Dak Prescott and his brother Tad spent time Sunday night, a brutal night in a brutal year, in the hospital together, already looking forward to coming back stronger. After watching Prescott overcome personal tragedies in his life and questions about his game on the field, I have little doubt he'll do so. I have little doubt it will happen in a Cowboys uniform. But that's for 2021.
In the here and now, the compound right ankle fracture and dislocation that Dak suffered Sunday against the Giants changed the complexion of the NFC in an instant. The cruel blow eliminates any backdoor route the Cowboys were hoping to take to title-contender status. It's possible that backup Andy Dalton could still lead the Cowboys to a playoff spot in one of the worst divisions in memory without his two starting offensive tackles, but that's beside the point. Dallas has lost early in the playoffs plenty before, and that's a best-case scenario now.
The ceiling on the 2020 Cowboys was already lowering by the week following the season-ending injuries to left tackle Tyron Smith and right tackle La'el Collins. The defense lost tackle Trysten Hill for the year on Sunday, too, and hardly solved its problems during the 37-34 win over the Giants that lifted Dallas to first place in the NFC East at 2-3. Dalton showed, with some courageous throws late, that he should be able to move the ball, and the schedule still has plenty of winnable games left. The Cowboys will remain in prime time because they are the Cowboys, and they will stay in the playoff race because seven wins may win the division.
But true hope has left the building until 2021, and no one is going to replicate Prescott's play and leadership.
Perhaps his absence will help the Cowboys realize what they have in Prescott. Though he's on track to be a free agent after this year, I fully expect Prescott to be back in Dallas next season, because the NFL is set up for teams to keep their superstars, and top-10 quarterbacks in their prime simply aren't allowed to leave. The Cowboys would be crazy to let him go.
"He's our future," Cowboys VP Stephen Jones said Monday on 105.3 The Fan. "If anyone can overcome anything, it's Dak. Feel very good that he can come back stronger and better than ever."
The Cowboys' front office hasn't exactly earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to closing a deal with Dak, who was playing 2020 on the franchise tag after the team failed to strike a long-term extension with him, but I believe Jones here. Prescott has the highest cap figure of any NFL quarterback in 2020, and he should remain near the top next year, even if too much energy will be spent talking about it.
In the meantime, here's to hoping that Dak and Tad have all the support they need navigating the coming months. Dak Prescott spoke eloquently earlier this year about the anxiety and depression he was suffering during this pandemic before his brother Jace committed suicide at age 31. After shouldering so much since becoming the face of the Cowboys franchise as a fourth-round rookie, Prescott deserves to be lifted up in the days to come.
The Prescott injury changed the course of the NFL season Sunday. Here's a look at five more Week 5 developments to do so:
1) The 49ers are in deep trouble. A lot can change in two weeks, and no team (outside of Dallas) has had a worse two weeks than the 49ers. It appeared that The Fighting Shanahans would enter the teeth of their schedule at 4-1 with their offense healthy, but back-to-back home losses to the Eagles and Dolphins, in games where the Niners were heavily favored, spell doom for their season. At 2-3, they've already lost as many games as they did last regular season. Getting physically manhandled on both lines in a 43-17 loss to the Dolphins shows how far they are from their 2019 form.
The 49ers now trail the Seahawks by three games in the NFC West and have a quarterback conundrum after coach Kyle Shanahan benched starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who was playing in his first game since missing two games with a high ankle sprain, at halftime Sunday. Shanahan kept throwing the ball every down late in the first half, aggressively taking a timeout with 30 seconds left at his own 25-yard line to give Jimmy G. more chances in what amounted to a test that Garoppolo failed. The quarterback did not look fully recovered from his injury, another new problem popping up just as the 49ers got their starting skill-position group back together again. Their offensive line is not communicating or blocking well. Quarterback C.J. Beathard has played in two straight games off the bench, which is never a good sign. Without a dominant defensive line, the 49ers' injuries in the secondary have been exposed. And now the schedule presents a massive problem.
The 49ers' next seven games are against teams that are currently .500 or better: Rams, Patriots, Seahawks, Packers, Saints, Rams and Bills. Considering the current state of the 49ers, going 4-3 against that murderer's row to reach 6-6 overall would be a remarkable accomplishment, with a 4-8 or 5-7 record looking like the much more likely outcome. Just hoping to be .500 in mid-December is not where the 49ers expected to be as defending NFC champions, but this avalanche of injuries and regression may be too tough to overcome.
2) There is no replacing Chandler Jones in Arizona. With all the focus on the Cardinals' sluggish offense, little attention has been paid to Arizona's average defense. Following Jones' biceps injury on Sunday against the Jets, the Cardinals may be lucky to stay average. While Jones is currently exploring non-surgical options on his biceps, coach Kliff Kingsbury said after the team's game that the team fears he tore the muscle, which usually ends a player's season.
It's hard to imagine the team generating much of a pass rush without its best player. Haason Reddick, Devon Kennard and Zach Allen, who are next up as edge rushers, have totaled 24 pressures between them in five games. It's difficult to see where the Cardinals get their defensive juice otherwise. No. 8 overall pick Isaiah Simmons has struggled, only earning a handful of defensive snaps per game. Three-time All-Pro corner Patrick Peterson has not had the resurgent season he hoped thus far. At 3-2 and with a prime-time game against the Cowboys coming up, the Cardinals still have a great chance to stay relevant for a while this season. But they need their offense to improve, because the defense does not look like a difference-maker without Jones.
3) The Falcons have a head start on their next era. General manager Thomas Dimitroff was hired in 2008 and made Matt Ryan his first draft pick, selecting the quarterback third overall that April. With Dimitroff and coach Dan Quinn being swept out Sunday night after the team fell to 0-5 with a loss to Carolina, it's worth pondering Ryan's future in Atlanta.
The NFL trade deadline is still three weeks away, and the Falcons should be sellers, despite president Rich McKay's insistence that there will be no fire sale. Center Alex Mack, safety Keanu Neal, pass rusher Takkarist McKinley and running back Todd Gurley are all free agents after the season, and it would make some sense for contenders to pursue those players. It's almost impossible to imagine Ryan or receiver Julio Jones being dealt during the season, because of the massive salary-cap implications and because the Falcons' next general manager isn't in place yet, but it's not too crazy to imagine Ryan's time with the Falcons winding down.
Ryan didn't do enough Sunday to save Quinn's job, starting the game with 88 yards on his first 20 throws before making killer second-half mistakes in the red zone, including an overthrow, a missed read for a touchdown and a pick in the end zone.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank only had to look as far as the opposing sideline on Sunday if he wanted to see a coaching staff capable of covering up defensive injuries and immediately establishing offensive cohesion. Panthers coach Matt Rhule was a splashy hire last offseason, made by an organization that started its search relatively early, with Rhule's predecessor in Carolina, Ron Rivera, being fired on Dec. 3 of last year. McKay -- who once had Dimitroff's job as Falcons general manager -- will have a big head start on this latest restart. After 13 straight drafts run by Dimitroff, with Atlanta logging the fourth-most wins in the NFC from 2008 to 2020, this figures to be a dramatic overhaul. It's just complicated.
Only two teams have more 2021 salary-cap commitments than the Falcons because of huge contracts for Ryan, Julio Jones, Grady Jarrett, Jake Matthews, Dante Fowler and Deion Jones. The Falcons are $37.5 million over the projected cap in effective cap space, according to Over the Cap, the third-worst mark in the NFL. The big deals that Dimitroff handed out will impact Falcons decisions for years to come.
4) Remember Russell Wilson's fourth-down touchdown throw to DK Metcalf when home-field advantage is being decided in December. You can also remember, of course, the Seahawks' goal-line stop of Cam Newton in their Week 2 win over the Patriots and their end-zone interception of Dak Prescott in their Week 3 win over the Cowboys. Remember all that regression Seattle was supposed to suffer after displaying an insane ability to win insane games in 2019? Not happening.
The Vikings played Mike Zimmer's dream game on Sunday, shutting out the Seahawks in the first half and slowing down Wilson's decision-making process with his coverages. The Vikings ran 83 plays and held the ball for nearly 40 minutes. They overcame consecutive Kirk Cousins turnovers to take the lead back on consecutive long touchdown drives, needing 1 more yard or one more stop to win the game. They still lost.
This result may hurt Minnesota more than it even helps Seattle. The Vikings were just about to look frisky, poised to improve to 2-3 with an offense hitting its stride. Instead, they're just a 1-4 team that can still find a way to lose when playing its A game.
5) The Raiders' victory in Kansas City gives the AFC hope. If the Chiefs' annual doormat can win in Arrowhead, perhaps this season truly is different in Kansas City. Las Vegas' comeback victory coming six days after the Patriots' defense slowed down Patrick Mahomes reduces the feeling of invincibility around these Chiefs and raises the chances there could be a legitimate race for the No. 1 seed in the AFC, if not the AFC West title. I still expect the Kansas City offense to hit another gear, but this game should help put to rest the Chiefs' defense is elite narrative, which never made much sense. It's 2020, and good offenses can still score a ton on good defenses, something Chiefs fans know well. The game flow of Colts-Browns and Eagles-Steelers (the first- and fifth-ranked scoring defenses entering Week 5 coughed up 32 points to Cleveland and 29 to Philadelphia, respectively) only furthered the notion that most good defenses are only so good at getting stops in this new NFL.
It's an offensive league, and the Raiders' offense is a top-10 group when right tackle Trent Brown and wideout Henry Ruggs III are on the field. Las Vegas has survived perhaps the toughest schedule in the league to sit at 3-2 -- and it doesn't get any easier with the Bucs and Browns coming up next after the Week 6 bye. The NFL is more fun with the Silver and Black contending for a playoff spot, and Jon Gruden's crew proved Sunday they will do that much at a minimum this year.