FRISCO, Texas — The Cowboys started three different quarterbacks in their first eight games of the season.
Against Pittsburgh on Sunday, they intend to start a fourth.
Head coach Mike McCarthy confirmed Wednesday that rookie Ben DiNucci will not start against the 7-0 Steelers. DiNucci, a seventh-round pick out of James Madison, made his first start in the Cowboys’ 23-9 loss in Philadelphia on Sunday after Dak Prescott’s season-ending ankle injury and Andy Dalton remained in the concussion protocol. The franchise was optimistic Dalton would return against the Steelers. Instead, he was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list Monday.
Veteran journeymen Garrett Gilbert and Cooper Rush, neither of whom have a career start nor were on Dallas’ initial 55-man roster this season, will compete for the job.
“The decision was made to go with the two experienced quarterbacks,” McCarthy said Wednesday morning. “With the opponent that we're playing, we need some more experience at that position. Obviously, Garrett Gilbert has been here for a couple of weeks. He's had a chance to play in preseason games. Just has more experience. And no different with Coop. Coop played last year, is very familiar with the system. Kellen Moore has a lot of confidence there.
“This decision is made on the experience level in the quarterback room, and that's the lead component of why we're making this decision.”
In this Aug. 29, 2019, file photo, the Dallas Cowboys' Cooper Rush warms up before a preseason NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Arlington, Texas. (Photo: Ron Jenkins, AP)
The decision between Gilbert and Rush largely differs on the substance of their experience. Neither has an NFL start. Each is in his fourth year spending time on an in-season active roster. Gilbert has shuffled among a half-dozen teams since the Rams selected him in the sixth round of the 2014 NFL draft. He’s completed two of six pass attempts in six games of action. The Cowboys first signed Rush as an undrafted rookie in 2017, after which he backed up Prescott for three seasons. He entered just five games in that span, completing one of three attempts.
A winding road has led the Cowboys to this decision.
In Week 5 of this season, Prescott made his 72nd consecutive start, including the playoffs. Prescott had not missed a start since he was selected 135th overall in the 2016 NFL draft. But against the Giants on Oct. 11, a third-quarter designed run went awry. Prescott suffered a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle, undergoing surgery the same night. Dalton completed the 37-34 win.
Dalton started a 38-10 loss to Arizona the following week, and again at Washington’s FedEx Field on Oct. 25. Again, a third-quarter run spelled trouble. Washington linebacker Jon Bostic delivered a vicious head-first blow to Dalton, whose head hit the field again after he lost his helmet. Dalton didn’t remember the play in the aftermath of his first career concussion, he told DiNucci, who completed the 25-3 loss.
DiNucci received the "Sunday Night Football" start in a windy Philadelphia game. He completed 21 of 40 pass attempts for 180 yards and no touchdowns. He was sacked four times and lost two fumbles, one of which Philadelphia returned for a touchdown. But Cowboys coaches and management felt he clearly was not ready after a performance in which he averaged 3 yards per pass attempt and Dallas posted its second consecutive game without a touchdown. Four turnovers forced by Dallas’ defense wasn’t enough to top a struggling Philadelphia team.
“We certainly, as a team, paid the price to have him come in and under those circumstances,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said Tuesday on Dallas radio station 105.3 The Fan. “And that's almost trite. It was frankly more than he could handle. I don't know what you could have expected for somebody to come in under those circumstances. But they've got, Philadelphia, if they're strong anywhere, they can bring the pressure and they can bring some challenges defensively. They did. It was dramatic.
“It’s tough to win a ballgame like that."
It will be tougher to win this week against Pittsburgh, the NFL’s lone remaining undefeated team. The Steelers' defense leads the league with 30 sacks while ranking third in interceptions (10) and fifth in yards allowed per game (310.7). But the Cowboys hope Gilbert or Rush’s understanding of NFL play speed and the Dallas offense will enable the unit to better use skill players like three-time Pro Bowl running back Ezekiel Elliott and a deep receiving corps led by four-time Pro Bowl receiver Amari Cooper. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin spoke to Dallas reporters on Wednesday about his respect for the receiver room and the need to game plan against Elliott.
“I know Ezekiel Elliott has a lot of our attention and preparation, and rightfully so," Tomlin said. "Common sense tells you he’ll be a central figure in your game plan,”
In Dallas, the goal is to prepare quarterbacks to withstand Pittsburgh's pressure.
“The first thing is they have to do is manage the huddle, manage the play at the line of scrimmage,” McCarthy said. “Second part is we’ve got to take of the damn football.
“We're playing against a very aggressive defense. You're looking at a defense that is primarily 80% pressure on first and second down. They're built and designed and they're playing at a high level to stop the run. They do a great job on third down with their pass rush. And they lead the league in sacks. So managing the run game and certainly get the ball distributed in the passing game.
“Those are the criteria of the position, and that's what I'll be watching as the week goes forward.”
After the Steelers game, the Cowboys take their bye in Week 9. The team is hopeful Dalton can resume his starting position after the bye.
Cowboys QB Andy Dalton, on reserve/COVID-19 list, doing “fine” per Mike McCarthy. No other announcements regarding positive tests or changes resulting.
Dalton didn’t travel to Philly. He was in meetings Saturday.
Until then, McCarthy continues a rollercoaster first season in Dallas that has featured the loss of his top quarterback, tight end, two defensive tackles, several offensive linemen and more. Add in a shortened offseason as the staff sought to acclimate players, and Dalton landing on the reserve list, McCarthy’s hands remain full as his tenure begins at 2-6.
“I think 2020—hopefully we'll never see a year like this again, on a lot of different fronts,” McCarthy said. “I think like anything in this game, nothing surprises you. Injuries are part of it. We've definitely been on the high end as far as the challenge of how it's affected our football team. But you have to keep forging forward because there is always a path to victory. And that's our focus.
“I understand what our record is. We had some areas of improvement in our last game, we need to build off of that. There are things we need to do better, we need to accomplish that, but we got to do whatever we need to do to win this game."
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein
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