“Dak is our quarterback.” Those should be the House words of the Dallas Cowboys. They've been repeated countless times in interviews and press conferences ever since Jerry Jones, on an otherwise forgettable Thursday afternoon, chose to voice what had already been a lingering sentiment among fans – the idea that perhaps Cooper Rush should remain behind center even once Dak Prescott was fully recovered.
The idea was quickly dismissed, denied, and walked back by notable Cowboys figures, but literally as this article is being written Cowboys fans and sports media personalities alike continue to support the idea of keeping Dak on the bench in favor of riding the wave of unpredicted and unprecedented success of backup Cooper Rush.
Fans who are pro-Cooper Rush, let's call them Rush-ians… actually, let's not.
Y'all Want the Old Dak
Pro-Rush fans cite their support for the backup as being due to the offense looking better than it's looked in a long time. Pro-Dak fans, however, are quick to rebut with facts and figures, citing everything from the Cowboys' lower win percentage without Dak Prescott to the multiple lists and rankings that place Dak among the best QBs in the league in almost every conceivable category.
Still, pro-Rush fans say that Dak hasn't been the same since 2016 and that Cooper Rush looks more like that version of the Cowboys' QB1 than Dak does. In response to this claim, a Jay-Z fan like myself might say if you want the old Dak, go watch his old games.
No, really. Go watch his old games. A quick look at Dak Prescott's stats from 2016 and 2021 show comparable passer ratings and passing yards per game between each of those seasons. There are a few differences, though.
In 2021, we see that his willingness to run the ball himself decreased dramatically. There are also up-ticks in both sacks and interceptions, but there are complementary increases in passing attempts, completions, and total touchdowns as well. Even though many people refuse to see it that way, he was still the same Dak.
So, with all the evidence that Dak Prescott is indeed a very good quarterback and his proven and measurable abilities compared to the still relatively untested capacity of Cooper Rush, why do so many Cowboys fans continue to toy with the idea that Cooper Rush is the better option?
Feeling Cooper Rush
The answer to this question can be summed up by this commonly held notion: people may forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.
Now, am I really suggesting that support of Cooper Rush is based on fans being in their feelings? It goes a little bit beyond solely emotion, but mostly, yes. I'll explain.
Last season, the Cowboys were 12-5 in the regular season with a record-setting defense and statistically one of the best offenses in the NFL, but you wouldn't know that from perusing late-season headlines. Statistically, the team was pretty good, but anecdotally, they were an undisciplined, physically passive, penalty-heavy disappointment with almost no reliable weapons and bad clock management.
This depiction of the team combined with off-season moves that led to more questions than answers made for an uninspired fan base that went into Week 1 hoping for the best but preparing for the worst – and by preparing, I mean they were prepared to throw Dak under the bus since his leadership habits were alluded to as reasons for the team's low morale, lack of preparation, and poor performance.
Dak Prescott's 2022 Start
Although Dak's Week 1 performance was not reflective of what he accomplished last season, it brought up some of the same feelings many fans experienced in the latter weeks of the 2021 season.
- The negative body language after a botched play or unproductive drive reminded fans of the confidence-killing demeanor on display during last year's toughest losses. The Cowboys' 10 penalties conjured up memories of the now-broken promises to work on discipline in the off-season.
- Inadequate involvement of Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard reminded fans of the Cowboys' aversion to even the most proven offensive strategies.
- The inability to make adjustments and to take advantage of defensive stops brought up feelings of skepticism about the Cowboys' ability to compete with top NFL teams.
- And finally, Dak's injury to the thumb on his throwing hand confirmed fears of what seems to be becoming an annual occurrence – Dak Prescott being unavailable due to injury. Fans were feeling discouraged and pessimistic about what they thought would happen for the rest of the season.
Part of the gift and curse of being a team leader is the automatic association with the team's most outstanding results and characteristics – good or bad. And in this situation, Dak being associated with “the bad” opened the door for Cooper Rush to become the face of the “the good.”
Like a heartbroken lover after a bad breakup, the fan base was primed to devote itself to even the most average of suitors with the only real expectation being to not make this experience anything like the last one. Hell, a lot of the biggest Rush supporters were clamoring for Will Grier to get a chance behind center just three weeks ago. And if they've been fans long enough they were probably pro-Romo six years ago.
It's not inconceivable to think that aside from Jerry Jones stoking the fire, much of this controversy has more to do with fans being anti-Dak than pro-Rush, but I digress.
Cooper Rush's 2022 Start
The choice was made for Rush to take over, and against the Bucs, save for an interception, he performed just as poorly as Dak did. No touchdowns, sacked twice, and 4.9 yards per passing attempt compared to Dak's 4.6.
