There's an old saying that if a team has two quarterbacks, it has none, meaning if there's no go-to-guy, then what's the point?
The investment the Dallas Cowboys have made in their quarterback room certainly reflects this mindset with Dak Prescott, a two-time Pro Bowl selection and 2016 Offensive Rookie of the Year, in the second season of his four-year, $160 million contract. Conversely, backup quarterback Cooper Rush, who has one career start, is on a one-year, $395,800 contract and wasn't on the team's active roster until a day before their 19-3 Sunday night defeat in Week 1 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The three points scored in the Cowboys' season-opening loss was their fewest in a home game since 2002, and also the fewest in a season opener since 1989 -- Troy Aikman's rookie season in which the team went 1-15. Furthermore, the Cowboys were the only team to not score a touchdown in the NFL's opening week.
However, following Prescott's thumb injury, which he suffered in the fourth quarter of that loss, and the subsequent surgery on his right hand that he uses to grip and throw a football, Dallas has oozed confidence, from the front office on down to the players, in turning over its offense to Rush for Week 2 against Joe Burrow and the defending AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals.
Dak will be back
Part of the Cowboys' confidence this week stems from an organizational belief that Prescott could return sooner than his initially reported timeline of Week 8 or Week 10. That thought process led to Dallas owner and czar Jerry Jones to declare there are no trade discussions in process to acquire a seasoned fill-in for Prescott. That includes 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who has led his team to a Super Bowl appearance and is now the backup for Trey Lance, who San Francisco drafted No. 3 overall in 2021. Head coach Kyle Shanahan said Monday if the Cowboys called to inquire about Garoppolo, who recently signed a one-year deal, that "just like all players, we'll listen to anybody on anything."
"The people who are ready to play quarterback for us are the ones who played for us all the preseason, Cooper Rush and [Will] Grier," Jones said on his weekly Tuesday radio appearance on 105.3 The Fan. "We got a lot of snaps for both of those guys in practice sessions and preseason games, a lot of familiarity with the offense. … We don't have any trade pending or in the mill, so it's unlikely we would have a veteran quarterback who could get back in here and play as well as those we have who have been in our system could play even if you thought there was a talent advantage."
Jones and the Cowboys are also banking on Prescott returning to action sooner than later.
"We feel very good after surgery and listening to the medical people that Dak has a real chance to be out there throwing the ball pretty quick. If we thought he wouldn't be ready to go in the next four games, we would put him on injured reserve [which would force Prescott to miss the next four games]. We're not doing that."
The Cowboys have plenty of experience in dealing with a hobbled Prescott and what that does to their offense. In 2020, Prescott suffered a gruesome ankle fracture and dislocation in Week 5 -- Mike McCarthy's first season as head coach -- and missed the final 11 games. After having two surgeries to remedy the injury, Prescott missed most of the team's 2021 training camp and was held out for precautionary reasons stemming from a strained right shoulder. Last season, Prescott suffered a calf strain in Week 6, and after a Week 7 bye, missed the Cowboys' following game in Minnesota -- Rush's first and only career start. Earlier this year, soon after a first-round playoff loss against the 49ers, Prescott had surgery on his left shoulder that McCarthy deemed "not a concern."
The fractured and surgically repaired thumb is Prescott's latest malady. Does Prescott have a tendency to get hurt more than others?
"I think that when you look at the limitations he has had with what his injuries have been, I see where you could point to that," Jones said on Tuesday when asked if his quarterback is injury prone. "But, I do not think that's the case. I always thought one of his strengths was his durability. He's big, strong, thick, all of that. I think we're in good shape there relative to his status as a viable, have-him-most-of-the-time quarterback."
The 6-foot-2, 238-pound quarterback has missed 12 games in the previous six seasons (2016-21), and the Cowboys are 5-7 in those games without him. They went 4-7 in 2020 without Prescott, and won their only game without him last season against the Vikings with Rush running the show. Twelve-year veteran and current New Orleans Saints quarterback Andy Dalton made nine of the 12 starts in Prescott's absence (all in 2020) with Rush, Garrett Gilbert and Ben DiNucci starting in the other three.
The obvious conclusion: The Cowboys don't move the football up and down the field nearly as well without Prescott. There are glaring drop-offs across the board in scoring per game, total yards per game, red zone scoring and passer rating.
Cowboys offense by starting QB (since 2016)
|Stats (2016-22)||Dak Prescott||All Others*|
Red Zone TD PCT.
* Andy Dalton, Cooper Rush, Garrett Gilbert, Ben DiNucci
Now what? Commit to the run
One solution three-time Pro Bowl running back Ezekiel Elliott repeatedly offered for the Cowboys' offense after practice on Wednesday was a simple one: Commit to running the football.
"I think it's important, period, to establish the run game and run the ball," Elliott said. "I think we're better as an offense when we run the ball. I think we ran the ball efficiently last Sunday and I'm looking forward to committing to it this week."
Elliott finished with just 10 carries in Week 1 -- his lowest ever in a season opener -- but he finished with 52 rushing yards, averaging 5.2 yards per attempt. When asked if there's a magic number the Cowboys rushers need to hit to maintain a balanced offense, Elliott declined to name one, but he had a definitive opinion on whether his 10 rushes will suffice going forward.
"Nah," Elliott said. "I think we came and did well in the run game [against the Buccaneers]. More importantly, we have to protect No. 4 [Prescott], protect the quarterback. We have to establish that run game and get that going, but more importantly protect the quarterback."
In the 12 games without Prescott, the Cowboys have run the football on 40.6% of their offensive plays, a number that climbs to 43.7% with Prescott under center. Knowing opposing defenses will put a larger emphasis on slowing him down, Elliott maintained his stance that the best way forward is to force teams to respect the Cowboys' rushing attack.
