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Developing quarterbacks in Big D: The Cowboys may be onto something

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In an era when finding quarterback talent coming out of college is increasingly difficult, the back-to-back preseasons of Dak Prescott and Cooper Rush stand out.

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: An unheralded rookie quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys comes into the preseason games and starts putting up some of the best numbers in the entire league, certainly when compared with other rookies. If that seems oddly familiar, it should. In 2016, that is what happened with Dak Prescott. And now in 2017, Cooper Rush is following a familiar trajectory. That leads to some obvious comparisons, which are met with valid cautions about drawing too close a parallel. But that may be missing the bigger story: The coaching staff for the Cowboys suddenly seems to have developed a real knack for grooming rookie quarterbacks.

Todd Archer first pointed this out in his article on the way Rush has blossomed under the same tutelage that helped make Prescott arguably the biggest story of the 2016 season. Like Prescott did, Rush has been posting some remarkably good numbers in his preseason games. Of particular note is that he has improved steadily through the first three games, with passer ratings, in order, of 82.4, 136.4, and 148.8. And that last number is very reminiscent of the incredibly high ratings Prescott was throwing up a year ago. Of course, Rush’s performances are also being met with the same arguments about facing third- and fourth-stringers playing very vanilla schemes that Prescott’s were.

But remember how those arguments turned out last year. And then change your focus from the obvious statement that Rush is not Prescott to the fact that the coaches molding him are the same ones.

As Prescott himself noted in the Archer piece, the Cowboys have three former quarterbacks to guide and teach quarterbacks.

The play of Rush this summer and Prescott last summer speaks well of offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson.

“They played the position themselves and I think that’s first and foremost the main reason that we’re able to take in the offense, we’re able to take in everything they give us,” Prescott said. “They understand what it’s like to be a player from Coach Linehan, Coach Wilson and Coach (Jason) Garrett.”

That understanding of what has to be done to succeed in the position is valuable. It probably helps the communication as well, with everyone speaking the same language. But there are a lot of former quarterbacks out there in the NFL. For most teams, having one rookie QB show such rapid growth and prowess would be a major story. Getting that kind of results two years in a row is almost unheard of.

To be honest, taking a talented college player and elevating his game is not really what happens most of the time. Based on recent history, there may be a real problem in that the majority of the teams do the exact opposite: They take promising young quarterbacks and crush the football life out of them.

You need look no further than last season to see how common this is. There were three first-round quarterbacks, all acquired by their respective teams through trades. That is how desperate teams are for passers now. All three had rookie years that were at best disappointing. Jared Goff went first overall in the draft, and was ranked dead last by Football Outsiders among all NFL quarterbacks with an incredibly bad -881 under their proprietary DYAR rating. Carson Wentz, selected number two in the draft, was near the bottom of the list at 27th overall, with a -36 DYAR. And Paxton Lynch, who was the subject of a bit of a bidding war between the Denver Broncos, who won, and the Dallas Cowboys, who may have become the real winners by losing, could not even beat out Trevor Siemian last year, and appears to not be able to do so in 2017, either.

Goff is widely seen as a victim of poor coaching and roster building around him, plus there was the whole Jeff Fisher debacle along with the move of the Rams from St. Louis to Los Angeles. Prior to the draft, many believed he was the most NFL ready of all QBs coming out of college. Now the new regime in LA, led by Sean McVay, has to salvage the situation. Hopefully, Goff is resilient and won’t carry too much from his rookie year forward. And McVay has an offensive background, and even did some quarterbacking himself in high school. It will be very informative to see what difference the coaching change makes with Goff.

Wentz got off to a strong start, but that went rapidly downhill. There was copious evidence of issues with his mechanics and ability to read the field, but there still is a body of writers who think he has the most potential of all the QBs in his draft class. His decline last season into the very definition of a dink and dunk passer was attributed by his apologists to the lack of talent surrounding him (it is amazing how the preseason bragging from their fans about what a great roster the Philadelphia Eagles have almost always does a 180 by season’s end). There is certainly an open question about just how much it helped him to have a head coach in Doug Pederson who was a QB himself. When a player is almost always checking down and throwing short balls, you have to wonder just what the coaches are telling him to do.

Lynch, like Goff, now has a rookie head coach with an offensive background, and like Pederson, new Broncos headman Vance Joseph is a former QB as well. But his old head coach, Gary Kubiak, was also a former QB, one with a very similar pro career to Jason Garrett’s. His failure to develop has to be for some other reasons.

So what was different for Prescott last year in Dallas, and is that something the team can really duplicate with Rush? Remember that no one is looking for Rush to become the starter any time soon, or ever, really. The hope is that he can finally provide the Cowboys with a backup quarterback that just doesn’t suck horribly in actual game situations if he is called on, and then maybe he can be traded or generate a nice compensatory pick for the Cowboys in a couple of seasons (as a UDFA, he is only signed to a three-year contract). This is the way the New England Patriots have done it for years (although admittedly the quality of the quarterbacks they traded away may have been more illusory than real in some cases).

It wasn’t the lack of external pressure. Prescott was thrust into the starting job of the most watched team in the league by any standard you choose to measure that. He was replacing a bona fide franchise quarterback after a terrible year. What this seems to prove is that the Cowboys did an incredible job of finding a player with all the right intangibles. Of course, that has to be tempered by the fact that Prescott was the third choice for Dallas after Lynch and Connor Cook. Still, it has been pretty well established that he had some real fans among the staff, and the offensive coaches were reportedly the ones really pounding the table for him when pick 135 rolled around with him still there. Nonetheless, it is now clearly evident that the game was not too big for him. He repeatedly demonstrated a mental capacity and processing speed that is rare among all quarterbacks, not just rookies.

The biggest element was probably that the offense around him was so strong. Dallas uses the running game as the foundation, unlike the majority of pass-first teams in today’s NFL. And the addition of Ezekiel Elliott to that star-studded offensive line made sure that would continue to be the case.

The receiving corps was just as big a factor. Although Dez Bryant was hampered much of the season by injury, he is still a dangerous target. And Cole Beasley, Jason Witten, and Terrance Williams helped to make the group the most reliable in the league, with the fewest dropped passes. That is a function of the accuracy of the quarterback, of course, but there is no doubt that Dallas boasted some very sure hands. Some very good pass protection by that aforementioned line didn’t hurt, either.

So while the pressure was on Prescott, he did not have to shoulder it all by himself. That is not always the case with rookie quarterbacks forced onto the field, since high draft picks usually go to teams that have issues to begin with.

But you cannot discount the job the coaching staff did. Jason Garrett’s post-practice sessions tossing the ball with Prescott were really extended mentoring. And while Garrett is continuing to focus on his starter, it is likely that the staff is also working a lot with Rush behind the scenes. That has to be a big part of his showing so far.

It does raise a question as to why Kellen Moore has not progressed as much, as least as far as can be seen from his work in preseason games. That may come down to the talent factor, and perhaps there is something about his often cited ability to understand the game and process things mentally that just does not translate well to game action. It is hard to say. On the other hand, Moore did not come into the league with the Cowboys. Maybe his time in Detroit sowed some seeds of mediocrity, despite his being with Linehan. It is hard to say.

What is inarguable is that Rush has been much more than any of us could have imagined when he was signed after the draft. There are still two preseason games to play, and he may yet regress. But the team avoided that with stunning success with Prescott.

Right now, you shouldn’t bet on them failing the second time around with a new rookie passer. That may pay huge dividends going forward.