But then Week 2 rolled around, and against the World Champion runner-up Cincinnati Bengals, the Dallas Cowboys came out of the gates hot, took the lead, and held it the entire game. CeeDee Lamb fans who felt worried about another four-game stretch with him receiving 5 targets or less had their fears assuaged by a team-high 11 targets to the receiver, and the 7 completions of those 11 confirmed to them that the measly 2 completions a week prior must have been Dak's fault and could not be blamed entirely on our beloved WR1.
Zeke and Pollard's combined 24 carries represented a return to a more sensible offensive strategy and gave many fans feelings of relief and certainty. All that on top of a drop in total penalties made Cooper Rush the face of success, hope, and promises kept.
Fans felt excited and optimistic, and from the perspective of many, these good and positive feelings were all owed to the performance of Cooper Rush.
Still, with all of his success, Cooper Rush's current and projected passer ratings are lower than anything Dak Prescott has achieved in any season except for 2017.
Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics
Many of the experts, analysts, and stats enthusiasts eager for Dak's return are assured that he gives his team the best chances for success in the long run. Many of them even say that a lot of the struggles the Cowboys experienced during the first half of the game against the Commanders on Sunday were due to Cooper Rush's poor attempts at things Dak Prescott already does well such as reading through multiple reads, for example.
But for fans who look at the team and assert (inaccurately) that the only difference between Weeks 1 and 2 was the change at the quarterback position, all of the statistics and expert analysis in the world won't convince them that the way they feel about the Cowboys and about Cooper Rush is invalid.
Even Rush himself has stated that the defense is responsible for the team winning games. A sentiment that holds true considering the fact that while the success of a team might be impacted by the quality of their quarterback, it's ultimately determined by whether or not that team scores more points than their opponent and during which competitions that happens. So, a team with a defense that is consistently holding teams to less than 20 points may see success even if their quarterback does have a lower completion percentage than the likes of Jimmy Garroppolo and Carson Wentz, for example.
At this point, based on the official word from the Cowboys, Dak's return as quarterback of America's Team is a matter of when not if. Once that happens, these types of comparisons will become irrelevant until Dak loses a game.
The real question at this point is, what can Dak Prescott do in the meantime so that the next time he's out for a period of time, we don't have this type of “controversy?” What should Dak Prescott do to regain the confidence of fans who stopped believing in him?
The Changing of Hearts and Minds
Most competitors would say he shouldn't do anything different in response to fan banter. Win as much as possible. Give as few f*cks as possible. And leave it to those fans to get out of their own feelings. That's not his job.
But since Dak has told us time and time again how much he loves the fans, we know he would never be so dismissive, but there's only so much he can control.
Luckily, fans can be won over by following five simple principles.
1. “I've Changed”
The first one is something he's actually already done. Like the ex trying to get back in the good graces of the heartbroken lover mentioned earlier, reassure them that you've changed and hope they believe you enough to give you a chance to prove it.
“I'm seeing more and more just how simple this game can be… Hearing the calls in the headset and then seeing how defenses line up from the sideline reinforces that sometimes all you have to do is slow the game down and go through the design of the plays. It can be so (expletive) simple. That's what I can't wait to get back to.”
— Dak Prescott
If he keeps sharing these learning moments, then comes back and leads the Cowboys to quality wins, there are fans who will say things like, “I like the new Dak,” or “I'm glad he took that time to learn and improve.” It gives them a chance to get back into the fold without ever admitting being wrong.
2. Stick to What's Working
This is not to say that the game plan for Dak needs to be exactly the same as it has been for Cooper Rush, but the simplicity mentioned above should probably guide the offensive philosophy for a while. Trick plays and complex schemes won't win fans over as much as touchdowns and wins will.
3. Give the People What They Want
As evident by responses to the team's performance in 2021, winning might not be enough.
How the team wins will impact what people think about the team and its leadership. Fans really want to see the stars of the team do well. If CeeDee and Zeke haven't had 100-yd games by the time Dak returns, getting them to those benchmarks will do a lot to win over skeptical fans.
4. Tone Setting Leadership
Cooper Rush is consistently described as even-keeled, and many people cite that temperament as what makes him such an effective game manager. Even with Dak behind center, mistakes will happen, and when they do, it will be important for Dak to keep his head up and display some sort of faith in the offense.
He cannot let his teammates go back to the bench with their heads down, avoiding eye contact and not speaking to one another as they've done in the past.
5. Make a Good Run in the Playoffs
Let's be honest. Dak could come back and lead the Cowboys to an undefeated regular season, but if they don't follow that with at least two playoff wins, keyboard GMs everywhere will be speculating if he is the right choice and if he has what it takes to help the team see “real success.”
Dak cannot control 100% of the factors that contribute to everything mentioned above, and there's a good chance he doesn't even care to think about half of what's listed. This whole article may even seem like more judgment of the fanbase than a comparison of Rush vs Prescott. The fact of the matter is, everyone but Dak has had a chance to redeem themselves since Week 1, but his opportunity is quickly approaching.
Fans are running out of time to either show their support or “stay on that side” as many fans are already saying these days.