Cowboys offense in steady hands with Cooper Rush entering Week 4, allowing Dak Prescott to not rush back
The sky was falling in Dallas after the Cowboys lost 19-3 in Week 1 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That loss left them as the only team to not score a touchdown in its season opener, in addition to losing franchise quarterback Dak Prescott for an extended amount of time with a fractured right thumb on his throwing hand, that required surgery. Two wins in a row -- home against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 2 and on the road against the New York Giants in Week 3 -- has turned the mood in the Cowboys organization to what can be described as optimistic and jovial.
Head coach Mike McCarthy has recently ended two of his last few media availabilities cracking jokes. He dropped a playful jab and grin about beating media members back home to Texas following their Monday night game in New Jersey, and on Wednesday he was absolutely beaming when asked about the Cowboys playing with their fourth different kickoff time slot. Dallas kicked off at 8:20 p.m. ET on a Sunday night in Week 1, 4:25 p.m. ET on a Sunday afternoon in Week 2, 8:15 p.m. ET on a Monday night in Week 3, and this week they will square off against the Washington Commanders at 1 p.m. ET.
"Hell yeah, everybody loves a noon [Central Time] kickoff," Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said on Wednesday with a Cheshire Cat-like grin, which drew a round of laughter out of the press in attendance. "Get up and get going, right? Is that a good enough answer or do you want some more?"
Sitting at 2-1 entering Week 4 is not a place McCarthy likely envisioned for the team and himself, but thanks to the play of longtime backup quarterback Cooper Rush, the offense has been able to climb back to being respectable, averaging 21.5 points per game in his two starts this season, tied for 13th-best in the NFL across his last two starts.
With a win in his first career start last season in Week 8 against the Vikings and the two this season, Rush has become the only quarterback since at least 1950 to start his career as a starter 3-0 with at least 200 passing yards and a passer rating above 90 in each start.
Rush came to the Cowboys as an undrafted free agent out of Central Michigan in 2017, so based on that background and his early success as a starter, he is also the first undrafted quarterback to win each of his first three NFL starts and throw for more than 750 yards (775) over those starts since Pro Football Hall of Famer Kurt Warner did so in 1999 with the Rams, his first of what would be two NFL MVP seasons (1999 and 2001) and the season of his only Super Bowl title.
"Consistency, the mental part comes easy to him [Cooper Rush] since he has learned multiple systems, so he knows the language and knows his teammates really well," McCarthy said on Wednesday when asked what he appreciates about the way Rush plays. "That's a huge part of being a successful No. 2 quarterback because you don't always get the reps in training camp and in practice. He is very high on instincts and awareness, he anticipates things very well. He can throw it early, get the ball out. You can see him have more and more confidence the more opportunity he has. He's playing to his strengths."
However, there is no tension or doubt about what Rush's unexpected success does to affect Dallas' long-term plans at the quarterback position. Owner and general manager Jerry Jones affirmed what the team plans to do once Prescott can return to action: put him in the game.
"He [Cooper Rush] doesn't have anyone that's supporting him more than Dak [Prescott]," Jones said on 105.3 The Fan on Tuesday. "When Dak does get back, we hope to have a record that lets us be in the hunt and viable. That's what the position is about. I think we got a good one in Cooper [Rush]."
While it's clear that Rush can keep the Cowboys above water in the standings, when Prescott will be seen again leading the Dallas offensive attack is a little more murky.
The $160 million quarterback had the stitches removed from his surgically repaired right thumb on Monday, which can allow him to rebuild the grip strength in his throwing hand. It's real progress on the road to rehabilitation for Prescott, but that advancement hasn't provided a concrete timetable for his return yet. Prescott has been all over the place when speculating about when he'll be suiting up again. Initially, he told ESPN that he wasn't ruling out a comeback in Week 4 against the Commanders, but later deviated from that possibility and said he was eyeing Week 5 against the Rams. His head coach joked via a rhetorical question on Wednesday, asking the media gathered at the team's facility in Frisco if he looks like the medical "timetable guy."
"He [Prescott still has some swelling that he has to deal with, once he gets past the swelling and the strengthening stage, then he'll get to the point where he'll be able to throw," McCarthy said. "He'll be dealing with more rehab this week and hopefully we'll get the swelling and the strength where it needs to be."
Prescott made some of his first attempts at throwing a football with some light tosses in practice on Thursday, another step in the right direction, but he isn't quite at the point where he can pull of this much activity on consecutive days, according to McCarthy.
"Excellent question, that's going to be part of it, and I think that's just like anything where he was getting the stiches out, the next step is the swelling because that will directly be effected when he's under center," McCarthy said on Friday when asked about the impact of Prescott's thumb when taking a snap after his light throwing at Thursday's practice.
