Cowboys fans knew they wouldn’t be seeing Dak Prescott make his return to real game action on Thursday night in Canton. But if they were hoping to come away from the Hall of Fame Game with a better sense of who Prescott’s primary backup would be for the 2021 season, a lackluster performance from all three passers provided no real clarity.
Garrett Gilbert, Cooper Rush, and Ben DiNucci came out of the 16-3 loss with strikingly similar stat lines, with no one doing much to distance himself from the competition.
One year ago, Gilbert was in Cleveland, gunning for a spot on the Browns’ roster. He was cut before the season opener and signed by the Cowboys in October after Prescott’s ankle injury. He took the first offensive snaps for Dallas, finishing the evening 9-of-13 and 104 passing yards.
“I thought Gilbert did a really good job,” Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy told reporters afterward. “I’m sure there’s a decision or two that we’ll look at that he may want back. But I thought he was very productive in his work.”
For Gilbert, who started Week 9’s meeting with the Steelers last season (and nearly engineered a Cowboys upset win), it was a chance to knock off the rust… and get the rust knocked off of him.
“Fun to go get hit every once in a while. It’s been a while,” the 30-year-old said, “so it’s nice to get knocked down and be able get back up again. I enjoyed that.”
He enjoyed it so much, he took two sacks in his limited action, while driving the offense to its only points, a short field goal by Hunter Niswander.
“We moved the ball really well,” Gilbert commented, “but then got down to the red zone and kind of got stalled out a couple times. Got to do a better job on third down, situationally, in order to finish off those drives and get ourselves some points.”
McCarthy wasn’t as concerned about the final score as he was with getting a read on several players and personnel packages. But the team’s timeshare approach to the quarterback position was- by his own admission- as much about not wearing out any arms before Saturday’s joint practice with the Rams.
“This is a three-day window for us,” McCarthy said. “We’ve got a lot of work; we had tonight’s game, and then we flip around Saturday and we’ve got the Rams for intersquad practice. So the way we played our players was really with both the game tonight and the practice Saturday in mind. I’m very hopeful and confident that’ll we’ll come out of both of these opportunities with a lot of great tape and a lot of things we can build off of.”
In relief of Gilbert, Rush went 8-of-13 and recorded 70 passing yards.
“Cooper did a nice job,” McCarthy noted. “Took a couple hits, threw in the face of a couple hits. Obviously, we had plenty of pressure to deal with tonight, so that’s great work for the quarterbacks. These are a lot of good situations that we had tonight.”
McCarthy has emphasized situational football thus far in training camp, so putting his players in a variety of different scenarios all goes toward building more tape that the team and coaching staff can study moving forward.
“Definitely there’s going to be a lot to correct, but these are good things that we can learn from and build,” the coach expained. “I think the fact that we have tonight and then Saturday work against the Rams back-to-back? I think come this time Monday, we’re going to feel pretty good about where we are.”
Cowboys fans may not have felt quite so good about DiNucci’s second-half outing. He finished 7-of-17 and 89 passing yards with one interception.
“I think the [play] that sticks out is the turnover; it’s going to be highlighted,” the 2020 seventh-round pick said. “I got hit when I was throwing and the ball sailed a little bit. That’s on me; that’s easily correctable. It’s not like I made the wrong read. Just got to bring the ball down a little bit.”
DiNucci seemed to go to his sidearm slinging/throwing motion frequently throughout the night, whether it was truly necessary or not. It’s hard to imagine coaches won’t spend some time with him on his mechanics in the coming days and weeks; even McCarthy struggled to find the right word when reviewing his project’s performance.
“I thought DiNucci made some throws off his back foot that were, you know… unique.”
On the plus side, the 24-year-old out of James Madison added 34 ground yards to his stat sheet on just two scrambles. He was the team’s second-leading rusher for the game.
“I kind of pride myself on that,” he explained. “In today’s day and age, you need to be able to be athletic to play quarterback for when the pocket breaks down, or some of those nakeds or designed runs are called. Being able to use my feet, be smart about it, get as many yards as I can and get down, that gets me in a groove as well. Being able to use my legs, I think, keeps the defense honest. It’s all positives for me.”
But whether it’s enough to push him up the depth chart remains to be seen. With the club taking a slow and methodical approach with working Prescott back into live action, DiNucci, Rush, and Gilbert should all gets reps against the Rams on Saturday and then again August 13th when the Cowboys travel to Arizona.
Each of them is likely living by the mindset Gilbert explained to the media after Thursday’s opening exhibition:
“My job remains the same: I’m going to go out there every day and be the best quarterback I can be for this football team and let the chips fall where they may.”
After the team’s first game action in 214 days, it’s impossible to tell where those chips will land for any of the Cowboys’ backups.
Leave a Reply