Cowboys’ Andy Dalton can take advantage after Dak Prescott injury

Seven months ago, Andy Dalton was the perennial bridesmaid.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had interest, but only if their Tom Brady pitch fell through. The Indianapolis Colts called, but a deal was back-burnered in favor of Philip Rivers. And just when the Cincinnati Bengals thought Chicago was ready to consummate a deal, the Bears took a left turn for Nick Foles.

This is how Dalton became a Dallas Cowboy. He was a near-miss starting option for a handful of other teams, then got released and was left to choose between backup options that included Dallas, the New York Jets and Jacksonville Jaguars.

Now a horrible turn of fate has granted him a chance to reclaim a reputation as a starter, while rebooting a career that has never gotten the respect it probably deserves.

This is why Cowboys owner Jerry Jones signed Dalton in May, because Jones has been through the Brandon Weeden, Kyle Orton and Matt Cassel experience. And even though Dak Prescott didn’t miss a single game in the previous four seasons, the Cowboys owner learned the hard way that guys like Troy Aikman and Tony Romo sometimes didn’t walk through that door. The resulting backup slump (aside from, say, the Jon Kitna experience) taught a valuable lesson: A quality starter on the second rung of the quarterback depth chart can be the difference between fighting through the remainder of a season or simply killing time before the NFL draft.

Cowboys quarterback Andy Dalton, pictured at training camp in August with Dak Prescott, was a late free-agent signing for Dallas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

That’s what Jones is banking on with Dalton. That this is a guy who can help salvage a season that has gone off the rails with injuries.

He’s hoping this is the same Dalton who once led the Bengals to 50 wins and five playoff berths in his first five NFL seasons. Or the Dalton whose 87.6 career quarterback rating and 204 touchdown passes (against 118 interceptions) is overlooked. Or that some sentiment echoing from inside Cincinnati management last spring holds true: that Dalton hadn’t entirely fallen apart in the past few years, and instead was derailed by a series of poor personnel decisions that expedited and necessitated a Bengals rebuild.

None of that matters now. Dalton is the Cowboys’ starting quarterback, and what he does the remainder of this season will ultimately determine his viability on the free agent quarterback market in a few months. Either he’ll show he can still be a productive starter in his early 30s and buy himself another opportunity, or he’ll slide into the land of experienced backups and spend the next half-decade as the journeyman and spot-starter that is still a decent NFL commodity. In a way, it’s similar to the position that Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill was in only one year ago, when he took over for starter Marcus Mariota and parlayed a 12-game regular season run and strong playoff performance into a four-year $118 million contract extension.

If you listen to Jerry Jones, Dalton is going to get his chance to showcase himself in a similar way, even if there’s virtually zero chance of him taking Prescott’s job. That doesn’t mean he won’t be laying out his resume for some unknown team this coming offseason, providing all the motivation Dalton needs to exceed expectations in Dallas. Without a doubt, Jones is all for it, expressing a belief that Dalton can run the Cowboys’ offense precisely as it was designed for Prescott. That means, well, hold the phone on that whole predicted shift to a power running game. If Dalton is what Dallas believes he is, this still may be a throwing team after all.

“Andy Dalton is a player that can get the job done in the NFL,” Jones told the team’s flagship radio station 105.3 The Fan on Tuesday. “He a starter. He is a starting quarterback. I’m being trite when I say this. I think he’s the starting quarterback on a very successful, winning team.”

Asked if other NFL teams had reached out to offer Dallas a quarterback, Jones said that hadn’t happened and brushed off the notion.

“That’s unlikely and of very little interest to me,” Jones said. “We’ve got our quarterback in Andy Dalton. … Andy gives us the ability to run our offense as we’ve got it structured right now.”

That doesn’t mean Dallas won’t be seeking balance, of course. Jones allowed that he wanted to see the team lean more into the running game — but insinuated that the offensive line is playing as much a part in that as Prescott going down with a season-ending injury. It makes sense, given that the Cowboys’ offensive line is now without three cornerstone starters from last season, losing tackles Tyron Smith and La’el Collins to season-ending injuries and having center Travis Frederick retire in the offseason.

That has decimated the Cowboys’ ability to consistently pass-protect, putting the offense into a position where the simplest answer is to implement a power running scheme that simplifies assignments for a cobbled-together unit, while also providing cover for Dalton and potentially even the defense with some added time of possession.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t the kind of offense that Dalton came to Dallas to run if the opportunity to start presented itself. He’s still capable of being a high-volume passer, something that should have become immediately clear when he replaced Prescott on Sunday and quickly snapped off nine completions in 11 attempts while helping to lead Dallas to a comeback win.

If anything, the Cowboys still have the vast majority of weapons that enticed Dalton to sign with the team last May — if not more than he expected, considering the formidable player rookie wideout CeeDee Lamb has been through five games. Dallas’ trio of wide receivers, along with running back Ezekiel Elliott, arguably account for the best group of skill position players Dalton has ever lined up with. That is saying something for a player who threw for 4,293 yards and 33 touchdowns in 2013.

Time will tell if Dalton can realize those kinds of numbers over the remainder of this Dallas schedule. But there’s little question about what is there for the taking. Not only is this team currently in first place in the NFC East despite a 2-3 start, but it arguably still has the second-best starting quarterback in the division behind the Philadelphia Eagles’ Carson Wentz.

Dalton might have been a bridesmaid for teams a few months ago, but he’s the center of attention in Dallas now. For both the Cowboys and a quarterback looking to reboot his career, it’s precisely what this marriage was designed for — reaching for the best possible outcome of the worst-case scenario.

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