now that they are eliminated from the playoffs and avoided their inevitable fate against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers next weekend, the Cowboys can devote all their attention to finding the best deal for Prescott, who is also the best for them.

Forget trying to replace Prescott with a first-round rookie with a manageable contract or looking for another later-round gem. After Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields finish 1-2 off the board, there is the same promise and uncertainty with the rest of the 2021 QB draft class. Forget also thinking that there is some kind of viable free-agent bridge option that will allow Dallas to place the QB in the 2022 draft and use the money saved at Prescott to boost other positions.

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The Cowboys know what they have when Prescott is working with Moore: a tough, athletic leader and special passer, locked in a great passing attack. Prescott has been better at this than his fellow first-round drafters Jared Goff and Carson Wentz. The Rams and Eagles might regret spending too much on extensions for them, but that shouldn’t make the Cowboys hesitate with Prescott.

Jerry Jones invested heavily in Cooper and broker Ezekiel Elliott. He likes to take care of his superstars, and he’s smart enough to realize, after seeing how limited the production of those players was without Prescott, that paying them means little without staying with Prescott. Lamb in the first round was a luxury pick; the Cowboys knew he would dominate in the slot with Prescott, and that was the case immediately.

The Cowboys defense had a terrible season; things broke down on all levels. Only Prescott could give his team a chance to overcome that, and most of the time, he did. McCarthy, despite his time off from the Packers to become a more forward-thinking coach, made many of the same situational mistakes that predecessor Jason Garrett made in the Cowboys’ closest losses. Dallas needs to improve in both areas, and that should happen regardless of keeping Prescott.

The Cowboys weren’t sure of much in 2020 and things quickly got complicated when Prescott wasn’t holding the offense together and masking the club’s other woes. If they needed more conclusive proof of what Prescott means to them before committing to him on his terms, then they have. All signs point to Prescott being his only QB plan for next season, with many more to come.

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