On Monday night, the Dallas Cowboys will take on the Arizona Cardinals in their first full game without Dak Prescott. Prescott, of course, is out for the year after suffering a brutal ankle injury last week against the New York Giants. Despite the devastating turn of events, one Andy Dalton entered the game in relief and managed to pull a last-second win out of his back pocket to put the Cowboys in the driver's seat of the NFC East.
Dalton will now lead the team for the remainder of the season, and it represents quite an economic opportunity for the veteran QB. Dalton decided to come to Dallas as a cheap but very experienced backup option, presumably seeing an opportunity to join a talented squad in his home state for a year before surveying the quarterback landscape in 2021. Fate has now given him the top spot in the depth chart, leading a team stacked with high-level skill players.
Dalton ranged from average to above-average during his time in Cincinnati. His final season in 2019 was one of his worst as the Bengals ended up with the first overall pick in the 2020 draft, which meant Dalton was not exactly the talk of the town once he hit free agency. That's at least part of the reason why he ended up as the No. 2 in Dallas. But if Dalton shows he can still perform at a reasonably high level with the Cowboys, he might be a very popular man come free agency 2021.
He's in a great position to do just that. Handing off the ball to Ezekiel Elliott and throwing to Amari Cooper/CeeDee Lamb/Michael Gallup is just about as good as it gets for any quarterback. The Cowboys have some serious defensive issues that will probably reveal themselves again against Kyler Murray tonight, but the offense is stacked enough to give the team a chance every week. If Dalton can keep the Cowboys in the divisional race (which will not be all that hard!) there should be a financial windfall waiting for him on the other side, regardless of how the season finishes for his team.
NFL franchises pay a lot of money for good backup quarterbacks. That's how a guy like Chase Daniel ends up with $37 million in career earnings despite starting five games in 11 seasons. Should Dalton lead the Cowboys to a winning record and throw for around 1,500 yards with double-digit touchdowns and single-digit interceptions in the next 11 games, he could very well become the league's next extremely well-paid insurance policy.
But if Dalton wants a starting job, he will probably have options. There are currently several very bad teams in the NFL with no real future at quarterback, and only one of them can select Trevor Lawrence in next year's draft. Who knows what the Falcons are going to do with Matt Ryan or the Jaguars with Gardner Minshew? That's not to mention franchises like the Vikings or Colts, both starting high-priced quarterbacks and seeing little return so far. Things can also change rather quickly; one year ago this time, no NFL fan would have believed that Tom Brady, Cam Newton, and Philip Rivers would be wearing different uniforms in 2020, yet here we are.
Dalton's audition starts now for these teams and any other potential suitor that might reveal itself as everything unfolds over the next six months. He has the talent around him, and it was only three years ago that he started 16 games while throwing for 3,320 yards, 25 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. Those aren't crazy numbers, but they're definitely good enough for a playoff team if Dalton has a quality supporting cast around him. If Dalton really plays well, he could be in line for a Nick Foles-level raise like the $88 million deal the Jaguars gave the former Eagles backup after the 2018 season.
Nobody wanted to see Prescott go down, but injuries open up opportunities for other players in sports. This is Dalton's time. If he can step up, he'll be able to do just about whatever he wants when he hits free agency again, whether that's a starting job, a well-paid backup position, or even sticking around in Dallas. That's a big improvement over his free agency this year. It all rides on how well he can play-- and we'll get our first look at just how good that might be tonight.