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When Dak Prescott returns, the pressure will be higher than ever

Cooper Rush’s win streak has only increased scrutiny of the Cowboys’ starting QB.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Whether or not Dak Prescott plays this Sunday night against the Philadelphia Eagles is not a totally settled question. Most expect Cooper Rush to be the Dallas Cowboys quarterback for at least one more week, but Prescott’s return is certainly imminent. Regardless of when he’s back on the field, Dak will find himself under more pressure than ever to succeed.

You already know the story; the Cowboys are on a four-game win streak with Rush as their starting QB and have a 5-0 record under Rush including his one start last year. While barely putting up pedestrian stats, let alone gaudy, Rush is keeping things afloat with few mistakes, the occasional big play, and just enough offense to take advantage of Dallas’ excellent work on defense and special teams.

As discussed last week, Rush’s management of the offense has led to natural questions about what should happen when Dak Prescott is ready to play. While nobody disputes that Dak is the more talented player, the Cowboys’ current rhythm is not something to be handled lightly. Last Sunday’s big win in Los Angeles, the team’s best yet of the streak, only heightened the issue.

Most would argue that Prescott would only be doing more with the talent around him. Offensive stats would be more voluminous, victory margins would be bigger, and this great defense would only be more dangerous if opponents were playing from behind and not forcing Dallas into so many punts.

But after the ugliness of Dallas’ season-opening loss to Tampa Bay, for which Dak bore some heavy responsibility, there is a sect of Cowboys Nation which is dubious about how the team will fare upon Prescott’s return. We’re not here to debate the validity of those concerns, but it does show how the quarterback’s seat will be hotter once he’s back in action.

This isn’t like 2020. Andy Dalton’s, Garrett Gilbert’s, and Ben DiNucci’s collective work during Dak’s last extended absence only made us appreciate QB1 even more. But those guys were all unfairly handicapped by a historically bad defense and weaker offensive line than what Cooper Rush is enjoying now.

Dallas Cowboys v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Indeed, the perception of Rush now is going a bit overboard because of these factors. We all love this feel-good story about the 5-0 backup quarterback, but how much credit does Rush really deserve for this? And with that, should we really have any concerns about Prescott returning to the lineup?

Last week’s win is an excellent case study. Yes, the Cowboys got an impressive 22-10 road victory over the defending champions. But with Rush only producing 102 passing yards and no touchdowns, why should this make anyone nervous about what Prescott would offer instead?

Dak Prescott would have benefited equally from DeMarcus Lawrence’s touchdown off a fumble, the short field from Dorance Armstrong’s blocked punt, and the overall shutdown of the Rams’ offense. And where Rush struggled to find much in the passing game, isn’t it reasonable that Dak’s superior chemistry with CeeDee Lamb, Michael Gallup, and Dalton Schultz would have yielded greater offensive results?

It’s easy to appreciate everything that Cooper Rush has done during this streak, but any conjecture that Prescott would somehow be a worse option for the Cowboys doesn’t really withstand inspection.

But this discussion is why Dak Prescott will return to a different degree of scrutiny than at any point in his career. The ghost of Tony Romo had been bad enough to deal with, but at least Romo was aging out and we got to avoid the awfulness of trying to find another franchise quarterback. If you lived through the years between Romo and Troy Aikman, being spared that experience again was a blessing.

But now instead of a “what could have been” speculation about Romo, Cooper Rush has gone undefeated as the starting quarterback. While his actual contributions are debatable, there’s no denying the most important result that matters.

Dak Prescott can’t afford to struggle once he returns. He doesn’t get to “find his rhythm” after the backup QB came in cold and won all these games. The switch has to come with a clear and immediate upgrade, or else Dak will face a backlash like nothing he’s ever seen.

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