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Could Dak Prescott’s injury have helped the Dallas Cowboys’ offense?

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Cooper Rush has helped alter the team's offensive approach. (Tyler Kaufman/AP)

No one seems to be reveling in the Dallas Cowboys’ faux quarterback controversy quite like Jerry Jones.

The Cowboys’ flamboyant and gregarious owner can’t stop gushing about backup Cooper Rush, who — with Dak Prescott sidelined with a hand injury — has ascended from the practice squad to save the season and help Dallas to a 3-1 start. While the menacing defense has truly been the star of the first month of the season for this franchise, that’s not nearly as fun to yammer on about. And in the span of mere weeks, Jones has gone from talking as though Prescott could return from his significant thumb injury in a couple of weeks to slow-playing Prescott’s recovery and opining about his franchise quarterback’s inability to grip the ball firmly enough in practice, let alone a game.

“He has the makeup of a top quarterback,” Jones raved of Rush, who has four career NFL starts, while summarizing Prescott’s football activities in far less optimistic terms: “I really don’t know that I’d call it throwing that he’s doing.”

Hmm.

Rest assured, Prescott is the starting quarterback of the Cowboys and will remain in that role when he is cleared to return. That’s going to happen — not this weekend but at some point this month, from what I gather. And when it does, in the eyes of rival executives and coaches around the league, there are lessons Dallas could take from Rush’s time at the helm that might resonate even more loudly when Prescott returns. Not that any rivals are trying to give Jones or the Cowboys advice or assistance, but several individuals who have watched that offense closely believe there are principles offensive coordinator Kellen Moore could apply from the abrupt adjustment to Rush that portend even greater returns with Prescott, who is clearly the superior and more seasoned quarterback.

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“I think they are going to be an even more dangerous team because of this,” said one NFC general manager who does not speak publicly about the personnel and strategy of opponents. “When Dak comes back, he’s not going to be able to throw it 40 or 45 times a game right away. It wouldn’t make sense to go right back to that. The stuff they are running now will be even better with him — if that’s the approach they take.”

Another GM, under similar restrictions, echoed that sentiment. Coach Mike McCarthy “will embrace this version of the offense,” he said. “He’s not a big risk-reward guy. This is a little more restrained.”

The Cowboys spent previous years hoarding receivers and revving up a downfield passing game, with the combination of Moore and Prescott notorious for chucking the ball around (while at the same time relying too much on another Jones favorite, running back Ezekiel Elliott, when they do run, rather than the more productive and explosive Tony Pollard). But premier deep threat Amari Cooper was deemed too expensive to retain during the offseason, 2020 first-round pick CeeDee Lamb has been erratic, and starting wide receiver Michael Gallup just returned from an ACL injury last week. In the interim, it has been clear to scouts and evaluators that Moore and McCarthy have limited the scope of the attack and erected guardrails for Rush that Prescott doesn’t necessarily need — but that might benefit the team regardless.

Prescott was fifth in the NFL a year ago in dropbacks per game (40.4), trailing only Tom Brady, Justin Herbert, Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen. With so much invested in pass catchers at the time, the edict to fling it around seemed clear, and Moore obliged. Dallas wanted to keep all those receivers fed, happy and engaged; as a result, things tended to get predictable. Through four games this season, Dallas is 25th in dropbacks per game with 34.5. Meanwhile, Pollard is seeing more action in the passing game (13 targets through four weeks vs. eight at this time a year ago) and the offense seems streamlined.

None of this is to imply that Prescott can’t do much more than Rush, but asking him to repeat his performance of a year ago might be extreme — and not in the team’s best interest. Sometimes, a little less can be more (or, well, Moore).

“This isn’t just a Kellen Moore thing, because we see this with a lot of young coordinators,” said an evaluator who has scouted Dallas, “but it’s easy to get carried away [in the passing game]. Guys don’t become head coaches in this league by running the ball. I get it. It’s America’s Team, they’re always in prime time, they had all these receivers. Jerry’s always talking [to the media]. You want to make [his personnel moves] pay off. But that’s not the team they have this year. You don’t race to 35 points with this defense.”

The Cowboys (who are allowing just 1.39 points per drive, fourth in the NFL) seem to be leaning into heavier personnel packages, embracing two-back looks and more multi-tight-end sets. Even with Gallup back (and Prescott on the way), discarding that approach might be a mistake.

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Dallas is using “21” personnel — two running backs and one tight end — on 6.6 percent of offensive snaps this season, per stats website TruMedia, up from 2.3 percent a season ago. Usage of “12” personnel — one back and two tight ends — is at 26.1 percent, up from 22.2 percent last season. Overall, the Cowboys have two running backs on the field 9.1 percent of the time after doing so on just 4.9 percent of their offensive snaps last season. And they are going with an empty backfield 14 percent of the time — allowing Rush to survey the entire field, with rookie Tyler Smith excelling at left tackle — after doing so 9.4 percent of the time a season ago.

Soon enough we’ll see what Prescott looks like with this group around him and whether the Cowboys revert to their 2021 tendencies. Their opponents certainly hope they do.

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Would the New York Giants trade running back Saquon Barkley now that he looks like his pre-surgery self and leads the NFL in yards from scrimmage? I wouldn’t rule it out.

First, consider whether the franchise’s new decision-makers would have drafted him so high in the first place. Would a high-priced running back — and one who has a serious medical history — be the kind of player that the Buffalo Bills (for whom General Manager Joe Schoen and Coach Brian Daboll worked before moving to the Meadowlands) would spend on? And will the new regime really work hard to extend such a player when the roster has other needs? I also believe, having seen what kind of tough decisions go into reviving a franchise, that this brain trust wouldn’t let a surprising 3-1 start (against modest opposition) derail it from grander long-term ambitions. So if an intriguing “sell-high” proposition comes along, don’t discount its chances.

“He’s been available in the past, but there wasn’t any value” for the Giants, one rival GM said.

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Based on conversations with rival executives, I’d also look for the Giants to deal a receiver in the next month. Kenny Golladay (who logged one target Sunday) and 2021 first-round pick Kadarius Toney have had zero impact since being acquired by the previous regime. And with quarterbacks Daniel Jones and Tyrod Taylor banged up, the realities of what that 3-1 start really means in the big picture may come into further focus.

Notes from around the league

Rival general managers are keeping a close eye on tight end Mike Gesicki of Miami ahead of the trade deadline. Several scouts who have watched him indicated they do not think he is a fit in the Dolphins’ new offense — “He can’t block enough to fit there,” said one scout who cannot speak publicly about players on other rosters — and that he seems to be a spare part. He’s carrying a big salary on a franchise tag but hasn’t been a factor, with only eight catches on 10 targets for 71 yards. . . .

Don’t think for a minute that the early success quarterback Jalen Hurts is having for the Philadelphia Eagles is going to change him. People around that team continue to rave about his work ethic, dedication and leadership. He’s the last guy in the building — even on Fridays, traditionally a short work day. Anyone still banking on Philadelphia being in the quarterback market in 2023 is going to look silly. . . .

Several times in the offseason, it appeared that polarizing Jacksonville Jaguars general manager Trent Baalke would not be back. Ultimately, he survived and was part of the process that selected Doug Pederson to replace always-doomed Urban Meyer as coach. But already there are rumblings in the scouting community that the power structure in Jacksonville could shift in 2023 — and that there could be a new general manager by the draft, if not sooner.

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