There wasn’t much pomp or circumstance when the Cowboys’ announced that they had signed NFL journeyman Luke McCown on Friday night. This will be McCown’s sixth team since being drafted by the Cleveland Browns in 2004. He’s only started 10 games entering his 14th season in the league.
His last start came in 2015 with Saints against the NFC Champion Carolina Panthers. McCown had one interception and zero touchdowns but he did complete 31 of 38 passes for 310 yards with 89.7 quarterback rating. With an 81.6 completion percentage, you would think he dinked and dunked his way through but that’s not the case. McCown actually passed for an average of 8.2 yards per throw, not bad against that Carolina defense.
When he signed with the Cowboys, he hightailed it to Oxnard and participated in Saturday’s training camp practice. He was bluntly asked if he was a “camp arm”, the epitome of that term is the man he replaced, Zac Dysert, who is receiving season-ending back surgery. McCown didn’t mince words and believes that he’s got a great chance to be on the 53-man roster:
“Golly, what an awful way to think of yourself as just a camp arm,” McCown said after going through his first practice with the team Saturday.
“I have two legs too, you know? … I’m coming in with competition on my mind. As the elder statesman in the room – by a lot – try and help those guys along with the experience I have in various offenses. But, yeah, pick up coach [Scott] Linehan’s stuff as quick as I can and get out here and perform.”
What stands out about McCown is that he seems to fit the backup quarterback role quite well. Each team that he’s been with other than two (Browns & Falcons), have re-signed him and have kept him around. He has been the primary backup to solid but even some great quarterbacks most notably Matt Ryan and two stints with Drew Brees.
Sean Payton, Luke McCown's last coach, tells me "he's cerebral, very athletic". Best part? "Even w limited reps can still execute game plan"— Jane Slater (@SlaterNFL) July 29, 2017
That last part is literally the entirety of the backup QB job description https://t.co/FjBQaA0Tfj— ✭TrainingCamp Lando✭ (@McCoolBTB) July 29, 2017
He may not be the most exciting or talented quarterback available but McCown can easily compete with the guys behind Dak Prescott. Bryan Broaddus would agree that McCown may have some staying power if his film is any indication:
“McCown appears to compete at a high level. He gave his teammates a chance to win his only start of 2015 season against Carolina. He was outstanding in that game. Moved the team well. This is not a dink-and-dunk quarterback. He is willing to take shots down the field.”
More importantly, he should get the opportunity to compete for the primary backup position. As much as Scott Linehan loves Kellen Moore, McCown could be a better fit for the primary backup role. There aren’t 32 solid starting quarterbacks in this league let alone a great backup for every single team but McCown looked decent with an offensive-heavy team like the Saints. Broaddus continues:
“His accuracy and touch was where it needed to be. There were only a couple passes in the Carolina game where the ball was down near the turf. The receivers weren’t having to work for the ball. The outs and crossing routes were where they needed to be. Gave his guys a chance on the move.”
That’s a pretty big difference between McCown and Kellen Moore. McCown has a clear advantage in arm strength and a backup who doesn’t make the skill position guys work as hard would be huge for the Cowboys.
Moore is a very limited quarterback, he’s smart, has a good knowledge of the offense but his arm fails him. In the past, Moore has received criticism from guys like Dave Helman and Broaddus for hurting the flow of practices. How is a guy like Noah Brown, Andy Jones, or Lance Lenoir going to convince the Cowboys to keep a sixth receiver if the quarterback isn’t giving them a shot? Broaddus even points out how McCown’s skill set may be fitting for all the starting receivers on this squad:
“McCown showed accuracy both inside and outside the numbers. He threw several balls over the top where receivers were able to haul them in. The ball gets out of his hand quickly on the slant. He has touch on the swing, wheel and screen routes. He has the patience to allow routes develop and execute.”
Being able to have that “oomph” to get the ball over the top is a quality attribute with guys like Dez Bryant and Brice Butler. Heck, it’ll even help with a known “body catcher” like Terrance Williams. Even Cole Beasley should benefit from McCown’s execution. Being “quick on the slant” is also good news because Bryant was one of the best slant route receivers in the league in 2016:
Dez Bryant's most targeted routes in 2016 were the go, hitch and slant. Here's how his performance compared to the NFL average... pic.twitter.com/8k7G2WQOTb— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) May 25, 2017
The last bit of Broaddus’ report that was interesting is that even though he’s not exactly spry at 36-years-old, McCown has got a little wiggle in his game:
“He has mobility in pocket, can avoid initial rusher to buy a second chance. Not perfect technique with his feet to set up. He tends to throw with a wide base or off his back foot when pressured. Good awareness in the pocket. Not going to move into a sack. Dependable ball handler. Not going to oversell the fake, but they did use him on boots and waggles where he can throw in open space.”
That last part is most important with how Scott Linehan has tailored his playbook to fit Dak Prescott. The boots and waggles have been very effective in this offense. With McCown, he may not be as athletic as Prescott but being able to throw in open space with decent accuracy is a plus for his backup abilities. Sure, Kellen Moore may understand the playbook but McCown may have the better abilities to execute it without removing too much. All in all, Broaddus’ last sentence of his evaluation is almost perfect:
“I didn’t feel like he was trying to force the ball in coverage. Decision making was not a handicap. Not the type to mess things up but has never been able to sustain enough to keep a starting job.”
That’s the definition of a backup quarterback. McCown is a journeyman for a reason and he’s not going to blow anyone away. Still, arm strength, accuracy, mobility, pocket awareness, and experience though small, favor him over what the Cowboys have in Kellen Moore or Cooper Rush.
The Cowboys’ front office has paid for quality backups in the past like Kyle Orton to protect Tony Romo. Now, with a quarterback who just turned 24-years-old and an offensive line that has all but one position locked up for the future, they’re not looking for anyone that would cost as much as a low-end QB1.
At the same time, they seem intent on having another veteran in the room. By signing McCown, the Cowboys are going to get a guy who will compete even if that wasn’t their intention. Kellen Moore may be Scott Linehan’s favorite pet cat but Luke McCown’s got him beat physically in every category. At the end of the day, McCown gives the Cowboys the best chance to win a football game should he have to see action.