FRISCO, Texas – Back the start of training camp, this is not the way the Cowboys envisioned kicking off their 2022 quest to become the first team in the NFC East to repeat as division champs since 2004 as they move into Game 2 Sunday against the defending AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals.
No Tyron Smith.
No James Washington.
Still no Michael Gallup.
Now no Connor McGovern.
Nor Jayron Kearse.
Nor Tarell Basham.
For sure, no Dak Prescott for at least four games, if not a few more.
No wins, albeit just one game in.
The only NFL team so far with no touchdowns.
Not even a red zone penetration.
These are not your even your month-old's Cowboys.
Maybe Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy is some sort of amateur psychic when he chose the 2022 season's one-word motto, as if he had this foreboding feeling:
Good gosh they are going to need it, starting 3:25 p.m. Sunday at AT&T Stadium as they begin testing the outer limits of that old coaching cliché, next man up.
The 0-1 Cowboys might want to amend that to next men up. You know, plural, because there will be a lot of names in there you just aren't familiar with.
Like Matt Farniok, making his first NFL start, equioped with all of 23 snaps his rookie before this past Sunday. Like undrafted rookie Dennis Houston. Some unknown practice squad offensive lineman out of necessity this Sunday. KaVontae Turpin. Will Grier. Israel Mukuamu. Sam Williams, Quinton Bohanna. Jake Ferguson. Maybe Markquese Bell. Newcomer Anthony Barr. They would hope going forward, but probably not until next week, Jason Peters. Backup offensive tackles Josh Ball and Matt Waletzko. Simi Fehoko.
And making his second NFL start, ta-dah, Cooper Rush at quarterback.
These guys will be comprising their 48-man game day roster. Certainly not the way the Cowboys had this all planned out a few months ago, even as recent as last week, figuring they would only be elevating two players off the practice squad as a bonus to create the 48-man game day roster, not out of necessity.
"Here we go again," says veteran CeeDee Lamb, in the context of things, be it just his third season. "Let's put this false start to the 2022 season in perspective."
Meaning it ain't over after just the first of 17 games.
Now DeMarcus Lawrence was answering a question about the in-house sack competition he's promised Micah Parsons, already trailing last year's title holder, 2-0, but could have been referring to the Cowboys 0-1 start to this season, the only team in the NFC East with a losing record, saying rationally, "It's Week 2, bro, calm down."
Or Ezekiel Elliott, entering his seventh season, qualifying him as a grizzled veteran, "No panic."
Just got to go play ball, exactly what Cincinnati head coach Zac Taylor is telling his 0-1 troops after their season-opening 23-20 overtime loss to the Steelers. Nobody wants to start a season 0-2.
No secret the Cowboys offense struggled against Tampa Bay, racking up only 244 yards, 173 passing and 71 rushing, their longest drive consuming just the 54 yards on the first possession.
And now on top of all this, no Dak.
Just Coop. And that is all we heard about this week, Coop this, Coop that, Coop, Coop, Coop.
But that's what happens when your backup quarterback, who will be moved from the practice squad to the 53-man roster by 3 p.m. Saturday, is named Cooper Rush. This is the earliest in a season the Cowboys have turned to their No. 2 quarterback since 2016 when Prescott took over for the injured Tony Romo during camp for what turned out to be the entire season. And before that, would have to go back to 2004 when the presumed No. 2 guy, Vinny Testaverde moved up to No. 1 during training camp when Quincy Carter was abruptly released for such an early change.
Or maybe in 1984, when Tom Landry did a surprising about face on Aug. 28, announcing presumed backup Gary Hogeboom would start over four-year starter Danny White for the Sept. 3 opener. Coach's decision.
So, Coop it up.
"Smart football player," McCarthy says. "Very, very consistent."
"Quiet guy, keeps to himself," says Zack Martin, "but has that fire when he comes into the huddle."
"His composure, understanding the situation," CeeDee Lamb says of Rush's qualities.
And Zeke, well, he cuts right to the chase, blurting out, "I'd say Coop is definitely more laid back, but when he needs to be assertive, he will be.
"Personally, I know Coop knows his (uh, stuff, so to speak). He's on top of this offense, knows it inside out."
Those are the qualities Rush displayed last year driving the Cowboys to that 20-16 come-from-behind win at Minnesota, throwing for 325 yards and two touchdowns, the 5-yard winner to Amari Cooper with 51 seconds remaining to conclude an eight-play, 75-yard drive taking just two minutes.
But undoubtedly the biggest plus for Rush this week taking over for the injured Prescott on second-and-13 at the Cowboys 46 with 5:31 to go in the opener is having taken all the first-team practice snaps by time the final workout concludes on Saturday. Every one of them.
"It's huge," says Rush, a man of few words. "The hardest thing as a backup is not getting the reps."
So, like during a normal week backing up Dak, Coop, how many reps with the first-team offense do you get?
"Zero," Coop says. "Dak gets them all. Running the scout team helps because you are still playing football."
Not exactly the scout team, but if the Cowboys had their druthers, and their health, Tyler Smith would be starting at left guard, not tackle. Farniok would not be starting at left guard, Smith would or McGovern still. And the top three receivers would be Lamb, Gallup and Washington.
But that is life in the big leagues.
Still as Rush says, "Being around here for two years, you know, knowing the guys, they know me, I think it's a huge help."
And knowing what you are doing out there certainly helps for sure. To a man, when asking about the man they know as Coop, the coaches and the players will tell you he knows what he is doing. He knows the offense. He knows the plays.
"You got to know what you're doing, it gives you a fighting chance," Cooper says, last having played in an NFL game before this past Sunday the 11 snaps against Philadelphia in last year's regular-season finale and in only two other games, 14 and 12 mop-up snaps since the Halloween Day start against Minnesota.
"You don't know what you're doing, it makes it real tough out there. Trust that you know it and just go and play."
Basically, McCarthy's words to him before stepping out there against the Vikings last year with the Cowboys riding a five-game winning streak and a 5-1 record coming out of their bye, a calf strain benching Dak.
"Coach McCarthy told me that last year, 'You've played a lot of football, just go out there and play,'" the 28-year-old Rush says.
So here the Cowboys go, Game 2, playing football with a backup at left tackle, a backup to the backup at left guard, likely someone who has played little if any ball backing up at center, the presumed fourth wide receiver now No. 2 and raw or inexperienced receivers manning the third and fourth and fifth spots.
And a backup QB.
Gives you some perspective on what they are up against.
Still, there is no waving some white flag in football. Must carry on. Win, and their resiliency will be heralded. Lose, and the hurdles will go unmentioned.
"I think it's Week 2," Zeke says. "We can overreact if we want or just take a deep breath and let this thing play out."
So here, breathe.
Now go play. Just play ball.