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Science Lab: Short Rope for Rush as Starting QB?


Patrik [No C] Walker joined the Dallas Cowboys digital media group as a staff writer and media personality in July 2022, having professionally covered the NFL and, more specifically, the Cowboys since 2007.

He most recently did so for CBS Sports by way of 247Sports, where he also spent time delving into collegiate recruiting as well – ultimately becoming well-known for his level of unapologetic objectivity labeled by many as his own unique brand of football "science".

Welcome to "The Science Lab", a place where football facts and in-depth analysis always triumph over feelings.

FRISCO, Texas. - Feel free to check your watch, wall clock and the nearest sundial heading into Week 2, because it's truly time for the Cowboys to find out what they have in Cooper Rush and, potentially, third-string quarterback Will Grier in the wake of the team losing Dak Prescott to a fracture in the thumb on his throwing hand.

Over the course of their respective NFL careers, neither Rush nor Grier have been thrust into such a position, one that will see them tasked with replacing a franchise quarterback for an extended period of time.

Not surprisingly, it will be Rush who gets the initial nod as starter when Joe Burrow and the peeved Bengals claw their way onto the field at AT&T Stadium on Sunday, and for a couple of reasons: his familiarity with the offensive system and his consistency this preseason when a once-hot Grier was cooled noticeably by a groin injury in mid-August.

How long will the rope be for Rush, though?

The timetable for Prescott's absence is still to-be-determined, seeing as it was scaled down from what was expected to be upwards of eight weeks to potentially four or fewer - per owner and general manager Jerry Jones one day after Prescott's successful and "good" surgery - but the fact remains the Cowboys are off to an 0-1 start they need to avoid falling into a dreaded 0-2 start or worse.

That means Rush will need to hit the ground running, and his victory as starter against the Minnesota Vikings in 2021 proves he can, but there are a few differences with the supporting cast this time around, to say the least.

First, there's no Amari Cooper.

Second, there's no Michael Gallup (yet?).

Third, the version of CeeDee Lamb put on film in the 2022 opener creates questions about how quickly he can prove he's WR1 in Dallas, something Dallas' front office wasn't shy about challenging recently in confessing Lamb and the young stable of wideouts "have got to improve". That means Rush and the offense is without two of their pre-existing 1,000-yard receivers and the third needs to regain his mojo.

That said, it's not like Rush didn't have some similar adversity to overcome at M&T Bank Stadium last season, albeit not at wideout, because his starting offensive line didn't include Tyron Smith (injured) and instead saw an underwhelming swing tackle in Ty Nsekhe as LT1 alongside penalty-magnet Connor Williams at left guard.

Terence Steele, Zack Martin and Tyler Biadasz were all present and starting in that contest and that trio is present again for this one, and that means there's some needed familiarity on the offensive front to go along with rookie first-round pick Tyler Smith coming off of a successful debut as the future at left tackle.

Time will tell if nine-time Pro Bowl tackle Jason Peters will be available as early as Week 2 but, if not, he seems a shoo-in for Week 3 and beyond and then the equation shifts to figuring out what position he'll be asked to field.

That means, quiet as it's kept, the offensive line in front of Rush may not be in dire straits, and that will give him a better opportunity at managing the offense.

But, be not mistaken, the name of the game for offensive coordinator Kellen Moore going forward needs to largely involve leaning on running back Ezekiel Elliott (and Tony Pollard) more than what was displayed in the Week 1 loss, where Elliott averaged 5.2 yards per carry but was given only 10 handoffs in a game that saw him as one of only two (hello, Dalton Schultz) productive options on offense.

Can Rush throw his way to victory? With three 1,000-yard receivers on the field, yes, we know this to be true: Rush completed 30 of his 47 (!!) pass attempts against the Vikings in 2021, finishing with three touchdowns to only one interception and a passer rating of 105.1 despite being sacked three times.

It wouldn't be ideal to ask him to do it with an unproven and largely inexperienced WR group. This is the NFL, however, and that means wins and losses will be deposited right into the lap of the quarterback, and that makes you wonder what would be the conversation if the Cowboys get off to an 0-2 start under Rush (0-3 overall record).

That's extremely dangerous territory to begin a season in, and Grier does present his own set of skills that mirror those of Prescott - e.g., escapability. That mobility might be that much more attractive if Rush finds himself bullied due to offensive line issues, because one way to mask O-line deficiencies is to deploy a quarterback who can punish a defense with his legs.

As it stands though, for as well as Grier practiced and played prior to the groin injury suffered later in training camp, his sample size as an NFL starter isn't much larger than Rush's and it's less glowing - an 0-2 record with the Carolina Panthers that includes no touchdowns to four interceptions in games wherein Christian McCaffrey was suited up.

Not exactly ideal when you consider the aforementioned struggles/concerns with the WR group and the potential for the Cowboys to get away from an effective rushing attack, i.e., Grier may need to elevate them as opposed to things being the other way around.

This is the thought process behind the Cowboys being more willing to risk the early part of the season to Rush than Grier, but that doesn't mean Grier hasn't improved since those two failed starts in 2019 because, seemingly, he has.

So the name of the game for Rush is to be efficient, effective and to play within himself, because thanks to the caliber of defense fielded by the Cowboys and the weaponry at halfback - along with what appears to be a serviceable (or more) offensive line - he doesn't need to be the/a hero.

He just needs to not be the reason for one or more losses.

In a conversation I had with the sixth-year veteran ahead of the season opener, Rush spoke on what it meant to get the nod as definitive QB2 for the Cowboys in 2022 and how preparedness in never being complacent while also, inherently, hoping nothing bad ever happens to Prescott (reality being that this is football and that's an occupational hazard every player faces, hence needing backups in the first place).

"Grinding out the offseason and preseason, earning the job, that's the goal every year - is to get that job," Rush said just ahead of the regular season opener. "It feels good."

He understands his assignment, even if the pop quiz in Minnesota last season is wholly incomparable to the final exam he now faces this time around.

"Preparation is never [an issue]," he said. "You're [always] one play away. My love for the game helps me prepare. You enjoy the process, the game plan and all of that stuff."

With the Bengals, Giants, Commanders and Rams coming up over the next four games - Prescott's availability will be reassessed toward the back end of this stretch - it's not inconceivable that the Cowboys defense and a mildly productive offensive output could see them split the next four games (preferably landing wins over the divisional opponents if no one else).

It has to begin with Rush getting the offense moving and Moore scheming together a plan that doesn't ask him to throw 47 times per game, and offensive drives that end with touchdowns instead of field goals.

Should the scheme be effective but QB play becomes a prevailing negative headline between now and Prescott's return, that heat Rush might start feeling could be Grier's breath on the back of his neck.

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