Spagnola: Let's See What This Rookie Can Do

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FRISCO, Texas – Go figure, or maybe we should have.

Look, in 2016, Cowboys backup quarterback Kellen Moore goes down for the season in training camp. Then starter Tony Romo goes down with a back injury, maybe for the season.

In steps a rookie, Cowboys' second fourth-round pick Dak Prescott to become the starter.

Four years later, Cowboys' starting quarterback Dak Prescott goes down for the season with a dislocated and compound fracture of the right ankle. Then two games later, veteran backup Andy Dalton suffers a severe concussion. Out he goes, and more than highly doubtful for at least Sunday night's game in Philadelphia, somewhat of an NFC East first-place showdown with the Eagles.

Hey, Benjamin Anthony DiNucci, grab a helmet. Rookie, a mere seventh-round draft choice, the 231st overall pick in the draft, you are in. All of 23 years of age. No offseason to speak of. No OTAs. No minicamps. No preseason snaps. Likely no snaps with the Cowboys first-team offense until maybe a few heading into the Arizona game as the Cowboys backup, but probably no more than the 12 he received in this past Sunday's game against Washington in relief of Dalton.

No worries, you are the starter, and your first NFL one, and not just in any game. Oh no, it's a Sunday night, nationally-televised game for all to see. And in of all places, Philadelphia, against of all teams, the 2-4-1 NFC East first-place Eagles, and against a defense that already has sacked opposing quarterbacks 24 times – by comparison, the Cowboys have 13 – with a defensive coordinator known for his aggressive pressures.

Oh, and think nothing about it. The Cowboys are counting on you to help this 2-5 club of yours break a two-game losing streak, halt this slide of having lost four of their past five games and quiet all the resounding noise nearing crescendo heights with a victory that would vault the club back into first place.

Even if, as the smart guy you are, probably figured with Dak and Andy aboard, there would be no chance on this great, green earth of ours you would even take a snap in a game this season, especially after being inactive the first five games. Or you would be doing your own WebEx conference call on Thursday, peppered with questions, while those from afar asking, who the hell is Ben DiNucci?

"But this is 2020," the Pittsburgh native says. "What else do you expect?"

Got that right.

So maybe we should acquiesce to a couple of Cowboys veterans to open this DiNucci file.

First Zack Martin, returning his Pro Bowl self this week to right guard after missing the Washington game in concussion protocol himself.

"I think he was great today," Martin said after Wednesday's practice. "You know, he's got a lot of confidence, which Line 1 for me in a quarterback is confidence. And obviously with a young guy possibly making his first start, it's up to the rest of the guys to instill confidence in him, you know, all the other guys have to do our jobs every single play."

And in the huddle? Does he act as if the quarterback who transferred from the University of Pittsburgh after three years to play at James Madison and lead the Dukes to the FCS National Championship game this year here at Toyota Stadium against North Dakota State?

"You could tell he had a little more – what's the word – energy, swagger today knowing that he's in there with the ones," Martin said. "It was good communication today at the start of practice, and now it's up to us to finish off the week and execute Sunday night."

And you, Ezekiel Elliott? What you see?

"Ben has been nothing but a pro," Zeke says. "I think what Ben brings to the table is a young guy with a lot of arm talent. And what else he can do that people don't realize, he can run a little bit, so he'll be able to get outside the pocket and make plays.

"Now it's about us raising our play around him."

That would help.

DiNucci will be the second Cowboys quarterback to start games his rookie year in the past five seasons, obviously Dak in 2016 the other. But they are the first two rookie quarterbacks to start games for the Cowboys since 2004, when Drew Henson started on Thanksgiving Day, though lasting only a half before head coach Bill Parcells pulled the struggling rookie in favor of aging starter Vinny Testaverde, who led a second-half comeback 21-7 win over Chicago. Henson left the game tied at 7, but had completed just four of 12 passes for 31 yards with an interception returned for a touchdown.

So maybe an asterisk there, along with rookie Kevin Sweeney's 1987 win, but that in a replacement player game during the strike. Same for rookie Jason Garrett starting the 1993 game in place of the injured Troy Aikman against the Cardinals. Garrett led the Cowboys to a 3-0 lead during his first two and only possessions before turning the game over to veteran and recently-acquired Bernie Kosar, who engineered a 20-15 victory.

Prior to that, both Aikman and Steve Walsh lost their first starts as rookies in 1989.

So, having qualified all that, DiNucci will be attempting to become the first Cowboys rookie quarterback to win his first complete-game, non-strike-season NFL start since, uh, Roger Staubach, having started the season-opener in 1969 and beating St. Louis, 24-3, throwing a 75-yard touchdown pass to Lance Rentzel and running one in from 3 yards out. But the rookie Staubach, after serving his Navy commitment, was 27 at the time. DiNucci's still 23.

Times, though, are a changing. Quarterbacks do come out of college more prepared to play these days than 10 to 20 years ago, and for sure, 30 years ago. Remember, in Dak's 2016 NFL debut against the Giants, a 20-19 New York victory, he completed 25 of 45 passes for 227 yards and had the Cowboys leading 19-13 in the fourth quarter until Eli Manning completed a 3-yard touchdown pass to Victor Cruz with 6:13 left to play.

Come Sunday, if only the Cowboys offensive line's efficiency can match DiNucci's confidence, or at least the way he's been carrying himself during his first full week of preparation with the Cowboys offense.

"DiNucci is DiNucci. He's a good kid to be around," says third-year receiver Michael Gallup.

And when asked how's DiNucci been in practice, Gallup says, "He's been slingin' that thing (shaking his head affirmatively). He's been slingin' that thing. He's been good, you know. He comes over there after every period that we got, and he's been like, 'My job's actually been pretty easy. I just got to get you three the ball, you know, and let ya'll go to work. Not that hard.'"

Remember, as Bill Parcells was wont to say, the quarterback is not out there playing singles. Sure will help DiNucci that Martin will be back at right guard. Will help that left tackle Cam Erving will be making his second start of the season. And comparatively, Tyler Biadasz is nearly the old pro now at center, the rookie making his fourth start and just one play shy of his fifth after taking over for the injured Joe Looney the second play of that Cleveland game.

And if only the defense can give DiNucci a helping hand, actually keeping the Eagles to a reasonable amount of points, not the 25 or more in each of the past six games. And the Eagles to a reasonable amount of rushing yards, not the 307, 281 and 208 in three of the past four games. And hey, here is a novel idea. Maybe grab a takeaway or two since the Eagles have turned the ball over 13 times in seven games, just three less than the Cowboys' league-high total of 16.

So look, who knows? Maybe the woeful history of Cowboys rookie quarterbacks' first starts will change.

After all, as DiNucci says, "This is 2020."

And boy, he's got that right.

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