The Dallas Cowboys have tons of woes this season, but most agree that the biggest one is that they lost Dak Prescott for the season. With the sorry state of the NFC East, he alone might have been the difference between sitting in the cellar of the worst division in the NFL and having a pretty easy path to the playoffs. Instead, the team has had to rely on a combination of Andy Dalton, Ben DiNucci, and Garrett Gilbert in his absence. It has not gone well, to put it mildly. While Dalton is hoped to be able to go the rest of the way, owner and GM Jerry Jones has some less than complimentary things to say about the other backups the team put on the field while Dalton was out for a while.
Jerry Jones on @1053thefan said the Broncos having to play a WR at QB weren’t any more challenged than when the Cowboys started rookie QB Ben DiNucci at Philly. “I don’t know that Denver had any more of a challenge than we’ve had with DiNucci, or with the young QBs we’ve had.”— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) December 1, 2020
While many seized on calling DiNucci out by name, that also is a bit of a swipe at Gilbert as well, which seems odd given that the latter actually played pretty well in his one start.
However, Dallas is far from the only team that is struggling to find answers at quarterback this season. There is a pretty long-standing issue in the league that there just aren’t enough true starting-quality passers for all 32 teams, and backup is often a real step down. With Week 12 almost in the books as the league still hopes to get the Baltimore Ravens-Pittsburgh Steelers game played, here is a look at some of the quarterbacks that saw the field.
Backups forced into starting:
Backups who came in due to injuries or blowouts
Starters who probably shouldn’t be starting:
That is 13 teams that find themselves with a pretty dismal situation at either the starting position or who they can call on to come in when needed, and the rest of the teams don’t exactly have a great situation behind them. There are a some backups who have been elevated, like Alex Smith and Teddy Bridgewater, who have worked out pretty well so far, but they are exceptions. The unique situation faced by the Denver Broncos doesn’t count here, since that is a completely self-inflicted wound, but Drew Lock would probably be one of the quarterbacks that shouldn’t be a starter in the league if he had been available.
This is rather compelling evidence that the supply is far outstripped by the demand. And there is frankly little that can be done to remedy things. The college game has gone in a direction that simply does not prepare quarterbacks well for the NFL game. It also makes evaluating players very difficult, as the requirements of college offenses emphasize skills like running the ball a lot and operating almost exclusively from the shotgun or pistol. Many quarterbacks trying to make the leap to the NFL have to learn to take snaps under center, having never really done so all the way back to high school. Additionally, college defenses often just don’t provide adequate preparation for the kinds of reads and adjustments that are required in the NFL. Even play-calling is a different animal in college, with the entire team usually watching the sideline as the play is signaled in, something that doesn’t exist in the pros.
Oddly, the play of Gilbert indicates that one possible way to develop quarterbacks might be a developmental league. The hopeful return of the XFL in 2022 could provide just that, but clearly that is a ways off, and an uncertain prospect at best, given how hard it has been to establish and maintain these kinds of operations.
For now, we can only expect the issues to continue. The Cowboys are actually fortunate to have Dalton with his extensive experience. Had the team also not been so devastated by injuries to the offensive line, he might well have Dallas in position to cruise into the playoffs, for whatever that would be worth. But the injuries happened, and they are stuck in the cellar of the NFCE - for now. It is weird to consider, but at 3-8, there is still a path to the playoffs for Dallas if they get a lot of help and can figure out how to play better. Neither is probable, but as crazy as this season has been, we can’t completely count them out.
Still, if the season does go as most expect for the Cowboys, there is a silver lining. They should wind up with a high draft pick, and there are a ton of quarterback-hungry teams out there. The chances for a trade back look to be very favorable. If Dallas winds up with a top five pick, there could even be some bidding going on, allowing them to reap a haul of draft capital to restock their own talent. With Prescott expected back, the Cowboys are one team that has no need to try and find a future franchise quarterback, despite some strange projections that is what they should do floating around the interwebs.
Clearly, that was not the expectation coming into the season, but you can only play the cards you have been dealt. With a truly crappy hand, the draft could be a way to turn that sow’s ear into a truly nice silk purse. It is one of the odd side effects of the sad state of QB talent in the league. Having stumbled into Prescott, Dallas needs to find a way to cash in on being a real exception.