Lack of depth, rookie inexperience, a penalty problem that carried over from 2021 right into the preseason… those dark and ominous clouds had been swirling overhead for months. But the break to Dak Prescott’s throwing hand- the “significant injury” that will require surgery and cost the quarterback a huge chunk of the season- that was the lightning strike that ripped the skies open and started the deluge in earnest.
Things will get messy, and there will be long-lasting damage. For those left standing in the Cowboys offense, it’s time to batten down the hatches.
“The way I see it, it’s just a storm,” tight end Dalton Schultz said following the disappointing 19-3 loss and news that Prescott could miss six to eight weeks. “You’ve got two choices: you can run away from the storm, or you can run right into it. I know myself included and everybody in this locker room is running right into that [expletive]. That’s just our approach.”
Zack Martin is the veteran presence on a young offensive line that went into the game with serious question marks (and then lost Connor McGovern on their opening possession). The All-Pro guard and his linemates gave up four sacks on the night and had trouble keeping the defense out of the backfield; Prescott’s injury came when Tampa Bay linebacker Shaq Barrett hit his hand after a rushed throw in a collapsed pocket.
“I’m not going to lie to you,” Martin told reporters, “If someone says your quarterback’s out, that it’s not a little bit… deflating isn’t the word, but we have to pick it up now. We have to rally around our guys, the guys that are going to be out there, and like I said, right the ship until he gets back. A lot of weight is on us, and that’s great, because we can handle it. We have to get better moving forward.”
And they’ll likely have to do it under the leadership of backup passer Cooper Rush. The 28-year-old, now in his sixth pro season, got his first and only NFL start last Halloween, stepping in for Prescott in Minnesota and leading the team to a come-from-behind win.
The Central Michigan product was one of three quarterbacks vying for the understudy role in Dallas this offseason. Ben DiNucci was waived in August; Rush and Will Grier were placed on the practice squad with plans for one or the other to be called up for gameday duty to start the season.
Now, barring some acquisition of outside talent or a sudden switch to Grier, Rush will see the second start of his career on Sunday. He’ll take the controls of a completely toothless Cowboys offense as they go up against the AFC champion Bengals.
“Yeah, that’s the job of the backup,” Rush said Sunday night. “You’ve got to go in, you’ve got to make things click as if 4 [Prescott] was in there. We’ll draw on that experience last year, big-time. You know, got my feet wet last year and got out there tonight. We’ll regroup as a team and a group on offense, and we’ll be all right.”
Not that there’s much of a choice, but the unit is already rallying around Rush.
“We’ve got plenty of confidence in Coop,” running back Ezekiel Elliott said. “Last year he came in, and it seemed like we didn’t miss much of a beat. So we’ve just got to lock in and clean up the penalties, clean up the protection.”
“Cooper has been slinging since I got here,” Schultz added. “Obviously, I think we’ve got a lot of confidence in him and his ability to lead the offense. Obviously, he is going to step into big shoes, the big role. We’ve just got to do what we can to get ready.”
Prescott will be part of that effort, too, recovering from surgery while simultaneously helping Rush do his job.
“I’ll be there to support him. I’ll be there to support this whole team, coaching staff and everybody, in every step through it,” Prescott said from the podium Sunday night.
“Whether it just be throughout the week or in the game days, just making sure these guys understand these different looks, different situations, just communicating. Whether it be routes and things that I see when I get back that I want them to do. You know me, I never stop; I just keep going. And I’ll feed these young guys and this team as much as I can. They’ll have my all and my support, whatever I can do to help the team in this role.”
Just like in 2020 as he rehabbed a dislocated ankle, Prescott hopes his presence around the team will be a benefit, even as his absence from the field serves as a reminder.
“Got to be better,” wideout CeeDee Lamb said. “He’s still going to be there in spirit. It’s not like we’re losing him for the rest of the season, but until then, we’ve got to put our heads up and keep it moving.”
“We want to rally around him,” Elliott offered, “and we’ve got to take care of business while he’s on the sideline. It’s going to be big on our offensive line and running backs and get that running game going and protect Coop.”
Sunday’s opener was an abysmal way for the 2022 Cowboys to start their season. But with 16 games still to play, it’s far too early to pack up the tents.
“I try to tell these guys all the time,” Martin explained, “in my opinion, the best players and the best teams in this league have the shortest memories. Stuff is going to happen in NFL games. It is the ability to move on to the next play, the next game, and learn from it. Don’t just forget it. But move on, learn from it, and get better. That is the cycle we have to stick to and get right back to work tomorrow.”
As with any storm, no matter how destructive, all you can do is wake up the next morning and start the cleanup process.
And stay prepared for the next storm.