There was an almost a 180-degree turn with many fans on Quarterback Ben DiNucci last year. After a lot of hype and interest as a 7th-round draft selection, the rookie had a disastrous first start against the Eagles and was never heard from again. But is one game enough to bury this kid as a contender for the backup job in 2021?
DiNucci was bad that day in Philly; no doubt about it. He was just 21-of-40 for 180 yards and no touchdowns passing, plus had two fumbles. He looked uncomfortable all day and contributed to a humiliating outing overall for the Cowboys against a division rival.
2020 was a humiliation across the board for the organization, but also a byproduct of extensive injury issues, poor coaching decisions, and the lack of offseason preparation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Just about everything that could possibly going wrong last year did.
Think about this; here’s a kid whose last game was at James Madison University. He enters the NFL during the pandemic so doesn’t get the usual rookie orientation or even preseason games to help get acclimated.
Before he finally gets his chance, Ben watches the offense disintegrate as La’el Collins, Tyron Smith, and Zack Martin all get injured. He sees Dak Prescott go out for the year, and then a couple weeks later it’s Andy Dalton getting hurt.
All of a sudden, Ben DiNucci is the starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. That first start is on the road against the Philadelphia Eagles with a chance at winning the NFC East still very much on the table.
Even though Zack Martin did return for that game, he was playing hurt and wasn’t enough to make the offensive line solvent. DiNucci was under fire all day, struggling mightily but only moderately more than Dalton had the previous two games.
Sure, we all wanted the Cinderella story. We wondered who might play “The Nooch” in the future Disney movie. But instead of giving us a fairy tale, Ben DiNucci just did what most players would in the first start on one of the worst teams in football.
The Cowboys were right to give another QB prospect, Garrett Gilbert, a shot the following week and he nearly pulled off a stunner against the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers. But Gilbert was no bright-eyed rookie; a 2014 draft pick who’d been around the league and also played professionally in the Alliance of American Football in 2019.
The funk that DiNucci had left everyone in benefitted Gilbert, who’s now almost overrated because of how much better he looked the following week. Many are also taking that too far in assuming it means DiNucci just isn’t NFL material.
In 1989, starting his first NFL game against the New Orleans Saints, a former 1st-overall pick named Troy Aikman completed 48% of his passes, threw two picks with no touchdowns, and posted a laughable passer rating of just 40.2 on the day. Say what you want about DiNucci’s first start, but he didn’t get half the prep work Aikman did and he also managed not to throw any interceptions.
In 2006, coming in at halftime after years of grooming and with rising expectations that he would take over, Tony Romo promptly threw three interceptions against the Giants after replacing Drew Bledsoe.
Of course, we know how Troy and Tony turned out. My point is simple; one bad game can’t define a career anymore than one good game. DiNucci’s value as a QB prospect in 2021 is no more defined by his failure in Philly than Gilbert’s is by one strong showing against Pittsburgh.
The entire rookie class of 2020 deserves some mercy given how the circumstances under which they entered the league. And even if it had been a normal year, how well should we have really expected a 7th-round pick to perform in his first start on the road in a rivalry game?
Sure, Ben DiNucci may not be cut out for the NFL. But it’s far too soon, and with far too little evidence, to make that assertion.