Cowboys Bench QB, ‘Leaning Towards’ Unlikely Starter vs. Steelers: Report

Cowboys HC Mike McCarthy

Getty Cowboys HC Mike McCarthy

It’s back to the bench for Ben DiNucci.

The Dallas Cowboys have opted not to start the rookie quarterback for the team’s Week 9 home showdown with the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers and instead opened a two-man competition between third-stringer Garrett Gilbert and practice-squadder Cooper Rush, NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero and Ian Rapoport reported Tuesday.

“The #Cowboys plan to give Garrett Gilbert and Cooper Rush reps in practice and pick one of them at week’s end to start at QB against the #Steelers, sources tell me and @RapSheet. It won’t be rookie Ben DiNucci, who struggled Sunday night. Playing to experience at the position,” Pelissero tweeted.

“This will be interesting: Sounds like the #Cowboys are leaning towards Garrett Gilbert as their starter after considering all options. But they want to see how Cooper Rush and Gilbert handle practice reps,” Rapoport tweeted.

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The news came on the heels of veteran backup QB Andy Dalton being moved to the COVID-19 reserve list. Dalton, who remains in concussion protocol following a Week 7 hit, was not asymptomatic of the virus, the Dallas Morning News reported. He’ll miss the Steelers game and must return several consecutive negative tests to suit up again.

“As of early afternoon, Cowboys hadn’t been told to enter intensive protocol after designating Andy Dalton for reserve/COVID-19 list, per source,” USA Today reported Tuesday. “Dalton didn’t travel to Philly but McCarthy said he’d last seen the QB in meetings Saturday.”

When the Dalton news broke, most immediately assumed DiNucci would retain the starting gig despite an uninspiring showing against Philadelphia in which he completed 21-of-40 passes for just 180 scoreless yards and lost two fumbles amid the 23-9 defeat.

The performance drew sharp criticism from Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones, who picked apart the first-year signal-caller in a Tuesday radio interview — a clear indication the club was planning to go another route.

“I think that it was a lot for him. I think we certainly, as a team, paid the price to have him come in and under those circumstances. And that’s almost trite. It was frankly more than he could handle,” Jones said on 105.3 The Fan.

The Cowboys return to practice Wednesday to begin full-scale prep work for the Steelers. How the QB reps are divided will be an indicator as to which lamb, Gilbert or Rush, is the sacrificial starter this week.

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Background on Gilbert

The unlikeliest Cowboys QB choice, signed Oct. 12, technically is a third-year journeyman, having entered the league in 2014 as a sixth-round draft pick of the then-St. Louis Rams. Gilbert bounced to the New England Patriots during his rookie campaign, where he earned a Super Bowl ring as a member of their practice squad.

His “star” eventually fading, Gilbert took his talents to the AAF’s Orlando Apollos, drafted in November 2018. He started the Apollos’ first-ever game and won Offensive Player of the Week with a 393-yard, two-touchdown effort in Orlando’s second contest. Gilbert led the AAF in passing yards (2,152), attempts (259), completions (157), and passer rating (99.1), and ranked second in TD passes (13), when the league shuttered football operations in April 2019.

He joined the Cleveland Browns days after the AAF folded and made five appearances last year. Retained for 2020, Gilbert, sent to the COVID-19 list in August, was waived by Cleveland on Sept. 5. Altogether, Gilbert has 40 yards and two completions to his name across six career games. He’s “added” negative-three rushing yards on three attempts.

An Austin native, Gilbert, 27, played collegiately at Texas and SMU. He went 305-of-538 for 3,301 yards, 13 TDs, and 23 interceptions for the Longhorns and 603-of-1,010 for 6,460 yards, 36 TDs, and 22 INTs for the Mustangs, stacking several single-game passing records.

Refresher on Rush

Cooper, of course, was added by Dallas in 2017 as an undrafted free agent. He served as Dak Prescott’s understudy for three seasons, and aside from three pass attempts as a rookie, never appeared in a regular-season game.

He re-upped with the Cowboys this offseason via his restricted free agent tender, worth $2.13 million for 2020. He was considered a shoo-in for backup duties behind Prescott until the club drafted DiNucci and inked Dalton, an indisputable upgrade at the position.

Rush was waived shortly after Dalton’s signing. The 26-year-old quickly landed on his feet, however, reuniting with fired Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, who became the Giants’ offensive coordinator. Not that it mattered much; Rush was released at final cuts and re-signed to New York’s taxi squad, from which he was chopped on Sept. 29.

The Cowboys officially signed Rush to their practice squad earlier this week after he passed requisite COVID-19 testing. He would need to be activated to the 53-man roster in order to play Sunday.

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Follow Zack Kelberman on Twitter: @KelbermanNFL

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