MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Dallas Cowboys took their decision on Dak Prescott all the way up to the last hours before the game, ultimately opting for a dose of midseason caution with his strained right calf muscle and keeping their franchise quarterback on the sideline.
Cooper Rush made it clear why that was the wise move.
Rush’s first NFL start produced a statement win for the surging Cowboys, as the fifth-year backup passed for 325 yards and two second-half touchdowns to lead a 20-16 victory over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday night on the road in the league's showcase game on national television.
“It wasn’t crazy. I felt like I belonged out there,” said Rush, who went undrafted out of Central Michigan in 2017 and had appeared in only six games in mop-up duty in his career to date with only three attempted passes.
With 51 seconds left, Rush calmly threw a 5-yard fade to Amari Cooper in the corner of the end zone to give the Cowboys their first lead of the game.
“Coop has an arm. The thing about Coop is he’s going to give you a chance,” Cooper said.
Prescott, who was hurt on the touchdown throw to beat New England in overtime on Oct. 17, had the bye week to rest and pushed hard to play — but the choice was not his to make. The Cowboys endured a painful 11 games without him last season after he broke and dislocated his right ankle. After giving him a new $160 million contract earlier this year, they're determined not to let this soft tissue issue last longer than it needs to.
“I had a plan all week, trying to progress and get myself out there. We made a call at the end of having a chance to come out with a win, without me playing, and be able to get healthy and not have something re-injure and linger past this week,” said Prescott, who watched from the sideline in a blue cap and gray sweats with the headset on to help facilitate the communication between Rush and the coaches.
Rush became the 44th different quarterback to start a game in Cowboys history. His 73-yard touchdown pass to Cedrick Wilson was the longest in franchise history by a player making his first start for the team since Roger Staubach (75 yards) in 1969.
“All week, I took everything in practice,” Rush said. “I had more sense that this is real than usual.”
The Vikings brought plenty of pressure and sacked him three times, once by former teammate Xavier Woods that caused a fumble in the fourth quarter that was recovered by Minnesota near midfield. Woods intercepted Rush in the second quarter, too, but neither of those turnovers translated to points for the Vikings as Micah Parsons, Randy Gregory and the defense held firm.
Rush went 10 for 17 for 110 yards in the first half, and the Cowboys faced a 10-3 deficit at the break. He had his share of misfires, to be sure, but every time it looked like the pass rush and the crowd noise might get to him and tilt the game toward the home team, Rush would come right back with a crisp throw for a clutch completion — like the 73-yard touchdown pass to Cedrick Wilson on the third play of the third quarter.
The Cowboys had five drives of 50-plus yards. Nine of their 11 possessions began at their own 25-yard line or further back. Their best field position of the night was their 32.
“He plays the quarterback position like a seasoned veteran that's played 10 or 12 years in the league,” McCarthy said. “That's the man I get to see every day. He's very steady, very intelligent. He's a great teammate."
The Cowboys (6-1) have won six straight games and play Denver (4-4) and Atlanta (3-4) at home the next two weeks. There's not going to be a rush, no pun intended, to bring Prescott back.
“It's just to see how close he can get to being ready,” McCarthy said. “Trust me: We've had all the conversations that you've all had.”
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