DALLAS - No one can point to this moment as the beginning of the end.
But Dak Prescott's place in the Cowboys heart and club's future is now in doubt.
What once seemed unthinkable took form Wednesday afternoon when the deadline for signing the quarterback to a long-term deal came and passed. Prescott isn't hurting financially. He'll play this season on the exclusive franchise tag of $31.4 million, a figure six times more than what he's earned his first four years in the NFL.
The problem is neither side got what it wanted. The issue is the uncertainty it fosters.
The principals will do what they can to minimize the damage when they do talk in the coming days and weeks. Club officials will continue to profess their faith in Prescott and his leadership. The quarterback will talk about what a privilege it is to play for the Cowboys and his drive to take this franchise back to the Super Bowl.
This won't be business as usual. There are cracks in the foundation.
You can't spend more than 16 months trying to reach a deal, fail, then have both sides claim there's no emotional fallout. You can't watch friends and teammates Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper and DeMarcus Lawrence receive lucrative, long-term contracts and not feel left out.
You can't claim you want to be part of this going forward then do everything in your power to extract every, last dime - plus a little more - in negotiations because you can.
No blame should be cast. Neither side is at fault, although social media took tremendous glee in bashing both parties.
These negotiations were always going to be complicated based on Prescott's performance relative to his draft position and modest rookie contract. The Cowboys shouldn't be penalized for the remarkable bargain they got for taking the quarterback in the fourth round. But the bargain basement deal Prescott received in his first four years only strengthened his resolve to stand firm and make up for lost financial time.
Put yourself in Prescott's cleats. Few quarterbacks in league history have won more regular-season games in their first four seasons. Prescott has gone to the Pro Bowl twice and is coming off his best statistical season.
Now, put yourself in the offices of Jerry and Stephen Jones. The Cowboys had their worst season (8-8) when Prescott enjoyed his best, and the team failed to make the playoffs in two of the last three seasons. He's been unable to get the Cowboys past the second round of the playoffs.
Each side is justified in the stance it takes. Each side will view this season through its own lens, which can undermine the relationship even more. There will be no comment or action that won't undergo intense scrutiny.
Sometimes things will be said that need no interpretation, like the one Prescott's brother, Tad, tweeted when a long-term deal wasn't reached:
"There is a reason I was never a @dallascowboys fan growing up or before they drafted @dak after today, who knows how much longer I'll be cheering for them."
Prescott wanted a four-year deal. The Cowboys countered with a five-year deal that sources said averaged $34.5 million with a guarantee of slightly more than $110 million.
That was the deal on the table in April. Other than a casual conversation on June 22 when Prescott signed his franchise tag and a spasm of activity in the hours leading up to the deadline, when a source said representative Todd France cleared his client to speak directly to Stephen Jones, there was minimal contact.
The last time Prescott spoke publicly was in late January. In comments before the franchise tag was applied, he expressed disappointment that his status wasn't resolved.
"You would hope and you would think something is going to get done, right?" Prescott said three days before Super Bowl LIV. "I mean, you would have thought something would have gotten done before the season.
"In my brain, it only says that it gets done. Without the tag..."
Prescott paused for a second, searching for the right words.
"I don't think any of that is necessary," he said. "But that's business. That's all calculated.
"That's all on them."
Prescott feels slighted. Cowboys officials are frustrated. Now, the two sides must find a way to go forward together into an uncertain future.
Timeline of negotiations
A breakdown of contract negotiations between the Cowboys and QB Dak Prescott, as reported by The Dallas Morning News:
- July 2019: The Cowboys presented Prescott with a proposal that averaged $30 million and a guarantee of $90 million entering training camp, putting him among the top five players at the position at that time.
- September 2019: In an effort to strike a deal before the regular season began, the club upped that offer to an average of $33 million with a guarantee of close to $105 million.
- February or March 2020: The team offered a deal that bumped the average above $34 million with a guarantee of above that of Wentz.
- April 2020: The latest offer averaged roughly $34.5 million with a guarantee slightly above $110 million for five years.
- June 22, 2020: Prescott signed the exclusive franchise tag, which carries a $31.409 salary for the 2020 season. It also contractually obligates him to report for training camp.
- July 15, 2020: The 3 p.m. deadline to negotiate a long-term deal passed, and Prescott will become only the third quarterback to play under the franchise tag.
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