It is a very different situation than last year for the Cowboys.
Brace yourselves. There is a small, but not zero, chance that backup quarterback Cooper Rush will take the field instead of, or in relief of, Dak Prescott when the Dallas Cowboys play the Minnesota Vikings Sunday night. While Prescott seems to be progressing well after his calf injury in the win over the New England Patriots, the team is preparing just in case.
Mike McCarthy: Dak Prescott (right calf) has “improved every day.” Plan is for him to do individual and then they will assess where he is as practice goes along. He is not expected be a full participant today. Backup QB Cooper Rush will get more work than usual
— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) October 27, 2021
#Cowboys HC Mike McCarthy said the coaching staff will consider having three quarterbacks active against the #Vikings if Dak Prescott starts because of how unpredictable calf injuries can be. That would mean Prescott, Cooper Rush and, presumably, Will Grier.
— Ed Werder (@WerderEdESPN) October 28, 2021
“If it was my call, and if it was totally up to me,” Dak Prescott says he’d be playing. But he acknowledges that it’s a long season & the decision isn’t fully up to him.
He feels confident that he’s giving himself the best chance to play. pic.twitter.com/efI7U8SfNd
— David Helman (@HelmanDC) October 28, 2021
Reactions to this among fans generally are in the area of rending of garments and gnashing of teeth. Confidence in Rush is small to nonexistent. In his four years as an on-again, off-again backup QB for the Cowboys (he was not with the team in 2020) he has thrown exactly three passes and completed just one. That was back in 2017. He is the definition of untried and unproven. Just four months ago, it was widely assumed that he would not make the 53-man roster as the staff seemed to really be pushing for Garrett Gilbert to claim the QB2 spot.
Gilbert fizzled, Rush overtook him, and the Cowboys declined to look any further for a backup for the most important player on the roster. Maybe it is that the staff believes Rush brings more to the table than we do, or just the long tradition of red-haired backups in Dallas. Now we look with apprehension at having to find out just how big a problem this situation presents for the Cowboys.
It is one thing to decry how the team let things get to this. But what does it really mean? Here are ways this could shake out.
It is just caution, and Dak starts with no problems
That’s what we all want, of course. Despite how reporters have latched onto the rush to Rush concept, this is all about added preparedness after the end of the game calf problem for Prescott just before the bye. In some ways, this is something the team should have been leaning into more than they have. Rush has only seen the field in one game this year for very few snaps, and those were all handoffs. Given that the Cowboys have two wins by 20 points or more, there were certainly more times Rush could have filled in and attempted a few throws. The only real risk was for him to get intercepted, and with a three-score lead, the team could easily have overcome that kind of miscue.
At least part of the extra work Rush is getting this week may be a belated attempt to have him better prepared than he was before the bye. It also is a way to not overwork Prescott’s calf. If the starter is limited, of course the backups will get more work, it’s a logical conclusion.
Do not discount the possibility of a McCarthy disinformation element here, either. The head coach seems quite content to plant something out there and let it grow and spread to conceal some of the truth from media and opponents alike. With a slightly dinged up starter, all the things that have been reported so far may be nothing more than prudence.
Rush has to play, and the Cowboys lose
This is of course the main concern. It is more or less a foregone conclusion that if the backup plays when the outcome is in question, whether as a starter or coming in if that calf acts up, Dallas loses.
Stepping in because Prescott feels some discomfort during the game is probably the most likely way we see Rush taking meaningful snaps. Barring getting shut down by director of rehab Britt Brown and the medical staff, Prescott will be on the field for the start of the game. It is highly likely that there will be a hair-trigger on pulling him if he feels the slightest twinge, however.
This would hardly doom the playoff chances for the Cowboys if it is just a matter of getting a bit more time for Prescott to fully recover. What it could really hurt is the shot at getting that lone first round bye for the NFC. With the Green Bay Packers squaring off against the Arizona Cardinals on Thursday night, there will be at least one contender for the bye taking a loss this. Dallas clearly wants to take advantage of that. But there are still eleven games ahead for them, and they can’t let a momentary chance to improve things lead to a long-term issue with their starter.
Further, this may force the staff to reevaluate the approach to QB2. After the failure of a perceived high-quality backup in Andy Dalton last season, they swung hard the other way this year. This may reveal if that was indeed an overcorrection.
Cooper has to play a lot – and the Cowboys win
Everyone acts like this is beyond the realm of possibility. But is it? One thing that has stood out this season is just how good the depth has been for Dallas. Going into the season, if we were told that DeMarcus Lawrence, Neville Gallimore, Michael Gallup, La’el Collins, Donovan Wilson, Trysten Hill, and Kelvin Joseph would miss all or most of the first six games, there is no way we would have predicted the 5-1 start. Yet here we are. Player after player has stepped up and been not just adequate, but very effective. The team has not had to rely on Prescott’s arm all the time, either, as the running game is one of the best in the NFL, no matter which way you evaluate it. This staff has been simply outstanding in getting the most out of the backups, several of which have turned into capable starters.
Maybe we need to have a little faith in what the coaches see in Rush. His teammates are all expressing confidence about him. That may be the usual loyalty to a player that is out there working hard with everyone else in practice, but it might also have a kernel of truth. Perhaps it is even a big one.
And Rush has something else that could be very important. That is offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. He has shown a real ability to baffle and outcoach opponents, and he may well be able to get far more out of Rush than we expect. Unlike the situation Dalton found himself in last season, Rush would be surrounded by outstanding talent on the field. He would have that two-headed beast running the ball, a wide receiver group that could be bolstered by the return of Gallup, and an offensive line that has been very good so far. Meanwhile, the defense has shown it is at least performing at an average level compared to the rest of the league. Some metrics actually show they are closer to a top ten unit. And with Randy Gregory, Micah Parsons, Osa Odighizuwa, and the always dangerous Trevon Diggs, they can make game-changing plays at any time.
Rush certainly does not have the incredible vision and processing speed of Prescott, but Moore should be able to get him quick reads to make and get the ball out. He shouldn’t have to throw for 300 yards and three touchdowns to keep the team in the game against the Vikings. The most important thing he needs to do is not make egregious mistakes and stay collected on the field. That includes being willing to throw the ball away or eat it on a sack to avoid a worse outcome.
We are still suffering a bit of PTSD after what happened without Prescott last season. But this is a very different team this year. While they have to take games one at a time, the long view is also important. They want to get to that number one seed, but first and foremost the Cowboys need to make sure they stay in front in the NFC East. That may have to include a loss or two if Prescott does need more recovery time, but it doesn’t have to. You always have to hope for the best but prepare for the worst. In this case, the worst may be a lot less significant than what we fear. We will find out shortly.