FRISCO, Texas – This has got to feel almost easy for Garrett Gilbert, compared to how he got here.
This week's OTAs came with the most surreal sense of normalcy for the Cowboys' entire roster, but particularly for the current favorite to be their backup quarterback. Gilbert had a busy week, throwing reps in individual work and seven-on-seven drills. With Dak Prescott currently sitting out of the full-team sessions, Gilbert functioned as the Cowboys' starting quarterback.
And that's not even to mention the regular aspects of the job that came to feel so alien during the course of a global pandemic.
"I've got to say, it was a little strange to be having a meeting in person yesterday," Gilbert said. "It's really nice to have a little bit of normalcy here."
Contrast that to how the 29-year-old got here last fall in the wake of Prescott's ankle injury. Serving on Cleveland's practice squad, Gilbert was signed to add depth behind Andy Dalton but first had to work through the battery of COVID-19 protocols to reach the roster.
From the time he began practicing, a mere two weeks went by before he was pushed into the starting lineup against an undefeated Pittsburgh team.
"You get used to some sorts of those things – getting reps when you're not used to it, like my time in Cleveland and even prior to that," Gilbert said. "But to be here for three weeks and go start a game, it's definitely up there as far as one of the crazier things that I've dealt with."
That carries a lot of weight coming from Gilbert in particular. His first brush with notoriety came at Texas, when an injury to Colt McCoy thrust him into the national championship game against undefeated Alabama as a true freshman.
In the years since, he's bounced around seven different NFL rosters, considered a career in coaching and starred in the short-lived Alliance of American Football during the spring of 2019.
So again, to simply be working through the basics of an install has got to come as a bit of a relief.
"If there's a positive to having been as many places as I've been, it's that there's a familiarity with almost all systems at this point," he said. "It's just all about terminology and getting the verbiage down. While everything is new, it sort of feels a little bit familiar."
All of that said, there's no denying the pressure of the situation. Gilbert currently leads the trio of quarterbacks playing behind Prescott, along with fellow journeyman Cooper Rush and second-year draft pick Ben DiNucci.
But even if Gilbert is the internal favorite to win the No. 2 job, the Cowboys haven't been shy about their preferences. Back during the NFL draft, Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy made it clear that the team was interested in adding to the position if it could.
"I'll just point to Andy Dalton, when he was acquired last year," McCarthy said at the time. "It just speaks to, you're always looking to upgrade that position – whether it's via the draft or free agency. I will say we definitely want to add some competition to the room."
They've looked around in the weeks since. The Cowboys worked out Jeff Driskel a month ago, and they followed that up by working out Brett Hundley two weeks later. They ultimately decided not to sign either veteran, but it shouldn't come as a surprise if they continue their search.
Asked about it, Gilbert said he can't afford to worry about that – even acknowledging the cliché nature of the response. But even if it's something plenty of players have said before him, it's plenty believable coming from a guy with such a long and winding career path.
"I've been around long enough now," he said. "I think, when I've worried about that stuff in the past, when I was younger, I think it got in the way of what I'm trying to do."
If he handles his business well enough, perhaps Gilbert has more control than he'd think. Perhaps a strong performance through the rest of the spring would convince the Cowboys that they're comfortable with what they have.
Even if not, it's not going to change his approach. And fortunately, it's an approach that should be a lot more manageable now than it was in 2020.
"Obviously, yes that is my goal, is to win the No. 2 job here," Gilbert said. "But again, I think the best way to go about that is by just worrying about the things I can control – worry about having a good practice, worry about getting my feet right, worry about the things that are going to help me get better."