With Dak Prescott out for days (or weeks), focus shifts to Dallas Cowboys’ backup plan

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Quarterback Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys both maintain he is day-to-day with a strained right shoulder.

In layman’s terms, he has a torn muscle in his shoulder.

It could be days before Prescott returns to practice full practice. Or it could be a week or two.

Either way, the goal is for him to be ready and on the field for the season opener on Sept. 9 against the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Cowboys do not plan on taking any unnecessary risks with their franchise quarterback over the next six weeks.

“Obviously we’re going to err on the side of caution every step of the way with somebody like Dak,” vice president Stephen Jones said. “We’ll be cautious, but we have no concerns. Just got to let the guys, ... do their work with him. He’ll be smart about it and go from there.”

The fact that Prescott was at the team’s walk-through practice and participated in interviews with local media on Wednesday confirms the team’s assertion that the injury is not thought to be serious.

He did the drills in practice on Thursday, but he will not throw.

Coach Mike McCarthy said the Cowboys’ plan to play him during the preseason is unchanged because he was unlikely to play in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Aug. 5, even before the injury.

“It’s good you can catch a fatigue injury early so I think this is more staying in front of what he has,” McCarthy said. “Dak will still do all the drill work and he’ll go do the mock games, we’re just going to cut out the throwing here for probably a few days.

So how soon before he throws?

“A few days. Two, three days. A couple of days,” McCarthy said. “I’m trying to buy a little flexibility there. I think when you’re battling a fatigue injury you can over-analyze it. Based on the location information that I have, it’s not of high concern. I think it’s smart he pulled up when he did.”

Now what?

Prescott’s departure has forced the team to again explore what happens when a key starter is finds himself out of the lineup. There is growing concern about the team’s lack of depth at the quarterback position.

Garrett Gilbert, Cooper Rush and Ben DiNucci all took snaps with the starting unit. And the trio tossed a combined five interceptions in practice. (Credit an improved, ball-hawking defense, which had three picks off Prescott on Tuesday.)

“Five interceptions, is never a good day,” McCarthy said. “I have to be half, 50 percent happy for the defense. The quarterbacks, you don’t want to see that, you go through the decision -making and why they happen. So, it’s a learning experience. “

The Cowboys have expressed confidence in the trio as options behind Prescott, but the next few days and weeks might reveal a more accurate picture of exactly where the team stands.

After all, the Cowboys no longer have a established reserve quarterback with years of experience as a starter who can step in and take over. Last year’s primary backup, former TCU star Andy Dalton, signed with the Chicago Bears in free agency.

The current trio of backups has no proven experience with just two combined starts between them.

“Its really a good opportunity for Garrett, Ben and Cooper. That’s the big picture part of it with the quarterbacks,” McCarthy said. “It’s a young group, but obviously there’s a confidence we have in the group and, frankly, the opportunity they have to get these live full team reps will be a benefit not only to them but a benefit to us to see them work and run the offense. This will be a great experience for those guys.”

It was notable that the Cowboys did not sign a veteran to compete for the backup job. They worked out Jeff Driskel and Bret Hundley in the spring, but neither player was offered a contract.

That the Cowboys signed Prescott to a four-year, $160 million contract in March also played a role in how much they could spend on a backup quarterback.

“Well, when you have a $40 million quarterback it’s hard to have a $20 million or a $10 million [backup] to go with it,” Jones said. “No question the cap plays into it as far as the resources you can spend on a backup guy.”

It also seemed to be a vote of confidence for the reserve quarterbacks on the roster, especially for Gilbert.

The former Texas and SMU quarterback has held down the No. 2 spot since the middle of last season when he seemingly came out of nowhere to get his first career start and he nearly pulled the upset of the year against the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers with no preparation.

If you recall, Prescott went down in the fifth game of the season against the New York Giants. Dalton took over as backup until he was injured against Washington two games later. DiNucci, a rookie seventh-round pick, started against the Philadelphia Eagles and was awful.

With Dalton not ready to go, the Cowboys turned to Gilbert, who was signed just two weeks earlier and had limited knowledge of the playbook.

He surprisingly completed completed 21 of 38 passes for 243 yards and a touchdown with one interception and had the 2-6 Cowboys in the game against the7-0 Steelers until late in the fourth quarter.

That 29-year-old acquitted himself so well in his first career NFL start on short notice that his performance allowed him to hold on to the No. 2 job for the rest of the season behind Dalton.

Nothing has changed since Prescott’s return from a fractured ankle. It was Gilbert who took over when Prescott went to the sideline with his shoulder injury on Wednesday.

“It was a dream come true being able to start a game,” Gilbert said. “I know things have changed for me, but, again, I do feel great, having had that experience. That is something I can use and call back on. I will continue to go forward with that experience and build on it.”

The big difference for Gilbert is that he has had a full offseason to learn the playbook. He is much more comfortable running the Cowboys offense than he was on short notice against the Steelers last year.

While the performance of the quarterbacks in practice is notable, it will be how Gilbert plays in the preseason games that will ultimately decide if the Cowboys stick with him as the primary backup or they look elsewhere to upgrade after final cuts.

“We like what we have, but as I always say player acquisition is 365 days a year,” Jones said. We’re obviously trying to develop DiNucci and got a great history with Cooper, and of course Garrett did a great job when he came in last year against the Steelers and gave us a chance to win the game. So we feel good about it. As I said, if we see something that makes us better then we’re always open to it.”