Injured quarterback Dak Prescott is the only person benefiting from the Dallas Cowboys' disastrous campaign under first-year head coach Mike McCarthy. He's more valuable to the franchise than ever because everyone sees his importance to the offense and how talented he really is when compared to the inferior replacements who have been behind center over the last three weeks.
If the MVP voting were held today, Prescott would deserve some acknowledgment despite not playing the last three weeks after suffering a season-ending dislocated ankle and a compound fracture to his lower leg in a Week 5 contest against the rival New York Giants, which the Cowboys won.
At the time, Dallas held a 2-3 record with the NFC East available for any of its participants to claim. Despite the Cowboys' obvious defensive deficiencies, Prescott and Co. featured one of the game's best offenses.
In fact, Prescott's 371.2 yards per contest lead the NFL by a large margin, though his numbers won't qualify once the rest of the quarterbacks finish the remainder of the regular season.
But to say his replacements haven't fared as well would be an understatement.
With the opportunity to surpass the Philadelphia Eagles atop the division standings, the Cowboys lost 23-9 Sunday with rookie seventh-round pick Ben DiNucci leading the way. DiNucci told reporters last week what Prescott said after the first-year signal-caller was forced into the starting lineup since backup Andy Dalton wasn't cleared from the concussion protocol:
"Kind of just walked up to [Prescott] and said, 'Hey this isn't what you said my rookie year was going to be like. He laughed and gave me a hug and just said, 'We've talked about this. Go out there and do you. Take completions. Trust the guys around you. You'll be great. Don't overthink it. Football's football.' It's a game I've been playing since seventh grade. Not going to try to make it any more than it is. Going to have fun with it, bring a lot of energy, bring a lot of confidence and let my play speak for itself."
The story encapsulates Prescott's standing within the organization. He made things sound so easy, which they are for a veteran quarterback with plenty of starting experience. The 27-year-old showed the type of leadership that should allow him to guide a franchise for a very long time.
"He was at the point where he had complete control of that offense," an NFL coordinator familiar with game-planning against the Cowboys told ESPN's Jeremy Fowler. "He's putting them in the right plays and has a real chemistry with [offensive coordinator Kellen Moore]. He'll take what the defense gives him. He might not be top-top tier, but he's close."
Yet his commitment to his teammates and the organization wasn't rewarded like it should have been this year.
DiNucci can't step in and orchestrate the offense like Prescott in any way, shape or form. Neither could Dalton. Over the last three games—all losses—Cowboys quarterbacks have completed 66 of 116 passes (56.9 percent) for 560 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions while recording five fumbles (two lost).
As USA Today's Mark Lane noted, Dallas scored 24 points with Prescott healthy in the first half against the Giants. The team scored 13 more points against New York after his injury and has produced 22 total points in its last three games.
A realization should come to the forefront of owner Jerry Jones' mind as his team experiences a downward spiral: He butchered the contract negotiations with his franchise quarterback and needs to do everything in his power to rectify the situation next offseason.
The fact Dallas couldn't strike a long-term deal with Prescott would have easily been the worst mistake of the offseason if Bill O'Brien hadn't traded standout wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals. In five seasons, Prescott has started 69 games with a 66.0 completion percentage, 17,634 passing yards and a 106-to-40 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
To make matters worse, the Cowboys prioritized others before their quarterback. The following is a quick recap of those on Dallas' roster who received extensions and their overall worth before Prescott became the priority:
- DeMarcus Lawrence: five years, $105 million
- Jaylon Smith: six years, $68.42 million
- La'el Collins: five years, $50 million
- Ezekiel Elliott: six years, $90 million
- Amari Cooper: five years, $100 million
For those keeping track, the Cowboys paid an edge-rusher, an off-ball linebacker, a right tackle, a running back and a wide receiver before their quarterback.
Each of those individuals signed his current deal after Prescott entered the initial negotiating window in his rookie contract. Dallas had two full offseasons to lock down its face of the franchise and resorted to the franchise tag when it was all said and done.
As soon as Prescott signed the tag, he gained all the leverage in the negotiations. The situation hasn't really changed despite the injury. Sure, concerns could persist regarding his recovery. But it's more obvious than ever the Cowboys can't operate the same way without Prescott, and they should be more willing to pay him a premium.
"He's the face of that franchise and can continue to be," an NFC front office executive told Fowler. "It's not like they have a five-year plan at quarterback outside of him. He's the plan."
What are the alternatives?
The Cowboys could move forward with Dalton as a bridge to the next quarterback prospect. Currently, Dallas owns the fifth overall draft pick for next April's event, per Tankathon. No guarantees exist that the organization's preferred candidate, once evaluations are complete, would be available even with a lofty selection.
Prescott can be tagged a second time, in which case the Cowboys will have paid him nearly $70 million during a two-year period.
Or, Jones could finally do the smart thing and pay his quarterback his actual worth.
"The injury doesn't help, but I still think he'll be looking at a top-five-quarterback contract when this is all said and done," an NFL exec told Fowler.
In order to be one of the five highest-paid quarterbacks in today's NFL, Prescott would need a contract that reaches or exceeds $137.5 million in total value and $33.5 million in average annual salary, per Spotrac.
At this juncture, no one can deny Prescott's worth to the Cowboys organization. As the team continues to fail on the field, the injured franchise player's price tag increases by the week. He's still negotiating from a position of strength, while Dallas is struggling to show any signs of life without its cornerstone.
What should have been settled sooner rather than later continues to linger. Jones and the Cowboys should be driven to get something done because Prescott remains the future of the franchise, and his absence only makes the heart grow fonder.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.