"Yeah, it's going to happen, and we're going to have to run the ball against those heavy fronts and establish the run game," Elliott said. "I think we have the guys to do it."
Zeke rushing stats with/without Prescott
|Elliott||With Dak||Without Dak|
Rush Attempts Per Game
Rush Yards Per Game
Rush Yards Per Attempt
In (Cooper) Rush we trust
When Prescott was sidelined with a calf strain in Week 8 last season, the Cowboys turned to the undrafted Central Michigan product to make his first career start and run their offense. Rush delivered, leading Dallas to a 20-16 victory in the game's final minute. Rush was decisive, getting the football out of his hands quickly, averaging 2.62 seconds on his average time to throw, a rate that would have ranked as the 10th-fastest in Week 1 this season. His quick processing led to him being pressured on fewer than 20% of his dropbacks (19.6%), which would have ranked as the fourth-lowest rate in Week 1 despite not having last season's starting tackles Tyron Smith and La'el Collins in his win against Minnesota.
Averaging 8.1 yards per pass attempt against the Vikings, and with his time to throw being on the lower end of the scale, the Cowboys will likely mold their game plan around Rush's ability to deliver the ball quickly on short-to-intermediate passes with the aggressive part of their offensive likely being a quicker, up-tempo pace.
Rush career stats in games started
*Making second career start in Week 2 vs. CIN
"When you have a chance to go through an experience with your quarterback, Cooper showed us a lot that day," McCarthy said on Wednesday. "The other part of it is we work every day with Cooper. He's coached smart, he's got a great disposition for the No. 2. There's so much to love about Cooper. He just needs to get in there and run the offense, not try and do too much. We have to stay aggressive to open things up."
Rush didn't try to do too much on the Cowboys' final drive of their win against the Vikings, which led to him throwing the game-winning touchdown pass with under a minute to go. Trailing 16-12 and facing third down and 11 from the Vikings' 20 with only 1:04 to play, Rush threw a checkdown pass to Elliott, who broke multiple tackles and picked up the first down by reaching the 4-yard line, creating a first and goal with 55 seconds left in the game.
The very next play, Rush threw the game-winning touchdown on a jump ball to wide receiver Amari Cooper, placed where only he could corral the football, giving Dallas a 20-16 lead with 51 seconds remaining.
Those two plays endeared Rush to his teammates ever since.
"I've been around Coop a long time. I think he came in the year after me  and one year he wasn't here [spent part of 2020 on the New York Giants practice squad]," Elliott said on Wednesday. I've been around Coop a lot, we spend a lot of time together, so personally I know Coop knows his shit. I know he's on top of this offense. I know he knows it inside-out. Maybe not as well as Dak, but very well. We all have a lot of confidence, and I think last year has a lot to do with the way he stepped in and played in Minnesota."
The opposing defensive play-caller the Cowboys will face this week -- Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo -- doesn't view Rush as a typical NFL backup quarterback because of his five years in the Cowboys' offensive system and his relationship with Dallas offensive coordinator Kellen Moore.
"It's not like your typical backup going in the game and pare down and play," Anarumo said on Thursday via The Athletic. "This guy knows the whole playbook."
Now that Cooper, the four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver who was on the receiving end of Rush's game-winning strike, is a Cleveland Brown after a trade early in the offseason, third-year receiver and former first-rounder CeeDee Lamb is atop the Cowboys' receiving depth chart.
He hasn't had a game with over 100 receiving yards in his last 11 games played, including the playoffs, but Rush may be just what Lamb needs. His last time topping the century mark was in Rush's start in Week 8 last year when the carrot-topped backup targeted Lamb eight times for six connections and 112 yards. The front office definitely expects a bounce-back performance from Lamb any game now.
I think we've certainly got to step up and do better," Cowboys executive vice president and director of player personnel Stephen Jones said to 105.3 The Fan on Monday following their 19-3 loss. "The passing game goes hand-in-hand -- the quarterback and the receivers. Certainly, we've got to be better there. CeeDee has got to improve and work his way into being the No. 1 receiver we think he can [be]."
"No," Lamb said after practice Thursday when asked he was taken by surprise by the amount of attention he received as the Cowboys' top wide receiver following the departure of Cooper. "Because I hold myself to that standard. Everyone has their own opinion. … But I mean, it is Week 1. You've got to understand we have 16 more."
Rush himself reiterated his belief in Lamb after practice on Thursday.
"He's an elite receiver. We all have seen the tape of what he does out there," Rush said. "I got to try to find him and he'll go make plays, just give him a shot. Trust him. We've had a good week together, so I'm looking forward to that."
Lamb also sounded just as confident with Rush as his quarterback as he would with Prescott when asked about his mindset entering Week 2.
"Go to the game ready to score, but honestly just going in and doing what I do," Lamb said on Thursday. "Obviously I haven't had the greatest, as you said, I haven't had 100 yards or a touchdown recently but just going in with the mindset that I am."
After completing seven of his 13 passes for 64 passing yards in relief of the injured Prescott on Sunday, Rush also echoed the tone of the rest of the Cowboys organization.
"That's the job of the backup: You have to go in and make things click as if No. 4 is in there," Rush said on Sunday night. "We'll draw on that experience last year big time, getting my feet wet last year and getting out there tonight. We'll re-group as a team and as an offense, we'll be alright."
If Cooper can continue to hold his own as Prescott's stunt double like he did in his winning effort in Week 8 against the Vikings a year ago, perhaps he can keep Jerry Jones from rushing Dak back into action, thus aiding Prescott's and the Cowboys' long-term health and viability.