OK, that's not technically true. Prescott is merely signing a one-year guaranteed franchise tender of $31.4 million. But if you know how the franchise tag works when it comes to quarterbacks, it might as well be a three-year, $123 million deal.
Per months of reports, Prescott wants a new four-year contract, while Jerry Jones wants to sign him to at least a five-year contract. Negotiations have been cordial yet icy, like dinner with the in-laws, for about a year. The current arrangement is more of a ceasefire than a surrender by either side: By signing the tender, Prescott agrees not to hold out from training camp (which he was not inclined to do), while the Cowboys have agreed not to rescind the tag and suddenly make Prescott a free agent (which would be an utterly bonkers gambit).
At first glance, the one-year truce between Prescott and the Cowboys looks like a win-win. Prescott, a 2016 fourth-round pick who earned a paltry total of $4 million-and-change in four seasons as the Cowboys starting quarterback, gets roughly a 1,450 percent salary increase over last year. Jones, meanwhile, sticks to his guns and keeps negotiating a contract that fits the Cowboys' long-range budget and plan.
But Prescott is the one with all the leverage. Jones is trying to bluff with an empty hand, and Prescott just called it again.
To understand why Prescott's tender is worth much more than its face value, let's fast-forward to the end of the 2020 season. Happy New Year, it's now 2021! Everything is just fine, both in the NFL and the real world! And the Cowboys just finished the season somewhere between 5-11 and 11-5, with Prescott performing somewhere between last year's high (4,902 yards and 30 touchdowns) and his 2017 low (3,324, 22 touchdowns, 13 interceptions). Once everyone sits down at the bargaining table again, the Cowboys will have three choices:
- Tag Prescott again. Per franchise tag rules, the Cowboys would have to guarantee Prescott $37.7 million (120 percent of his current salary) in 2021 if they go this route.
- Sign Prescott to a long-term deal. The going rate right now, based on the deal Carson Wentz and the Eagles signed last year, is four years at $128 million, with $66.5 million fully guaranteed at signing. That figure could go down slightly if Prescott performs badly or gets injured in 2020*, but it's much more likely to shoot upward over the next 12 months because of Patrick Mahomes and/or Deshaun Watson extensions.
- Let Prescott walk after the season and move forward with a rookie, Andy Dalton, Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick or a called-back-from-the-booth Tony Romo in 2021.
The third option makes for some fun talk-radio conversations, but we can safely assume it doesn't appeal to Jones. The second option will cost the Cowboys nearly $100 million in guaranteed money ($31.4 million for this year, $66.5-plus for future years), with the Cowboys essentially betting against themselves if they hope to get some sort of discount due to a Prescott injury or slump. That doesn't mean that the second option is a bad idea for the Cowboys, mind you. It just makes it so expensive that Jones could choose a second franchise tag.
Now let's assume that Prescott is tagged a second time and fast-forward again to the end of the 2021 season, when this year is a distant memory (Hooray!!!) and Prescott and the Cowboys are coming off another typical season. Everyone returns to the bargaining table, and the Cowboys again face the same three options:
- A third straight franchise tag comes with a 144 percent salary increase, which means Prescott would cost them $54.26 million (hence the three-year, $123 million figure we started with).
- An extension, with a price dictated by the value of the Mahomes and Watson deals and the next round of television revenues (which will involve stacks of cash that reach the ionosphere).
- Maybe 44-year-old Tom Brady will sign with the Cowboys to replace Prescott in 2022!
Oh, and if the Cowboys win a Super Bowl in this period, it just makes Prescott's services even more expensive.
In all of these scenarios, all Prescott must do is avoid 30-interception meltdowns or Alex Smith-level catastrophic injuries while the Cowboys negotiate against themselves. His strategy is just like the Kirk Cousins gambit in 2016 and 2017. Cousins signed a pair of franchise tenders, earned $44 million over two years while the befuddled Washington front office got in its own way and then signed with the Vikings for $84 million (and counting) once Washington realized it had driven down a contractual dead end. The franchise tag is a curse for most players because it severely limits their negotiating leverage at the peak of their careers. It's a mere inconvenience for quarterbacks, whose franchise price tags are astronomical and whose peaks last many years, even if they are only as good as, say, Kirk Cousins.
What's remarkable is that the normally shrewd Jones doesn't realize he has spent the last year being rope-a-doped. He has stuck to a five-year contract since last summer, mostly because the free-spending Cowboys need to prorate each signing bonus and guarantee over as many years as possible so they can afford to pay the next signing bonus and guarantee. Players, particularly quarterbacks, prefer shorter contracts because they allow them to renegotiate whenever their market value goes up, which is always.
If Jones had just capitulated and agreed to a four-year contract last summer, he'd have already paid Prescott a chunk of money and stuffed some of the cap hit into the 2019 budget. Instead, he'll write a $31.4 million check to Prescott and get no benefits from it beyond one year of the quarterback's services and the privilege of doing the same thing next year. If the Cowboys eventually get their five-year, cap-friendly contract, it will only come after multiple one-year, cap-unfriendly contracts, which of course defeats the whole purpose.
There's only one way out of this bad poker hand for Jones: He can swallow some pride and fold. There are still a few weeks left in the franchise tag negotiation window, which closes on July 15. If he signs Prescott to a contract similar in size and shape to the Wentz deal now, he can beat Mahomes/Watson to the punch, finagle the cap space prorations to improve the bottom line over the next few years and climb out of what threatens to become a very expensive pay-as-you-go arrangement. All it would take is a little common sense and a little less stubbornness.
Or he can just pay Prescott $123 million for three years because he doesn't want to pay him about $128 million for four years. Chances are, Prescott won't complain.
*Future leaguewide cap figures may be impacted by COVID-19, of course, which would then impact contract values. It's a little beyond our scope to speculate on how a pandemic might impact contract negotiations, though I will hazard one guess: Whatever happens to NFL budgets after a year with decreased ticket revenue, smart teams won't try to balance them on the backs of superstars.