Opinion: Jerry Jones has plenty to set right with Dak Prescott after Cowboys QB's injury
As the tears rolled down his face while he rode off the field at AT&T Stadium on a cart, his ankle fractured and dislocated, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott became the unquestioned focus of the NFL world on Sunday evening.
Once again, one of the cruelest aspects of the multifaceted beast that is pro football reared its ugly head, claiming Prescott as its latest victim.
One of the most well-respected young quarterbacks in the NFL, Prescott had kicked off his fifth season in impressive fashion, setting multiple passing records while playing in a contract year for a second straight season.
Immediately after Prescott’s injury, many of his NFL brethren expressed their condolences and offered encouragement on social media. They felt his pain in more ways than one.
The injury did more than very likely shelve one of the game’s brightest stars for the remainder of the season.
Sunday represented another example of the harsh lopsidedness of the business of football. NFL owners use athletes and the system for their gain, while players often must subject themselves to greater risks to maximize their own earning potential.
Since the start of last season, Prescott has played without long-term financial security while Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has refused to compensate his quarterback at a rate comparable to the passers he has outplayed.
Prior to last season, Jones refused to budge on terms for a multiyear contract for Prescott, who had gone from fourth-round pick to a two-time Pro Bowl selection and one of the most marketable stars in the game. Prescott chose to play out the final year of his rookie contract, making just more than $2 million for the season while draft classmates Carson Wentz and Jared Goff had already signed extensions that set then-records for guaranteed money. Prescott hoped this offseason to land a deal that would pay him fair market value.
But Jones persisted in his stinginess this offseason. Still refusing to meet Prescott’s desired terms, particularly on the length of the contract, Jones and the Cowboys used the exclusive franchise player designation to keep his star passer off the market.
Prescott could have relented and accepted whatever money the Cowboys threw at him in a long-term contract. The quarterback, however, remained steadfast in his belief of his worth and settled for playing on the franchise tag. He remained confident in his ability to play at an elite level this season and position himself for the payday he deserved next spring.
Prescott’s decision to gamble on himself has now backfired.
Now, Prescott might not even be fully recovered by the time the free agent market opens in March, and the absence of a clean bill of health could prove costly — even though it shouldn't.
Critics will fault Prescott for putting himself in this position. They’ll say he knew the risks of betting on himself rather than taking the sure thing in the Cowboys' long-term offer.
But in truth, Jones shouldn’t have ever put Prescott in this position.
For four years, Prescott has delivered. He has been the picture of stability, never missing a game and ranking among the top performers at his position.
He remained unwavering in his commitment to the franchise and refused to become a malcontent even while watching Jones hand out big contracts to running back Ezekiel Elliott, wide receiver Amari Cooper, defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, linebacker Jaylon Smith and right tackle La'el Collins in the last 18 months alone.
Prescott stuck to his guns rather than settle for a less-than-desirable contract. And it’s hard to fault him considering the brevity of NFL players’ prime earning windows.
NFL players and agents hate the franchise tag because it enables owners to avoid paying their stars their true worth. The franchise tag protects a team from losing their best player on the open market, but beyond short-term compensation, the tag offers that star little protection in return.
The player may draw a handsome salary in that one year and any subsequent seasons on the tag. But the leverage remains tilted toward the teams. A season-ending or career-threatening injury translates into reduced earning potential for the player while a team’s bottom line remains unaltered, and the show rolls on with or without the star.
The threat of that risk often prompts players to cave in negotiations.
There are instances in which playing on the franchise tag has worked out for the player in the long run. Kirk Cousins did so in back-to-back years with Washington, earning a total of $43.89 million in 2016 and 2017 before signing a fully guaranteed, three-year, $84 million contract with the Minnesota Vikings. But Cousins had the good fortune of avoiding injury and then capitalized with two stellar seasons.
Prescott appeared set to possibly follow Cousins’ blueprint, though he held the distinction of helping Dallas to two playoff appearances in the first four seasons of his career, further strengthening his case for a big payday. Yet the Cowboys remained unmoved.
As medical personnel tended to Prescott, Jones and his son, Stephen Jones, appeared visibly shaken. Remorse should have ranked among the owners’ many emotions as Prescott gritted his teeth and buried his face in a towel.
In a statement Sunday night, Jones praised the resilience Prescott has displayed on and off the field to this point. He concluded, “And we have no doubt that he will return to the position of leadership and purpose that he brings to our team."
Jones has the power to ensure that happens, and as he does, he should do so by finally treating Prescott with the same kind of appreciation and respect that the Philadelphia Eagles, Los Angeles Rams, Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs have shown their franchise quarterbacks.
Prescott is the latest victim of the ugly side of the NFL business. But Jones should ensure his quarterback never finds himself facing this uncertainty ever again.