If there were any out there who still had their doubts about the toughness Mike McCarthy has instilled in this Cowboys team, Sunday night’s win was for you. The Cowboys made the game-time decision to keep Dak Prescott inactive with a calf strain, leading to Cooper Rush making his first career start.
While he wasn’t perfect, Rush did just enough to win the game and move the Cowboys to 6-1. With the Buccaneers losing earlier Sunday, Dallas is now one Packers loss away from controlling their destiny with regards to earning the top seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs. Doing so would have been extremely hard if Sunday night had ended in a loss.
Part of the reason why so many expected it to end poorly for the Cowboys is because we’ve seen this movie before. For all the great things Tony Romo did during his playing career, durability was rarely a strength of his. In fact, from 2007 to 2015 - the period in which Romo was the unquestioned full-time starting quarterback - Romo missed 28 games due to injury. The Cowboys’ record in those games? 7-21.
A lot of those losses came in 2015, when Jason Garrett shuffled between Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel, and Kellen Moore while hoping for a triumphant return for Romo. But plenty of those losses were also situations like this week, with Dallas just needing to get by for a week or two. It didn’t matter if it was Garrett or Wade Phillips leading the team, the result was always the same.
But these aren’t your slightly-older-brother’s Cowboys. And it’s not like Dallas had some proven veteran quarterback ready to go either. There was no Jon Kitna or Kyle Orton or Andy Dalton. Rush had thrown three regular season passes in his entire NFL career prior to Sunday night, and Dallas managed to win with him. Not only did they win, but Rush thoroughly outplayed Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, who’s carrying a $31 million cap hit this year.
How did that happen? It was a variety of factors, but coaching was a big part of it. Kellen Moore called a good game for Rush, not asking him to do too much but also not preventing him from doing enough. More over, though, McCarthy had his entire team ready to play. The odds were stacked against them and this team never flinched. The backup quarterback threw a 73-yard touchdown to the fourth wide receiver on the team, all while being protected by a backup left tackle and a backup right tackle. Speaking of which, Terence Steele recorded the second-highest individual grade on offense for the Cowboys this week, according to Pro Football Focus.
It can be hard to really gauge a coach’s ability to build a mentally tough team though, so let’s focus on the headliner from this game: McCarthy weaponized Prescott’s injury and used it to thoroughly outcoach Mike Zimmer and the Vikings.
McCarthy, much to the annoyance of Cowboys fans and bettors everywhere, was coy about who would start under center all week long. When asked about it, Zimmer assured everyone that his team had pulled plenty of film on Rush and were preparing for either quarterback:
“We’ve watched him, yeah,” Zimmer said Friday. “We’ve got evaluations from college, his tape from not just this year, but last year. We’ve got it.”
But then Rush went off for 325 yards and two touchdowns, one of them for the game-winning touchdown. After the game, former Cowboys safety Xavier Woods gave one of his patented way-too-honest answers when asked about how Minnesota prepared for Rush:
Asked about the Minnesota defense preparing for Rush vs. Prescott, Woods said: “We weren’t.”
“We were just preparing for 4 [Prescott],” Woods continued. “We kind of thought they were going to still run the same offense. So, we just prepared for 4 all week. We didn’t get the word [that Rush was going to start] until pregame, so we just prepared for 4 but we watched a couple clips of Coop. But during the week, we just prepared for 4.”
It’s worth noting that McCarthy and Zimmer faced each other twice a year every year from 2014 through 2018, while senior defensive assistant George Edwards was Zimmer’s right hand man in Minnesota for six seasons. Perhaps that familiarity played a role in the mind games McCarthy played with his quarterback’s injury.
Either way, the fact remains that the Vikings were woefully unprepared to face Rush, and it showed. Had McCarthy come right out and said Prescott wouldn’t play this week, the Vikings almost definitely would have prepared for Rush more. But McCarthy knew he could gain an edge there, played coy with it, and ended up creating just enough of an advantage for his team to earn their sixth consecutive win. That’s what good coaching looks like.