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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