No team in the NFL understands more acutely how important the backup quarterback can be than the Dallas Cowboys. In 2015, the lack of a capable QB2 led to an absolute debacle. And in 2016, the stunning performance of the player who was third on the depth chart when training camp opened was a major factor in the 13-3 regular season. No team wants to call on the backup quarterback for any extended work, but in the violent world of the NFL, it is not always avoidable. Now, with Dak Prescott looking to build on his remarkable debut season, the Cowboys are heading to camp with Kellen Moore as his putative backup. That is not exactly a comforting situation.
The problem is the same as it was last year: Moore is simply unproven. Yes, he had one game where he racked up a lot of yards (but not a victory) at the end of 2015. He has a reputation for being an additional coach of sorts due to his understanding of Scott Linehan’s offense. But there is a strong suspicion that his place on the roster is largely due to the faith Linehan has in him rather than his actual ability. And no matter how well he understands what is supposed to happen and can contribute in meetings and on the sideline, that is very different from executing plays on the field when large, hostile men are determined to stop you from doing so.
That makes the coming camp and offseason very crucial to both Moore and the Cowboys. He has to show he is indeed capable of handling the offense and making throws in live game action. The coaching staff needs to see that he is the best available option, or at least a workable one. If not, they need to come up with another solution.
The staff may be hedging its bets a bit (which is only logical). They signed two UDFA QBs after the draft in Cooper Rush and Austin Appleby, and later waived Appleby to sign Zac Dysert. And there are always other options out there. While down-roster quarterbacks serve a purpose as a camp arm to keep from wearing out your top two passers, they are also constantly evaluated to see if they can challenge the guy ahead of them. That worked out pretty well with Prescott, but clearly did not go so well the year before. You can be assured that the scouting staff has a list of possible options if one or more of the current QBs is seen as faltering.
That is why camp and especially the preseason games are crucial to Moore’s future with the Cowboys. They need to see him demonstrate at least the ability to keep the team treading water if Prescott is out, especially for a short-term problem. At a minimum, he has to show that he can do more than Brandon Weeden or Matt Cassel did in 2015. That is always a challenge for the backup, because he is going to have to operate mostly with other backups around him. With Dallas, the biggest place that can affect him is the offensive line. It is reasonable to expect that the team is going to be very protective of the three pillars there, Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin. And they are likely to be doing a lot of experimenting with the other linemen as they try to lock down how they are replacing Doug Free and Ronald Leary. Moore is likely to see a lot of pressure, even when the other team is also throwing backups out there.
Sometimes, things can also get asymmetrical. In recent preseasons, there have been many times the Cowboys have put their second team on the field while the opponent is still playing their starters. That can be a prescription for some really bad looking play. Despite all that, Moore is still going to have to show an ability to make reads and complete passes, no matter how much duress he is under. He does not have a reputation for a very strong arm, and he is on the short side for an NFL quarterback. If he does well, that will almost certainly depend on that reputed grasp of the scheme and his speed in processing the game.
He is going to need some mental toughness outside the games, too, because even the slightest misstep will inevitably lead to calls to find a better player. If Moore is struggling through the first three preseason games or so (don’t forget the Cowboys have one extra because of the Hall of Fame “game”), the calls to replace him will be coming hot and heavy. And if things are bad enough, those calls will not just be from outside the team.
While everyone associated with the team hopes that the backup quarterback is not used except for some possible mop-up duty at times, there is also a clear understanding that this is a position that needs to be handled correctly. No other player that the team plans on not using will be analyzed as much as camp and the preseason unfolds. For Moore, it is the opportunity he lost when he was injured last year. But he has to step up. The Cowboys know just how big a problem it can be if they get this call wrong.