FRISCO, Texas — The game-winning touchdown attracted the most attention, a 5-yard back-shoulder fade to Amari Cooper securing a primetime road win in Minnesota.
But when Dallas Cowboys teammates consider Cooper Rush’s most impressive decision last Halloween during his lone career start, another play arises: the snap immediately prior.
Dallas trailed 16-13 and faced third-and-11 at Minnesota’s 20, 1:04 to play. Two receivers traveled down the left sideline toward the end zone, tight end Dalton Schultz crafting his route on the right. But Rush’s pocket began collapsing, Vikings pass rushers eager to seal a win. So Rush checked down the ball underneath to running back Ezekiel Elliott. Elliott split defenders and powered past the first-down mark. One play later, Rush engineered the score to win.
“You take a young guy, put him in that situation, third-and-11, game on the line, they’re going to try to force something down the field that could turn into a bad situation,” Elliott told USA TODAY Sports on Thursday. “But he’s so poised and he trusts his progression and checks the ball down.
“He’s not going to panic.”
The Cowboys have plenty of reason to panic entering a Week 2 matchup with the defending AFC Champion Bengals. Dallas was not only the lone NFL team unable to score a touchdown last week, but also quarterback Dak Prescott fractured the thumb of his throwing arm in the season opener. Prescott underwent surgery Monday after he was unable to even grip the ball. Jerry Jones said Prescott will not go on injured reserve, but he’ll nonetheless likely be sidelined four to six games.
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In his sted comes Rush and his first multigame NFL starting opportunity across a six-year career almost exclusively in Dallas. Rush understands the challenge that awaits. His team insists he’ll rise to the occasion.
“As far as Cooper Rush, we don’t feel like there are really any limitations on what we want to do,” head coach Mike McCarthy said. “He’s as rehearsed in this offense as anybody. … Cooper’s strength is his confidence in his detail. When he steps up, so much about the command of the huddle.
“There’s definitely a steadying-of-the-ship personality about him.”
‘Coop knows his [expletive]’
The football gods must have been laughing when the Cowboys signed Rush to an undrafted free agent contract in 2017. Rush had started four seasons at Central Michigan, completing 62% of passes for 12,891 yards, 90 touchdowns and 55 interceptions. NFL evaluators lauded his football IQ and mastery of his playbook while acknowledging limitations in his arm strength and athleticism. NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein settled on a league comparison: Kellen Moore.
Then Rush entered a quarterback room in which he joined Prescott and Moore on the depth chart in 2017. Now, Moore enters his third year as Cowboys offensive coordinator.
“We certainly know each other well, he knows the system well,” Moore said Monday. “He knows who he is as a player.”
Teammates and coaches expect Rush to compete accordingly, they say. Rush was prepared to face Minnesota last season while Prescott recovered from a calf strain. Rush diagnosed defensive looks to the tune of a 24-of-40 passing day featuring 325s yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Rush earned a 92.3 passer rating and the win in his lone start, and the Cowboys converted on 50% (7-of-14) of third downs. (In comparison, with Prescott at the helm last week, Dallas extended drives on just 5-of-14 third downs.)
“All you do every day is want to earn (teammates’) respect and to go out there Sunday (and) play well,” Rush said. “It was a big moment to be able to get out there in live action.
“They respect me.”
That respect has been earned in offseason throwing sessions and meeting rooms at the Star, too. Teammates told USA TODAY Sports how Rush’s knowledge of the game elevates the whole group, receivers appreciating how he guides them toward more precise routes and quicker releases out of their breaks. Summer throwing sessions at an outdoor field in Frisco helped several younger players get up to speed on the playbook, they said.
“He’s like a walking computer on what you need to know,” Simi Fehoko, currently Dallas’ third receiver, told USA TODAY Sports. “He sees the bigger picture.”
As Prescott’s backup — Rush has only played in 11 games since 2017 — his game-plan responsibilities have been crucial, they say. In recent seasons, Rush has presented a blitz tape to the quarterback room featuring every pressure the week’s opponent had shown on film. He’d guide the room through potential protection risks and best responses, noting how receivers should tweak their routes and what calls to anticipate. How might a blitz response change if facing third-and-short vs. third-and-long? What should Prescott do if a heavy blitz left an unaccounted-for threat? Rush was quick to explain nuances and responses to disguise in practice, too, said Cowboys 2020 seventh-round draft pick Ben DiNucci.
“A lot of it, is ‘How the heck did you see that coming?’” DiNucci, a Cowboys roster member in 2020 and 2021, told USA TODAY Sports by phone Thursday. “He would be like, ‘Well, the linebackers are pushing over one way, that’s the key. Look at the front, three techniques, just little cues the defense gives.
“Telltale signs for QBs on where we’re supposed to go with the ball.”
DiNucci acknowledged Rush’s introverted nature, deeming him “kind of your quiet assassin.”
Teammates know that cerebral nature regardless of how vocal he is.
“He’s on top of this offence,” Elliott said. “Personally, I know Coop knows his [expletive].”
‘Here we go again’
Cowboys fans could understandably ask: Is solid quarterback play enough to keep the season alive until Prescott returns? Would it even be enough to keep the offense afloat against a talented Bengals unit this week?
Dallas’ defense looked solid against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers last week, quashing two of three red-zone opportunities, intercepting a pass and allowing just one touchdown. Dallas’ offense, meanwhile, scored the fewest points (3) in a 32-team league and cobbled together fewer yards (244) than all but two clubs.
“We’ve got to find our rhythm,” Moore said.
Rush will lead that charge. He’ll navigate protection questions from inexperienced left-side offensive linemen and a highly penalized right tackle, and would be wise to lean on Elliott again after his 5.3-yard-per-carry opening performance. Generating enough pass game for defenses to thin the box will help. While Rush can no longer target Cooper (Dallas traded him to Cleveland in March), he’ll work with young receivers whom he’s developed rapport in practice with and CeeDee Lamb, whom Dallas hopes can develop into his No. 1 receiver.
Lamb caught just 2 of 11 targets for 29 yards in the opener, his ninth straight contest (including playoffs) without 100 yards or a touchdown. And yet, if Lamb looks back to his last 100-yard day, he’ll see: it was Rush who started at QB when Lamb caught six-of-eight passes for 112 yards vs. Minnesota (fellow receiver Cedrick Wilson completed one trick play for 35 yards).
“Just kinda throwing him in there again, is just like, I mean, ‘here we go again,’” Lamb said. “I say that with the most positivity.
“I can’t wait for my man to go out there and show out.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein