There are times when preseason NFL games are almost unwatchable. With teams understandably doing all they can to protect their starters and key depth players, we often are “treated” to a bunch of third- and fourth-stringers bumbling about. Quarterbacks who will soon be on the street are unable to connect with anyone (except perhaps defenders). Punt follows punt. Even the evaluation of the players involved can be severely hampered by the general ineptitude on display.
But that didn’t happen in the Dallas Cowboys’ 20-18 win over the Arizona Cardinals in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game. Although it was not a massive display of offensive firepower, and no sudden star emerged unexpectedly (like a certain Dak Prescott a year ago), this looked much more like a real football game than so many preseason affairs. And that was largely due to the generally credible jobs done by quarterbacks Kellen Moore, Cooper Rush, Blaine Gabbert, and Trevor Knight.
We here don’t really care about those last two names, but we certainly are interested in the first two. For several seasons, there has been a high level of concern about the backup quarterback in Dallas. Last season was a tremendous anomaly with Prescott’s stunning rookie season under amazing conditions. 2015 was more indicative of the issues. When Tony Romo was injured the first time, Brandon Weeden stepped into the QB job, and laid a series of consecutive eggs. He is long gone (although somewhat amazingly still employed with the Houston Texans), and the expected QB2 for this season is Moore, who has long inspired a lot of uneasiness among the fan base.
Despite a flawed performance, it is still a bit reassuring to see him have a solid game against Arizona. He finished the night with 12 of 17 passing for 182 yards, one touchdown, and one interception on a play that was largely a 50/50 chance at the end of the half, and not a totally unfathomable risk. More importantly, with the team down 15-0 in the first quarter, he put together a really good drive with three long completions, capped by the 26-yard touchdown to Rico Gathers. He then got them in position to kick a field goal later in the half to put Dallas where they could eventually eke out the win.
No one in the NFL expects their backup quarterback to come in and play at a very high level, except for those coached by Bill Belichick, who apparently has a deal with the devil regarding quarterbacks. What they need and expect from the QB2 is just to keep the team afloat in the case of short-term absences by the starter. If the starter is lost for the season, almost all teams are toast (again excepting the Patriots).
But in terms of keeping things from going completely off the rails, Moore certainly offered some signs of hope. He made mostly good decisions, and his leadership in coming back from a two score deficit should not be discounted, even considering the level of competition. Remember that he was playing with a bunch of down-roster teammates as well. With the starters around him, he would likely look better. He still has work to do in stepping into the pocket (which admittedly was falling apart on him on several plays) and working the middle of the field. He did manage to keep a couple of drives alive and get a fair amount of yardage in his time. Having Moore as the QB2 (which seems very likely, at least partly due to the influence of his biggest fan, Scott Linehan) doesn’t seem like nearly as bad an idea as it did before the game.
Dallas should not be content, however. The team should continue to seek upgrades. Luke McCown was brought in as a measure of insurance for this season, but the Cowboys still want to find a developmental QB for the future to challenge for the QB2 spot.
Enter Cooper Rush. Given his small school pedigree, he looked surprisingly comfortable in his first NFL game situation. He only completed 50 percent of his passes, but did manage a touchdown and the eventual game winning drive for a field goal. He did not throw an interception, always a notable achievement for a rookie.
The most intriguing thing about his performance, however, was his two rushes for 23 yards. One of them was a Dakesque read-option, and the other came when he escaped a collapsing pocket. That is an element that Moore lacks in his game. While we need to see a lot more from Rush to have an adequate gauge on his ability to rush the ball (sorry), his first foray at least hinted that he is much more similar to Prescott than Moore can ever be. If Moore is called on to handle things for a while, some of the playbook will have to be abandoned. No one is going to be threatened by the possibility of him running the ball. Rush would let the team keep that in its arsenal.
The odds are slim to the point of vanishing that Rush will be a real challenge to become the QB2 any time soon. But he looks like a really great candidate to try and get to the practice squad for a year of learning and seasoning. Additionally, he would be useful on the scout team for when the Cowboys face more mobile quarterbacks during the season. Then in the next couple of years, he would have a chance to earn the backup job on his merits.
Partly because of the odd situation of having the player Dallas hoped would become a good QB2 turn into the franchise QB last season, the backup QB situation was not seen as very good this year. Now, at least, there are some hopeful signs for both the short and long term. Everything could change as the preseason progresses, but it is certainly a good start.