FRISCO, Texas -- The T-shirts were hung at their lockers at The Star on Friday with a clear message in white letters: RESILIENCE.
This was more than 48 hours before quarterback Dak Prescott suffered a broken right thumb in the Dallas Cowboys’ 19-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but coach Mike McCarthy has been around long enough to know a season’s path is never smooth.
“Our theme this year is resilience,” McCarthy said Monday. “We knew we were going to have challenges. You can't get to where you want to go without them. We got a bunch in Week 1. We're just charging forward.”
On Tuesday, owner and general manager Jerry Jones brought some optimism to the news on Prescott, saying on 105.3 The Fan in Dallas the quarterback would not go on injured reserve despite having surgery and could potentially return within four weeks.
When the Cowboys left the stadium late Sunday night, sources indicated Prescott would need six to eight weeks to recover. Now, he could be back Oct. 9 for their Week 5 road tilt with the Los Angeles Rams, which is a big difference from a potential Nov. 13 return at the Green Bay Packers in Week 10, when the season’s direction may already be decided.
Whether it is three games or more, how the Cowboys fare without Prescott could still determine the success -- or failure -- of 2022.
In 2008, Tony Romo missed three games with a broken pinky finger. The Cowboys went 1-2 in his absence with Brad Johnson and Brooks Bollinger at quarterback and missed the playoffs by a game (9-7), although that team was beset by disharmony later in the season.
Now, the Cowboys will turn to Cooper Rush as Prescott’s replacement with Will Grier ready to serve as the No. 2 quarterback. Rush won the only start of his career, 20-16 in Week 8 last season against the Minnesota Vikings. Grier lost both of his starts as a rookie in 2019 with the Carolina Panthers.
“I’m not going to lie to you, if someone is saying your quarterback is out ... 'deflating' is not the word, but it’s definitely like, ‘Hey, we’ve got to pick it up now.’" Pro Bowl right guard Zack Martin said. "We’ve got to rally around our guys and the guys that are going to be out there, and right the ship until he can get back. A lot of weight is on us, and that’s great because we can handle it. Just got to get better moving forward.”
Tight end Dalton Schultz was even more direct.
“The way I see it, it’s just a storm,” Schultz said. “You got two choices. You can either run away from the storm or you can run right into it. I know, myself included, and everybody in this locker room, is running right into that motherf---er. That is just our approach.”
If anything, the Cowboys have become too accustomed to life without Prescott.
He suffered a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle in 2020, missing 11 games. Last season, he missed one game with a calf strain suffered in October that affected him for the rest of the season, whether he would let on or not. Now he has the thumb injury, but executive vice president Stephen Jones does not believe Prescott is injury-prone.
“I think Dak is built to last. I think obviously those hand injuries in pockets are tough ones,” Jones said on 105.3 The Fan. “I don’t think he’s injury-prone, and feel like he’ll rebound from this. He’s a great leader. He’ll be out there leading the charge. I know he won’t miss anything, and I think great things are ahead of Dak.”
The Cowboys will not ask Rush to be Prescott, but if he can keep them afloat in Prescott’s absence, that will suffice.
Rush was impressive in his start against the Vikings in 2021. He completed 24 of 40 passes for 325 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. He was sacked three times. Unlike last season, however, he does not have wide receivers Amari Cooper (8 receptions, 122 yards and the game-winning touchdown) and Cedrick Wilson Jr. (3 catches, 84 yards, 1 touchdown).
“You’ve got to go in, you’ve got to make things click as if '4' [Prescott] was in there,” Rush said. “We’ll draw on that experience from last year big time. You know, got my feet wet last year and getting out there [Sunday]. We’ll regroup as a team and a group on offense.”
Without Prescott in 2020, the Cowboys went 4-7, losing their first four games in his absence. They started four quarterbacks that season on their way to a 6-10 finish: Prescott, Andy Dalton, Ben DiNucci and Garrett Gilbert.
“We’ve got to take care of business while [Prescott] is on the sideline,” running back Ezekiel Elliott said. “It’s going to be big on our offensive line and running backs; and get that running game going, and protect Coop.”
When McCarthy was head coach of the Packers in 2013, when Aaron Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone in Week 8, he used four different starting quarterbacks. Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien (a current Cowboys offensive assistant) and Matt Flynn started seven games in Rodgers’ absence.
Flynn saved the season with two wins, including a 37-36 victory against the Cowboys. Rodgers returned for the final game of the regular season, and the 8-7-1 Packers made the playoffs.
The Cowboys hope Rush can do the same as Flynn.
“It’s not like you have a plan you dust off,” McCarthy said. “I think what it does teach you is just don’t overreact. ... I think you just stay the course, and we’ll get to where we want to go.”