He left with an even bigger smile after helping the Cowboys defeat the New York Giants 37-34 on Sunday with a final-minute drive -- even if he could not get the thought of Dak Prescott's injured right ankle out of his mind.
"You want to be in that situation, tie ballgame, chance to go down, two-minute drive, to win a game," Dalton said. "You want to instill confidence in everybody. I've obviously been in these situations multiple times. ... That's why you play this game, for moments like that."
Dalton was not sure he would experience moments like the one he had in Sunday's game ever again.
In nine seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals, who drafted him No. 35 overall in 2011, Dalton posted a 70-61-2 record, went to the playoffs four times and was named to the Pro Bowl three times. After a 2-11 record in 2019, his run with the Bengals came to an end when they drafted Joe Burrow with the No. 1 overall pick.
Dalton, as a Texas native and free agent this offseason, chose to sign with the Cowboys in part so he could be close to his young family during the coronavirus pandemic rather than chase a potential starting spot with a team farther away.
Prescott started the first 69 games of his pro career, including Sunday's game, and he barely missed any snaps over his four-plus seasons in the league.
But Prescott's gruesome compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle in the third quarter Sunday changed everything for Dalton and the Cowboys (2-3), who are still very much in the thick of the NFC East title chase.
"It's been a lot of fun to be around him," Dalton said of Prescott, who underwent surgery Sunday night. "Ever since I got here, seeing how he works, how he prepares, you see it the way he played this year. I hate it for him. Definitely praying for him."
On his first play after entering the game in the third quarter, Dalton was sacked for a 5-yard loss. On his third snap, running back Ezekiel Elliott scored on a 12-yard run that upped the Cowboys' lead to 31-23. On his first possession of the fourth quarter, Dalton fumbled a center exchange from rookie Tyler Biadasz that New York turned into a touchdown and a 34-31 lead with 8:46 to play.
"One thing you see with this team, there's no flinch," Dalton said. "We play all the way to the end. That's what you love about it."
Greg Zuerlein tied the score with a field goal with less than two minutes to play. After the Cowboys' defense forced the second Giants punt of the game, Dalton had his chance at the Dallas 12 with three timeouts and 52 seconds remaining. His first pass to CeeDee Lamb was incomplete, just one of two passes Dalton missed after taking over.
On second down, he found Amari Cooper for 15 yards. After a timeout, Dalton found Michael Gallup for 19 yards after he was flushed to his right. On first-and-10 from the Dallas 46, Dalton hit Gallup for a 38-yard completion, the second straight play that was upheld by a replay review.
"You put the ball up anywhere close to [Gallup], he's able to come down with them," Dalton said.
When Zuerlein connected on the field goal, Dalton had his 25th game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime since 2011.
"He's a vet," an emotional Elliott said after the game, feeling for his best friend, Prescott. "It's hard to kind of put it in words, I'm sorry. I'm struggling a little bit right now, but Andy, he's a vet. When he gets in that huddle, he's very vocal. He's ready. That's really reassuring. He gets up there with confidence, and that makes it easier for the other players on this team. He's a guy that's played a lot of ball. He's a pro. He does things the right way."
But Dalton is not Prescott, who was off to the best start of his career and the best start ever by a Cowboys quarterback.
The offense will have to change to a degree, relying even more on the run game. Once Dalton entered Sunday, the Cowboys used more of Elliott, who had 19 carries for 91 yards, behind a remade offensive line that included two undrafted free agents at tackle (Brandon Knight and Terence Steele) and a rookie at center.
Dalton has never had the skill-player talent he has in Elliott, Gallup, Cooper and Lamb.
"It's nice that we have those guys out there," Dalton said.
The last time the Cowboys lost their starting quarterback during the regular season was 2015. Tony Romo finished just two of his four starts because of a twice-broken right collarbone, and Dallas went 4-12 for the season.
Coach Mike McCarthy has lost a starting quarterback before. In 2013, the Green Bay Packers made the playoffs with an 8-7-1 record even though Aaron Rodgers missed seven games because of a broken collarbone. Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn combined to go 2-4-1.
In 2017, the Packers lost Rodgers again to a broken collarbone, but his replacement, Brett Hundley, posted a 3-6 record and Green Bay finished 7-9.
"Andy's got a lot of pelts on the wall. He's been a great addition to the quarterback room," McCarthy said. "It's a very healthy quarterback room. I expect Andy to keep our offense moving forward, and hopefully we can improve some. The one thing we haven't nipped in the bud yet is the turnovers. But we have great confidence in Andy."
Dalton is ready for what might be his last chance, which could also be his best chance.
"You never want anything [bad] to happen, but you have to stay ready," Dalton said. "That's what I've done. I've stayed ready, and I've been ready to go into these games. You want to have the opportunity to play. I knew the situation I was in, and I was just trying my best to support Dak in whatever he was doing. But I feel like I was prepared for these moments."