Cooper Rush can become the first quarterback in Cowboys history to win his first four starts.
The last ginger quarterback who found himself in that position for the franchise is watching with great interest.
Jason Garrett has been where Rush is now. The majority of his 12 NFL seasons as a player were spent as a backup in Dallas. Both were undrafted coming out of college. Both had success when they got the chance.
Know what you don’t know. Understand your skill set and the scheme. Don’t do more than you can do.
This is an important checklist for any player, but especially for a backup quarterback.
“I played next to Troy Aikman for eight years,’’ said Garrett, who now works for NBC Sports on the set of Football Night in America and as the lead analyst on Notre Dame football games. “I realized, ‘I have to play differently than Troy plays. He has a ridiculous skill set. But hey, I believe I can be successful doing it this way.’
“I think Cooper Rush has a great understanding of that. He’s not trying to be Dak Prescott. He’s trying to be Cooper Rush.
“Not that he hasn’t learned a lot from Dak the way I learned from Troy. But you have to play to your strengths and neutralize your weaknesses.
“That’s what Coop does.’’
Poise is one of the first qualities head coach Mike McCarthy and teammates mention when talking about Rush. It was one of the first things that Garrett, who spent nine-plus seasons as the Cowboys’ head coach, noticed in 2017 when the quarterback out of Central Michigan signed with Dallas.
But Rush is more than calm in the midst of chaos during a game. He’s decisive. It’s something he consistently writes in his notes.
“Decisiveness and conviction,’’ Rush said. “If you do that at the quarterback position, if you’re trusting your instincts, you’re usually right.
“I think that’s a big thing. We struggle when we start to second guess. Being decisive is something you’re always reminding yourself about.’’
An acquired taste
Rush has gotten stronger physically since entering the league. But he knows why he wasn’t drafted. He knows tape of his workouts, whether it was throwing routes on air or displaying his mobility, weren’t going to turn many heads in the NFL.
Garrett thought Rush was fine in those areas. But he concedes the young quarterback wasn’t going to wow anyone with his arm talent, speed or athletic ability.
What Rush did was play smart and within the system. He showed enough agility to move in the pocket and make plays in rookie minicamp. He kept that up when the veterans arrived. He did it in his first preseason game against Arizona at the Hall of Fame.
“He was always throwing the ball to the right guy,’’ said Garrett, who also won the first three starts of his Cowboys career. “He got the ball out of his hand quick, didn’t make a lot of bad plays and when he had the opportunity to make big plays, he read the coverage and made the throws. He did that time and time again.
“It was hard not to like him and get to a point where you trusted him.’’
Still, Rush is something of an acquired taste. He’s the sort of player you have to see day in and day out to fully appreciate. When COVID hit and the league was plunged into a virtual world ...
Well, he was unable to show McCarthy, who was in his first months on the job in Dallas, what set him apart.
The Cowboys released Rush and the New York Giants, with Garrett as the offensive coordinator, claimed him off waivers. Four months later, the Giants released Rush before he landed back in Dallas.
Others in the New York organization thought Rush was OK, but didn’t find him to be all that impressive. Remember, there was no offseason or preseason in ‘20.
Clayton Thorson, a fifth-round pick by Philadelphia one year earlier, was brought in for a workout. He impressed the rest of the coaching staff and personnel department and was signed.
Thorson had a brief stop in Dallas the year before.
“I was like, ‘I’ve coached both of these guys,’’' Garrett said. “Trust me, this guy [Rush] is better. He just never had the opportunity to show it.
“But that’s what happens with a player like Coop. He has to play well every, single time he goes out there.
“I lived that as a player.’’
‘Be who you are’
This isn’t a criticism of McCarthy’s decision to release Rush — the Cowboys added a proven veteran in Andy Dalton in ‘20 to back up Prescott — or an indictment of the Giants. It’s not a swipe at Thorson, who is out of the league and plays for the Houston Gamblers of the United States Football League.
It’s the reality of a backup quarterback who isn’t flashy or physically impressive.
“A lot, a lot of mistakes get made with quarterbacks because we get enamored with the wrong things,’’ Garrett said. “There are countless examples. Everyone is guilty of it.
“The best players regardless of the skill set, what the arm talent is, all of that, if they’re not smart, instinctive, tough, a good decision maker, they are not able to play. You are not able to win with them.
“Often times those qualities are called intangibles. Intangibles can be difficult to quantify. I get that. But there is evidence of the intangibles.
“Look for the evidence.’’
Rush is proof.
“It’s about how you are 11-on-11 in game situations,’’ he said. “You’ve got to play quarterback. You’re not just working out, throwing routes on air and chucking it 80 yards. You’ve got to play quarterback. You’ve got to make the right decisions, see certain things correctly.’’
Garrett watched Rush’s performance Monday night against the Giants from start to finish. He saw the majority of the game the week before and sent his former player a text before he took the field against Cincinnati.
The message: “Go be who you are.’’
That’s what Rush has done.
“He’s a guy who kept me around, gave me a chance in the first place,’’ Rush said of Garrett. “He believed in me, saw what I could do playing the quarterback position.
“When you’re an undrafted guy, you’re not going to light it up in workout situations and jump off the tape. But when you play quarterback, and I think of him playing quarterback, having that experience, he could see what he had in me.
“I owe him a lot.’’
Catch David Moore on The Ticket (KTCK-AM 1310 and 96.7 FM) with the Musers at 9:35 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and The Hardline every Tuesday and Friday at 4:30 p.m. during Cowboys season.