The Cowboys missed a golden opportunity. Here’s why contention now get tougher

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When the shock wears off and the embarrassment fades into a dull ache, the Dallas Cowboys will still be faced with the same question.

It’s the question that’s lingered over this entire effort, and now that the effort has failed, it comes into a sharper focus.

If not now, then when?

Throughout a season of ups and downs, it’s been an existential question — a threat, almost. If this loaded Cowboys team, filled with so much talent and experience, couldn’t make a genuine run at a championship, what team could hope to?

In the aftermath of a 48-32 beating at the hands of Green Bay, it’s bleak to attempt an answer. This last, best shot didn’t come close — a full four wins short of the ultimate prize. Even a return to the NFC Championship Game looks like a laughable goal in retrospect, which is especially painful when you remember that the Cowboys were poised to play two home playoff games as the NFC’s No. 2 seed.

It’s irrelevant now, along with another 12 regular season wins, a plus-194 point differential and a now-snapped 16-game home winning streak.

What’s left is a franchise with a boatload of consequential decisions to make – and that’s before including the turmoil coming out of this loss.

Change is coming to this coaching staff. Every big-name insider in the NFL landscape is hinting that Mike McCarthy could be out of a job. And even if he’s not, something else will have to give. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has been expected to leave for a head coaching job for two years now, and the Cowboys may make their peace with his departure after the latest performance.

One way or another, the coaching continuity that has helped the Cowboys to 36 regular-season wins these last three years is threatened.

That’s just one more block on top of what already looks like a shaky Jenga tower.

Let’s start in the obvious place. It’s cruelly fitting that the best season of Dak Prescott’s career would crash-land so abruptly. 

Cowboys first-round exit raises questions about Dak Prescott

Cowboys first-round exit raises questions about Dak Prescott

Prescott led the league in touchdown passes and was named second-team All-Pro for his efforts this season. He also just suffered the worst loss of his eight-year career, struggling to get the offense moving while the game was still winnable and throwing the pick-six that all but sealed the loss.

What fun would it be if we were ever able to come to a unanimous opinion of his ability?

Fans and pundits can have whatever opinion they want of Prescott, but it doesn’t change his current leverage over the Cowboys.

The coming year is the last on his current contract, and Prescott is slated to make $30 million while counting $59.4 million against the salary cap. Moving on from him feels like an impossibility. Releasing him would cripple their salary cap — and would also be unfathomably bad roster building. He also has a no-trade clause in his deal, and even if he waived that, a trade would have major financial ramifications.

The team could create the most salary cap relief by simply signing him to an extension, which would provide them with more years through which to spread out his massive guarantees. With an average of 10 wins per regular season these last three years and the All-Pro designation in 2023, he has a strong enough resume to command top dollar once again. That’s likely to lead to a deal in the $55 million/year range.

Dallas Cowboys: The rise and fall of the 2023 season for ‘America’s Team’

Dallas Cowboys: The rise and fall of the 2023 season for 'America's Team'

The only issue with that is the undoubted pushback from those who have watched the Cowboys fall well short of their playoff goals in each of Prescott’s three seasons since his 2020 injury.

The Cowboys could always try to ride 2024 out, but it comes with risks. For starters, Prescott’s cap hit. It is an untenable number for a front office trying to keep a talented roster together. They could, of course, restructure the deal to lessen the hit, but the massive cap charge would eventually come due if he left in free agency in 2025.

And therein lies the real kicker: Prescott would assuredly have the chance to leave, because he successfully negotiated for a no-tag clause in his deal, too.

However this plays out, it’s almost guaranteed that the quarterback will win in the end. It’s just a matter of how much talent the Cowboys can put around him.

That leads to the other business at hand.

Fresh off his third consecutive All-Pro selection, Micah Parsons is officially eligible for a contract extension. He does have two years remaining on his rookie deal, but the safe bet is the guy will want to be compensated like the game-wrecking force he’s been since arriving in the league. The average annual value of that new contract is likely to be around $35 million.

Additionally, CeeDee Lamb is now a two-time All-Pro, having led the league in catches and finished second in yards and touchdowns. He’s entering the fifth year of his rookie contract, and he’ll no doubt expect to soon be paid at the top of the market. That deal may exceed $30 million per year.

This is all manageable. With all the tricks and accounting methods open to an NFL front office, the Cowboys can make even the biggest contracts work. But it’s bound to put a squeeze on the rest of the roster. Even more so with the uncertainty facing the quarterback situation. With top-tier contracts at quarterback, receiver, guard, edge rusher and cornerback, the pressure on the Cowboys to fill out the roster with quality draft picks is even greater.

It could also cost them a shot at valuable pieces. 

How much would it cost to retain All-Pro stalwart Tyron Smith, finally at the end of his eight-year contract, at left tackle? How much longer does Tyron Smith even want to play? What about solid starters like Tyler Biadasz and Stephon Gilmore? What about Tony Pollard?

Roster churn is always part of the puzzle. Every team in the league relies on young, cheap talent to replace outgoing veterans. But this 2023 Cowboys team had a unique blend of Pro Bowl and All-Pro talent that fit conveniently into their budget. That may not be the case moving forward.

It will require more cunning, more skill, more luck to build a 2024 team that’s significantly better than what we just watched, and this group didn’t come all that close. Perhaps a new or revamped coaching staff can help with that, but you’re forgiven if you feel dubious.

The question might have gotten repetitive, but it finally has an answer. The Cowboys had a real chance. When exactly will one come again?

David Helman covers the Dallas Cowboys for FOX Sports and hosts the NFL on FOX podcast. He previously spent nine seasons covering the Cowboys for the team’s official website. In 2018, he won a regional Emmy for his role in producing “Dak Prescott: A Family Reunion” about the quarterback’s time at Mississippi State. Follow him on Twitter at @davidhelman_.


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