Long ago, like in 2016, the Dallas Cowboys had a constant on the roster, a particular spot that they seemingly were committed to never doing without. That was the veteran backup quarterback. We saw a parade of talented, experienced leaders that could be called upon to keep the ship afloat if something happened to the starter. Names like Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel, Mark Sanchez . . .
Ahem. OK, maybe the Cowboys have not had such a good history of late with signing vets to step in if something happens to the starter. The last really functional veteran backup to man the position was Jon Kitna. Maybe that is why Dallas went with only Cooper Rush behind starter Dak Prescott last season. And why they stayed out of the market again this offseason, drafting Mike White instead.
It is something that makes sense from a couple of angles. First, those veteran backups command a fairly high price, at least if they are perceived as having any hint of ability. With a third-year starter on a fourth-round contract, a second-year UDFA, and a fifth-round draftee now the main contenders to make the 53-man roster, Dallas is paying NFL peanuts for the most important position in the game - less than $2 million total this year for the trio. Almost every other team is spending more for their QB2 than the $726,000 cap hit that Dak Prescott represents. When a QB shows any real ability to keep a team afloat, like long-time temp Josh McCown whose latest team is the New York Jets, they command a pretty hefty salary - $10 million, in his case.
And for many of those veteran backups, they are not exactly on an ascending trajectory in their career. For the most part, they are “rent-an-arm” players, here for a year or two before moving on to the next team to collect another paycheck, or retirement as the case may be.
But with young players like Rush and White, the team has a chance for growth and development. They may become long-term backups, or trade bait. Just look at how the New England Patriots repeatedly gain draft capital for a few years of training their young QBs, most recently Jimmy Garoppolo.
Of course, it is always chancy to try and emulate the Machiavellian moves of Bill Belichick, because no one seems to be able to do it nearly as well. Still, this seems to represent another significant shift in philosophy for the Cowboys. The fact they used a draft pick on White, the second one in three years, signifies that. Prior to taking Prescott in 2016, they had only taken two quarterbacks since 1991. A three-year sample size may not be enough to be sure, but it looks like a new interest in taking a developmental QB every couple of years rather than go back to the pool of veteran signal-callers.
And let’s be honest. That pool is shallow and scummy. The continuing emphasis that so many teams still place on having that veteran presence standing on the sideline is hard to understand, given how rarely a backup is actually able to keep a franchise competitive when called on. The Philadelphia Eagles are a notable exception, with Nick Foles doing a simply outstanding job last season when Carson Wentz was lost to injury. But Dallas’ own experience in 2015 with Weeden and Cassel seems much more typical.
This was something that came to mind when looking deeper into ESPN’s ranking of quarterback situations. Earlier, Dave Halprin wrote about how the Cowboys ranked tenth overall, a pretty good spot given the concerns raised by Prescott’s performance in the latter half of 2017. The reason given for why they weren’t higher was notable.
Cooper Rush and Mike White don’t inspire a ton of confidence in the backup situation.
That obviously differs from the way the Dallas staff felt last year, when Rush’s performance in preseason made them comfortable with sending Kellen Moore to the practice squad. And White was seen by many outside analysts as one of the best quarterbacks outside of the first round this year.
But ESPN apparently shares the belief that being a veteran conveys a certain value in and of itself. Take this line from their writeup of the Minnesota Vikings, ranked just ahead of Dallas at ninth.
Backup Trevor Siemian started 24 games the past two seasons for the Broncos, and while you may not have enjoyed watching them all, that’s a better backup option than a lot of teams have.
So being a bad but experienced starter is better than being an untried but promising new player? If you look at the list of teams ahead of the Cowboys in ESPN’s view, you see names like Siemian, Brian Hoyer, Tom Savage, Matt Schaub, Geno Smith - and Cassel. And if you go down the list a ways, you see that even Weeden still has a job with the Houston Texans - for now, at least. Is there any real reason to feel any of those names would do better in an emergency than Rush or White? At least with those two, you don’t have to worry about getting them to unlearn bad habits.
Yet ESPN and apparently most NFL teams still want that veteran cachet. One reason may be the difficulty many college quarterbacks are having making the transition from the very different offensive philosophies many schools use to the NFL game. Teams are not demonstrating a very good success rate in coaching these players up and teaching them how to read NFL defenses.
Indeed, one large influence on the Cowboys’ change in direction was the success they had with Prescott in 2016. They know they have the ability to make a college player a successful NFL QB. And make no mistake, Jason Garrett is a big part of how they did that. He took Prescott under his wing and oversaw his development every step of the way. He may not be able to put as much emphasis on Rush and White with Dak still very much his primary focus, but the way Rush came on in those preseason performances is a pretty good indication that Prescott was not a fluke.
You also want to give some credit to the scouting staff for their ability to identify players that have the potential to make the leap to the next level. We hope they did it again with White, but the two QBs ahead of him are a good argument that they may have.
It also has to be admitted that after the disaster that was 2015, the Cowboys just may think they can’t do much worse by going with a couple of young but promising options. That may not be the best or even the smartest reason to make such a change, but for now, it looks like the way things are in Dallas.
We have to see what training camp and preseason have to teach us. But for now, the new plan doesn’t really look that bad at all.