The Cowboys have settled, for now, on their backup quarterback.
They hope the decision won’t need to become relevant.
Dallas released quarterbacks Garrett Gilbert and Ben DiNucci ahead of the deadline to trim NFL rosters from 80 to 53 men. Cooper Rush, a fifth-year backup whom Dallas signed as an undrafted free agent in 2017, remained on the roster. He is set to back up Dak Prescott.
Surpassing Rush on the depth would require clearing a “high bar,” Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones said.
“You got to assume with his knowledge of what we’re doing offensively, what we’re doing with the existing personnel that we’re going to be opening with, you got to assume you got a pretty high bar here in terms of what’s the most effective way to play if you didn’t have Dak now,” Jones said Tuesday morning on Dallas radio station 105.3 The Fan. “It’s a high bar when you got the background in it that Cooper’s got. So, we’ll see how that goes. Obviously this waiver wire, comments on who’s waived, your interest, where are you going to be, those are highly competitive.”
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Rush has experiencing backing up Prescott as a member of the Cowboys’ quarterback room from 2017-19 and part of 2020. For four seasons, Prescott was remarkably durable and started 72 straight games for Dallas, including playoffs. But Oct. 11, 2020, he suffered a season-ending fracture and dislocation of his right ankle.
The Cowboys cycled through veteran Andy Dalton, Gilbert and DiNucci in the four games that followed. Prescott received clearance to practice fully ahead of training camp, reintegrating into 11-on-11 work against a live rush without visible hampering from his surgically repaired ankle. Then, on July 28 during the Cowboys’ first padded practice, Prescott felt unusual soreness and tightness in his throwing shoulder. An MRI revealed a latissimus strain. He has completed a four-week period of rest and gradual reintegration, no longer subject to a pitch count.
“None whatsoever,” Jones said Tuesday morning.
While Prescott was sidelined, the Cowboys had ample time to evaluate the other quarterbacks in their building. Gilbert took most first-team snaps in practice after Prescott’s injury, a credit to his performance in one start for the Cowboys last season. Gilbert completed 21 of 38 attempts for 243 yards, a touchdown and an interception in a 24-19 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Cowboys brass was impressed with the leadership and comfort Gilbert displayed so soon after joining the franchise.
But during weeks of first-team work during training camp, Gilbert did not substantively advance. The Cowboys defense dominated team competitive drills daily. DiNucci, whose lone start last year featured two lost fumbles and no touchdowns, has turned heads more for his side-arm mechanics than his growing system proficiency. Against the Houston Texans on Aug. 21, Rush secured the lead in the backup quarterback race. He completed 10 of 12 attempts for 97 yards and two touchdowns with no turnovers. Gilbert completed three of five attempts while losing a fumble on a sack, and DiNucci threw three interceptions.
McCarthy drilled the importance of ball security in the postgame locker room that night.
“I’m upset because of turnovers,” he said in footage aired on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” episode days later. “We cannot play that way. And we will not play that way. OK?”
Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and Jones subsequently lauded Rush’s understanding of the Cowboys’ offense.
“He really showed a lot of playmaking ability,” Jerry Jones said. “We want him to get the ball out quick, we want him to have success and mainly do the kinds of things that dare I say it – don’t turn the ball over, keep us in position to make a play.
“You’ve heard from our coordinator: He can call any play with Cooper Rush that he calls with Dak Prescott. That’s very important and rare. … [Rush] has shown he can run the complete offense.”
The Cowboys could still look to the free agent market to bolster depth, executive vice president Stephen Jones saying publicly during training camp that Rush and Gilbert’s competition for the backup spot extended to players across the league. Rush’s NFL experience covers just 26 total snaps. He completed one of three pass attempts for 2 total yards from 2017-19. He rushed twice for 13 yards in what amounted to garbage-time action. Still, he said Sunday, he believes he could lead this team if called upon.
“I feel like I can go in there and we cannot miss a beat schematically and run our stuff,” Rush said. “That’s the job as a backup and that’s what you try to do.”
The Cowboys could consider quarterbacks released across the league Tuesday, the most notable name being 2015 league MVP Cam Newton, who was released by New England. Dallas would have loved to keep Dalton in the room but was not interested in pouring much more finances into a quarterback room already bloated by Prescott’s $40 million salary. Plus, Jerry Jones insisted Tuesday, Rush’s intuitional knowledge is valued at the Star.
“The big this you got to feel good,” Jerry Jones said. “You got to feel like the team feels good when he’s in the huddle. All of that is alive and well with Cooper.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.