When asked if Prescott could continue more light tosses during Friday's practice, the Cowboys head coach answered curtly, "No, I don't see that in his rehab plan."
His surgery took place on Sept. 12, a day after the Dallas Cowboys' Week 1 loss to Tom Brady's Buccaneers where he fractured the thumb on his throwing hand. The lack of clarity from throughout the franchise means more Rush in the weeks ahead. Following another win on Monday, Rush said he is focused solely on one thing: sweet, sweet victory.
"I want to keep winning," Rush said during the "Monday Night Football" postgame interview. "As long as I'm in there, let's just keep winning, playing smart, trusting each other on each side of the ball and we'll be alright."
The trust Rush has earned from his coaches is legitimate as he has a "similar" amount of in-game play-calling input in terms of the ability to audible as Prescott does.
"We haven't changed our approach," McCarthy said on Thursday. "I would put us on the high side of being aggressive at the line of scrimmage, whether that's with Dak or Cooper."
Rush termed the approach he takes at the line of scrimmage as one of "decisiveness and conviction."
"If you do that at the quarterback position, trust your instincts, you're usually right," Rush said on Thursday, via The Athletic. "We struggle when we start to second-guess things."
Entering Week 4, the Cowboys appear in good shape to keep the good times rolling with Rush as they face their division rival the Washington Commanders. Dallas has won their last seven games against NFC East opponents, and Rush should be able to remain steady in managing the game since the Commanders have just one takeaway this season, fewest in the NFL.
"They're physical and strong, they have all of those All Pro guys up front," Rush said Thursday, via ESPN. "It will be a big challenge for us. They're playing well on defense. They fly around and that secondary is very aggressive. I think they're a smart unit. We'll have to be ready."
When the Dallas Cowboys signed running back and former fourth overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Ezekiel Elliott to a six-year, $90 million extension with two years remaining on his rookie deal to tie him to the team through the 2026 season, Jones and Co. must have envisioned an Adrian Peterson-like run of dominance. Elliott led the NFL in carries and rushing yards in two of his first three seasons while leading the league in rushing yards per game in each of his first three seasons. His 57 career rushing touchdowns are tied for second-most in the NFL since he entered the league in 2016 with Todd Gurley, trailing only fellow draft classmate and Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry's 67 touchdowns.
However, his rushing yards per game figure declined each of his first six seasons in the NFL, prompting noise about whether or not he will finish out the contract. Elliott's deal runs out of guaranteed money after this season, making it much easier for the team and its salary cap to move on from their longtime feature back through trade or an outright release.
Ezekiel Elliott career rushing yards per game
First 3 seasons: 108.7 (2016), 98.3 (2017), 95.6 (2018)
Last 3 seasons since signing extension: 84.8 (2019), 65.3 (2020), 58.9 (2021)
Led NFL in rush YPG in each of first 3 seasons (2016-18)
In the 2019 Draft, the Cowboys drafted what was viewed at the time as a nice change of pace running back, fourth-round pick Tony Pollard, out of Memphis. Following a couple of developmental years in 2019 and 2020, Pollard exploded in 2021, leading the NFL in scrimmage yards per touch (6.2) among players with over 150 touches. He finished nearly a half-yard higher per touch than the 2021 rushing yards leader, Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor and Cleveland Browns Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb, who both averaged 5.8 yards per touch. Despite his average of generating over half the yards required to earn a first down every time he touched the football, Pollard played 34.7% of the Cowboys snaps while Elliott, who averaged 4.5 yards per touch, was on the field for two-thirds (66%) of the snaps last season.
Following Pollard's 105 rushing yards on 13 carries (8.1 yards per carry) in the Cowboys' 23-16 win on Monday, he has played 46.2% of the team's offensive snaps while averaging 6.6 yards per touch versus Elliott's 63% offensive snap percentage and 4.0 yards per touch.
"It keeps both of us fresh, I think that's a big thing," Elliott said on Thursday when asked about the team's running back rotation. "Two, it's different running styles you have to prepare against. Just when you get used to one style, here comes the other. I would say things have been working pretty well."
Despite the Cowboys being 12-0 when Pollard totals more than 60 rushing yards, it appears the tandem will remain throughout the season.
"Zeke is phenomenal and boy does he take a toll [on a defense], teams covet that and we covet that," Jones said on Tuesday. "Behind that line, Zeke is a threat. In my mind, he hasn't played any better, and then you put Pollard who has outstanding suddenness. He has outstanding burst. He is not afraid to turn it up and go north and south with all he's got. We benefit from that. That's not one-two, that's one-one punch."
Jones' stance trickles down from the top on down to his coaching staff with McCarthy and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore echoing that philosophy.
