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3 & Out

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3 & Out: 3 Next-Cowboys-Up Who Have Stepped Up


FRISCO, Texas – Back with three quick topics about the Dallas Cowboys, and this week, we're focusing on three players who have emerged during this 3-1 start heading into Sunday's road game against the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams.

This impressive three-game win streak without quarterback Dak Prescott reminded me of many moments in 17 seasons covering the Cowboys when the team proved (mostly) all of us dead wrong.

Typically over the years, when the Cowboys have exceeded expectations, somebody had a breakout season. Somebody sparked the entire roster. In 2006 it was Tony Romo taking over at quarterback. In 2009 it was Miles Austin following Romo's undrafted-to-Pro-Bowl template. In 2014 it was DeMarco Murray flirting with 2,000 rushing yards. In 2016 it was Prescott winning 13 games as a fourth-round pick. In 2018 it was Amari Cooper saving the passing game at midseason.

This year, while there's a long way to go, the Cowboys are firmly "back in the hunt," as Jerry Jones said, instead of scratching their way uphill after four games. It's taken a collective effort to make everyone forget that demoralizing Week 1 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. More than three guys deserve credit for that.

But this is "3 & Out," after all, so we're sticking with three names. Here's the list:

I Know…
Tyler Smith is making people rethink their draft-day assessments.

"If he couldn't outright win the job at left guard, how's he going to succeed at left tackle?"

I got that question countless times in the Mailbag after Tyron Smith injured his hamstring late in training camp. And to a certain extent, I understood the skepticism. Tyler Smith didn't play at a major college program. Some evaluators thought he'd be a second-round pick. In his final season at Tulsa he had 16 penalties, which also happened to be a major issue for the Cowboys in 2021.

Through four games, though, Tyler Smith looks like a natural. He has been a big part of their success in the run game, particularly in wins over the Cincinnati Bengals and New York Giants, when the Cowboys were often left-handed with their rushing attack. In pass protection he's only allowed one sack in 255 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.

Washington gave Smith and the Cowboys' offensive line some trouble -- the offense averaged only 2.1 yards per carry -- and Smith has been called for three penalties in four starts. But overall he has shown a blend of power and agility in space that's really impressive for a 21-year-old player.

Without Tyron Smith in the lineup, there was potential for disaster on the left side. We've seen it before. That hasn't happened here. Tyler Smith has made Cooper Rush's job filling in for Prescott a heck of a lot easier.

I Think…
it's easy to forget that safety Donovan Wilson looked like a foundational player on defense two years ago.

We'd all like to put 2020 behind us. It was a nightmare year for everyone and a tough season for the Cowboys, who finished 6-10 and grappled with a defensive transition under former coordinator Mike Nolan.

Wilson was a bright spot. With 3.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and countless big hits, he provided an edge to a struggling defense and laid the groundwork for the group's current identity under Dan Quinn: turnover-minded, fast and physical.

"He's a stud," McCarthy said that season. "I just love the way he plays."

Last year, injuries limited Wilson to eight games and Jayron Kearse's emergence probably cut into his snap count when healthy. But Wilson has been one of the defense's most impactful players during this three-game stretch without Kearse (sprained knee). He has led the team in tackles each of the last two games and provided my favorite play of the Cowboys' 25-10 victory over Washington: a Goldberg-style tackle on Jahan Dotson in space to shut down a third-and-long YAC attempt.

I Have No Idea…
why Cooper Rush can't just be complimented for thriving in his role as Prescott's backup and leave it at that.

Actually, yes, I know why.

It's not because Jerry Jones said two weeks ago he would "welcome" a quarterback controversy. Jones has since clarified the obvious -- that Prescott is the unquestioned starter when healthy -- and if you really drill down on Jones' initial comments, the meaning was clear: if any public debate on Prescott vs. Rush emerges, that means the team is winning, and that's a good thing.

Prescott is the quarterback, the captain, the guy for this team. We all (should) know that. I think one big reason this manufactured quarterback debate exists is the team's unique history at the position.

Cowboys fans are used to Cinderella QB stories.

Romo was never supposed to be the starter for a single game, much less 10 years. Prescott was third-string -- arguably fourth-string -- at one point before rookie season. Heck, even the great Roger Staubach began his pro career as the backup to Craig Morton.

Quarterbacks historically have stretched the limits of Cowboys Nation's imagination. Franchise starters have emerged suddenly, like lightning flashes. And yes, Rush's three starts have been outstanding. He has played within himself. He has made plays when they've needed to be made. Guys around him have really stepped up.

Let's just appreciate the reality of the situation: the Cowboys have found a viable backup to Prescott. That's a good thing.

No further debate is needed.

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