Ben DiNucci never expected to be in this position this season. Neither did the Cowboys.
Forced into starting duty for an injured Dak Prescott (IR; ankle) and Andy Dalton (concussion), the rookie quarterback did his best to keep the offense moving in Sunday's 23-9 loss to the Eagles at a windy Lincoln Financial Field.
But the Cowboys failed to score a touchdown for the second consecutive game and gained just 265 total yards, the second lowest of the season behind last Sunday's 142 total yards in a 25-3 loss to Washington.
"We had a few good drives where we got past the 50 and then, one thing or another, we just kind of stalled out," DiNucci said.
Starting Sunday in his home state of Pennsylvania, DiNucci completed 21 of 40 passes for 180 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions, though a few attempts were close calls in tight coverage. He was sacked four times and fumbled twice, leading to 13 of the Eagles' 23 points, as the Cowboys continued to work through injuries on the offensive line.
The Cowboys tried to ease the pressure on the former James Madison star by establishing the run and calling some gadget plays early. A strong effort on defense kept the game close and allowed DiNucci to operate with some balance – a rarity for the offense this season given the number of second-half deficits.
"I thought he did some good things. You know, it was a tough contest for the young man," head coach Mike McCarthy said. "To come into his first opportunity for live action in the National Football League on Sunday Night Football, division game, obviously it's the continuity and consistency that you look for. I felt he did some really good things. He can make plays with his feet. He will continue to improve off of that."
DiNucci's mobility is one of his best strengths. He ran four times for 22 yards Sunday, including a 6-yard gain for a first down that pushed Dallas deeper into Eagles territory down 15-9 midway through the fourth quarter.
Five plays later, facing third-and-6 from the Eagles' 21, DiNucci lost his second fumble of the game on a strip-sack by T.J. Edwards and recovery/return for a touchdown by Rodney McLeod.
Replays showed a potential offsides by Philadelphia before the snap, but the play stood and the Cowboys never recovered from the 21-9 deficit.
"We thought it was offsides," McCarthy said. I haven't seen the video yet, so I don't have a comment on that. But in live action, I thought it was clearly offsides. That's why the ball was snapped early."
DiNucci wanted his first fumble back most: first quarter, second-and-7 from the Eagles' 7.
"I've just gotta trust myself and let the ball go," he said. "We've got points on the board. I've got to know that we've got at least three in the bank. We're already up 3-0. It's the second drive in the game, and our defense just forced a huge turnover early in the game. Just situational awareness that my guy's not there -- throw it away and live to see another play. That's totally my fault."
But Sunday undoubtedly was a challenging situation for the seventh-round pick, who didn't even have the benefit preseason game reps due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
DiNucci became the 14th rookie in Cowboys history to start at quarterback and the first since Prescott started the 2016 season opener against the Giants. The record: 4-10 all-time.
The last Cowboys rookie to win with a complete start was former head coach Jason Garrett in 1993 against the Cardinals.
Time will tell if DiNucci gets another opportunity for the Cowboys (2-6) this season. Prescott is on IR following ankle surgery, but Dalton could be back as early as this week. McCarthy said Dalton was feeling "significantly better" Saturday as he continued through concussion protocol.
DiNucci will stay ready and learn from Sunday's experience.
"I'm just going to make sure that I keep preparing the right way," he said. "If it's me, I'll make sure that I'm ready to go, and if it's Andy I'll make sure that I'm ready to go as the backup."