"Just about rotation, we trust Zeke and Tony," McCarthy said after their win Monday when asked about their usage rates. "There's no one over the other. It's about what's called and personnel grouping. Just Kellen [Moore] trusting his call sheet."
Moore emphasized balance between the two being vital despite a two-thirds to one third snap percentage split in favor of Elliott a year ago and a near 60-40 split in favor of Elliott so far in 2022, even with the gap in burst.
"We want both of those guys getting touches, the more balanced, the better it is as you go week in and week out," Moore said on Wednesday. "There may be a game where one guy goes a little bit higher than the other: that may be situationally, that may be how the rotations work, but we love getting both of those guys involved. … I think you start a guy in a series knowing the other guy is ready to pop in there. Certain plays will dictate who's in the game: Maybe it's a play for Tony, or specific to Zeke, or the occasion where we want them on the field together. I think those guys work together. That's the special part about it. They know 'hey I need a little blow here, get the other guy in'. They have no problem when the other guy goes in there, they acknowledge that to each other and I think that's really special."
Revitalized CeeDee Lamb in good spot vs. Commanders secondary
Entering last Monday night, the Cowboys were still waiting on 23-year-old, third-year veteran CeeDee Lamb to show them why they placed faith in his ability to be the top receiver in Dallas and trade away four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Amari Cooper to the Cleveland Browns. Lamb's nine receptions for 104 receiving yards and no touchdowns on 22 targets through the first two games probably didn't sit right with the Cowboys after seeing Cooper total 101 receiving yards in each of the last two games with a touchdown each game while catching passes from NFL journeyman quarterback Jacoby Brissett.
After an early-game drop on what may have turned into a touchdown, Lamb beat himself up and had just four catches for 39 yards on the Cowboys' first seven drives.
"It was very frustrating because I practiced all offseason, all week focusing on the ball, and I let that one slip away," Lamb said on Monday. "It was tough, all the hard work I put in and one play away, I let it slip."
However, Lamb restored his team's faith on their eighth drive, early in the fourth quarter. He caught four passes for 48 yards, and a jaw-dropping one-handed snare in the back left corner of the end zone that broke a 13-13 tie and was his first receiving touchdown since Week 10 of last season against the Atlanta Falcons. Two of his other catches went for a critical fourth-down conversion and a 26-yard gain all the way down to the 1 that set up his spectacular grab to complete the drive.
His teammates exuded confidence in the young receiver following the victory with plenty of renewed confidence and optimism.
"He's CeeDee Lamb, he's going to make plays," Rush said Monday after their Week 3 win at the Giants. "I'm sure he wants that one back. You're going to hang with a guy like that, he's an unbelievable player. The fade, someone told me he caught one-handed, I didn't even know that. Unbelievable catch, I was just making sure his feet got down. A big-time player ran a great route on the play, that's what he's about. CeeDee's the guy you don't really worry about. … The ball's coming his way some more, so he knew it, I knew it, we all knew it, and he was fine."
"CeeDee has that 88 [jersey] on for a reason," Elliott said on Monday. "CeeDee is a superstar. He had a hell of a game. He had that one drop early, but he responded and had that big drive, that big touchdown catch. CeeDee is a hell of a player and he's only going to get better."
Moore's play call for Lamb to get the ball through the air on the 1 could be just as critical a moment as Lamb's highlight-reel snag going forward since the receiver knows he has the confidence of both his teammates and coaches.
"Because we were on the half-yard line I want to say, and for us to throw the ball, that's Kell [Moore]," Lamb said. "Risk taker, I'm glad he trusted me to finish out that drive. It's going to have its ebbs and flows, it's all about staying consistent and positive. Not everything is going to go my way, but when it does, it's going to go big. I feel like I put more pressure on myself than anyone has on me. That's why I say being in this position [as the team's No. 1 receiver] is not anything big to me because what I'm thinking is bigger."
However, between wearing the famed No. 88, which was donned by Pro Football Hall of Famer Drew Pearson, Pro Football Hall of Famer Michael Irvin and Dez Bryant before him and being the latest in that lineage for the Dallas Cowboys as their marquee receiver, he knows he carries high, external expectations every week as well.
"That weight is always going to be there," Lamb said on Thursday, via The Dallas Morning News.
Lamb has the potential to "go big" in Week 4 against a Commanders defense that was torched last week by Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeVonta Smith, the second-year wideout who had the best game of his young NFL career with career-highs in receptions (eight) and receiving yards (169). McCarthy described Washington's defensive backfield as "competitive and scrappy" on Thursday. However, their secondary has allowed 274 passing yards per game so far this season, fifth-most in the entire league, and eight pass touchdowns, tied for the most in the NFL through three games. This type of matchup presents another attainable victory, for what is at least for another week, Rush's Cowboys. Read More