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Helman: Did We Just Watch A Career Take Off?


FRISCO, Texas – I absolutely adore the stories that live on the fringes of the NFL.

Of course the focus is on the stars. The guys who sell jerseys, the guys who star in the pregame hype videos, the guys who help teams win championships. The Cowboys have a lot of those guys, and a lot of the focus has deservedly been on them as we move through what is shaping up to be a memorable season.

But as we hit the halfway point, I'm taking some time out of my week to dwell on that Week 8 win in Minneapolis, and the potentially life-changing effect it could have on the back end of the Cowboys' roster.

I'm obviously talking about Cooper Rush, and the fact that I think it's entirely possible he changed the trajectory of his NFL career – and therefore his life – on Sunday night at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

The thought first struck me when I was sitting in the Vikings' interview room, listening to Rush give his postgame interview. Given that he had just thrown for 325 yards and a game-winning touchdown on the road, it had been easy to forget that Rush had almost never gotten back to this point.

"I've kind of waited a long time," he said. "Last year at this time I was on my couch."

He's right, almost exactly to the day. Rush was initially released last May, when the team brought in its most accomplished backup quarterback in a decade by signing Andy Dalton. From there, he reunited with Jason Garrett, the coach who signed him out of undrafted free agency back in 2017, by signing with the New York Giants.

The Giants ultimately released him in September 2020. It's fair to wonder if the Cowboys would have ever brought him back, if not for the brutal injury to Dak Prescott's ankle and the subsequent loss of Dalton to a concussion just two weeks later.

Those things happened, though, and Rush made the most of his opportunity. He not only hung around into 2021, but he managed to beat out Garrett Gilbert at the final buzzer of training camp for the No. 2 job.

But see, that's only the beginning of what makes this story interesting to me.

Every team in the NFL has a backup quarterback. Hell, Cooper Rush had already been the Cowboys' backup quarterback for three years when he was unceremoniously dumped – likely on account of his three career pass attempts, compared to Dalton's three Pro Bowl selections.

Far fewer teams employ a backup who has proven he can do the job, and Rush might have just climbed into that tier on Sunday night in Minneapolis.

Consider this similar scenario, which was also overseen by Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy.

Matt Flynn, LSU legend and Green Bay backup during McCarthy's early years in Green Bay, waited a similarly long time for an opportunity. Originally drafted late on Day 3 in 2008, Flynn sat behind Aaron Rodgers for a long time before he ever sniffed the field.

He had thrown 20 career passes when a concussion forced Rodgers out of the lineup late in 2010. He didn't even win his first career start, completing 24-of-37 passes for three touchdowns and an interception in a narrow road loss to New England.

The next year, he made his big impression. With Rodgers resting at the end of a 14-1 campaign, Flynn started a meaningless game against Detroit and blew up for 480 yards and six touchdowns in a 45-41 win.

You probably know the rest of the story. Seattle signed Flynn to a three-year, $19.5 million contract off the strength of two starts. He lost the starting job to a rookie named Russell Wilson that same year, but ask him if he cares. He played 53 NFL games, kicked around the NFL for seven years and made roughly $16 million in career earnings.

Chase Daniel is the other, obvious example. He threw nine total passes during four years as Drew Brees' backup in New Orleans. Even still, that was enough to help him secure a $10 million contract to be Alex Smith's backup in Kansas City in 2013.

To this day, Daniel is still in the league and has started just five games. But his combination of football IQ, personality and a demonstrated ability to play decent football in certain spots has helped him make roughly $40 million over 13 years.

Rush could even ask his old coach about this. Jason Garrett was actually the Cowboys' third-string quarterback when his name was called on Thanksgiving in 1994. As has become the stuff of legend, he also crossed the 300-yard mark in an impressive outing, helping the Cowboys down Green Bay, 42-31.

Garrett wouldn't start again until 1998. In total, he'd start just nine career games – but he lasted in the league for 13 years, which also helped him pave the way for a lengthy coaching career.

Hopefully I'm spelling this out effectively. Proving that you can step in and keep a team afloat is an awfully lucrative way to extend one's playing career. On Sunday morning, Cooper Rush was just a guy who had only ever handed the ball off in garbage time of blowout wins. By Sunday night, he had proven himself as a guy who could potentially save a team's season.

There's no way to know if he'll come anywhere close to $40 million in career earnings, or if he'll be in the NFL another decade from now. But that one start could give Rush's career a new lease on life, and that's incredibly meaningful for a guy who was staring at the potential end of his playing days at this time last year.

It's one minor storyline on a team with too many to keep track of, but it's not every week we see a guy step up and possibly reshape what the rest of his life might look like. Long after the guys with the Pro Bowl accolades and jaw-dropping salaries have reclaimed the headlines, Rush will still have that moment. And I just think that's pretty cool.

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