When quarterback Dak Prescott suffered a significant, season-ending ankle injury in the fifth week of the 2020 NFL season, his Dallas Cowboys had won just a single game all season despite the fact Prescott led the NFL in passing yardage by a wide margin.
The 27-year-old two-time Pro Bowler was playing relatively well, but Dallas was not. That's because the Cowboys weren't—and still aren't—a particularly good football team.
The once-dominant offensive line has faded, star running back Ezekiel Elliott appears to have peaked between 2016 and 2018, and the defense has plummeted down the rankings when it comes to DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average at Football Outsiders) in back-to-back seasons.
With Prescott playing some of the best football of his career at the most pivotal position in the sport, Dallas as a team ranked just 16th in that all-encompassing metric entering Week 5.
There's no doubt that the Cowboys were worse without Prescott. But this team has won just one playoff game since Dak, Zeke and that awesome line came together in 2016. When those guys were at their best, at their healthiest and at their cheapest, Dallas wasn't a prime contender.
Don't expect that to change now that owner Jerry Jones has made Prescott one of the highest-paid players in league history.
According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, it's a four-year, $160 million deal with a record $126 million guaranteed. Per Schefter, the deal at least contains two voidable years to give the Cowboys more salary-cap flexibility, and he'll likely count significantly less against the cap in 2021 than he would have under the $37.7 million franchise tag, but none of that changes the fact that Prescott will cost Dallas money in the Patrick Mahomes range for years to come.
That's going to become a huge problem for a team that has put too many of its eggs in just a few baskets.
According to Spotrac, Dallas now has the league's second-highest-paid quarterback, tied-for-second-highest-paid running back (Elliott), fourth-highest-paid wide receiver (Amari Cooper), three of the league's 40 highest-paid offensive linemen (Zack Martin, Tyron Smith and La'el Collins) and one of the NFL's six highest-paid defensive players (DeMarcus Lawrence).
Ten percent of the 31 NFL players making $20 million per year or more reside on the Dallas roster.
This isn't the NBA, but Jones has built his team that way and it's likely to blow up in his face.
The Cowboys are too top-heavy, and as a result, it'll be extremely difficult to retain in-house impending free agents Chidobe Awuzie, Tyrone Crawford, Jourdan Lewis, Aldon Smith and Xavier Woods, let alone think about improving a roster that ranked 28th in points allowed per game and—even with Elliott healthy—23rd in rushing yards per attempt in 2020.
There's a popular cliche that you just can't let franchise quarterbacks get away, but that's not necessarily true. Oftentimes, star quarterbacks simply become too much of a burden on the payroll.
When the Green Bay Packers won their only Super Bowl this century, Aaron Rodgers made just $6.5 million. He's since cashed in and the Packers haven't been back. When the Seattle Seahawks went to back-to-back Super Bowls last decade, Russell Wilson made a combined $1.2 million in those two campaigns. He's since cashed in and the Seahawks haven't been back.
Mahomes was cheap when the Kansas City Chiefs won, Carson Wentz and Nick Foles were inexpensive when the Philadelphia Eagles won, the Baltimore Ravens won in 2012 before Joe Flacco got paid, and most of Tom Brady's seven rings have come when the most decorated player in league history cost below market rate.
In fact, according to Over the Cap, it's been more than a quarter-century since a team quarterbacked by a player with one of the league's three highest cap hits at that position won the Super Bowl. Prescott might not be quite that expensive this season, but combine his increasingly large cap hits with those belonging to Elliott, Cooper, Lawrence and those veteran offensive linemen and it looks pretty damn unsustainable.
The cap is expected to bounce back and even rise significantly when new television deals fall into place in the coming years, but that doesn't change the fact that the Cowboys will continually have less money to spend than the majority of their competitors.
How are they supposed to make up ground?
Maybe Prescott takes off at the age of 28, but let's not pretend that's a sure thing. Not only is he coming off a brutal injury, but keep in mind that the highest-rated season of his career took place when he was a rookie with an incredible amount of support in 2016. He's never been a first- or second-team All-Pro, he's been a Pro Bowler just twice in five years and he's merely the league's 14th-highest-rated passer since that historic rookie campaign.
Prescott is by all indications a great person, a fabulous teammate and a hard worker. It's easy to be proud of him for hitting the jackpot, especially considering that he came into this league as a fourth-round afterthought. But this is a business, Jones is a businessman, and in this situation, he made a poor business decision.
Jones and Co. would have been better off moving on. Then they could have pursued a cheaper alternative like Jimmy Garoppolo or Sam Darnold, or they could have used the No. 10 overall pick on an intriguing quarterback prospect like Trey Lance or Mac Jones.
Instead, they've likely ensured themselves of another half-decade or so of "good but not great."
Prescott has likely reached his ceiling, and—partly due to this contract—he'll likely never receive as much support as he did during the first four seasons of his career. So there's a good chance the Cowboys have also reached their ceiling with this core group of players, and that a Super Bowl-or-bust franchise mired in a quarter-century-long Super Bowl slump will have to wait at least four more years to rediscover those glory days.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon.