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There are times when this sport is so unfailingly cruel, and not just in the more familiar callous, corporate, soul-crushing way.

Dak Prescott, a player who has overcome immense adversity and tragedy, who has traversed countless life obstacles and plowed an uphill path to becoming the megastar starting quarterback of the most popular franchise in the sport, was carted off the field on Sunday in tears with the kind of gruesome ankle injury that causes bottlenecking on the highway out of spectator curiosity. The Cowboys announced Prescott suffered a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle. It’s an inevitability that we won’t see him again this season. It’s a legitimate question (for another time) as to whether he played his final snap for the Cowboys.

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Prescott rescued Dallas from irrelevance in the post-Romo era, weathered innumerable, unfounded questions about his poise and accuracy and rose quickly to become one of the most effective quarterbacks in the NFL, all while being the kind of affable figure that few who aren’t paid to be soulless contrarians can find a bad thing to say about. His reward for all this was to have his team lowball him at the altar when it came to contract negotiations, forcing him to either accept a below-market deal or play the season out on the franchise tag.

That will largely be the focus of it all, of course. What Prescott should or should not have done with his money even if this injury proves he was right to wait out every last dollar he deserved. The inclination to make this about greed or liken it to some kind of flippant casino bet has been exercised in full force in the moments after he was flopped on the cart and stuffed a towel in his mouth to mask the pain. Before he was bussed to the hospital, a million anonymous wanna-be analysts, agents and financial planners already picked him apart.

What we’ll all realize in the coming weeks and months was just how valuable Prescott really is. During the height of the Cowboys’ latest surge, so much of the good was assigned to the offensive line and the running game to the point where Prescott appeared to be a product of the system. The reality couldn’t have been further from that unfounded platitude, with Prescott shining in the kind of advanced, individual statistics that clearly proved he was buoying a broken system for longer than we realized. He was one of the best things that happened to Jerry Jones’s Cowboys, a franchise that, for some strange reason, continuously found itself in the dumbest of luck as it stumbled from one franchise quarterback to the next.

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Now, the Cowboys will marinate in the Andy Dalton era. Maybe it won’t seem so bad as they slog through the unimpressive waters of the NFC East. They did, after all, manage to beat the winless Giants by a fingernail on Sunday on the strength of a time-expiring field goal. Dalton hit on a pass down the sideline that had an 85% chance of falling incomplete. They did, after all, manage to take over first place and achieve a modicum of security.

But that’s the thing about a quarterback who truly alters your franchise. You’ll begin to notice it in the preparation and the meetings. In the interviews and on the sidelines. It will come in waves, especially during the meatier portions of their schedule where the Ravens, Cardinals and Steelers still lurk, not to mention the two Eagles games that will likely decide the fate of the division.

Through the remainder of the season, the focus might shift to what Prescott has done and not what he should have been doing. Maybe then, the inherent cruelty of the NFL shifts to an appropriate respect. Maybe then, we start talking about Prescott’s inevitable comeback.

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