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Why don’t Cowboys have a proven veteran behind Dak Prescott?

Mike Florio and Charean Williams remain bearish on Dak Prescott's injury recovery as the Cowboys' quarterback appears likely to miss another preseason game.

Last year, the Cowboys signed Andy Dalton to serve as the backup to Dak Prescott. As of Week Five, the Cowboys needed Dalton’s services.

This year, the Cowboys have no veteran presence behind Prescott. Why, only 20 days after from their first regular-season game of 2021, do the Cowboys not have one?

The Cowboys have yet to elaborate on the decision-making process, one that will become particularly important in the event Prescott can’t return from a shoulder strain for Week One and/or gets injured during the season. Whatever the realistic expectations for the Cowboys this season, the bar plunges much lower if the quarterback is Garrett Gilbert, Ben DiNucci, or Cooper Rush.

Maybe the Cowboys don’t have the money in the budget for a veteran. With Prescott getting $40 million per year on his new deal, there’s not much cap space left for others at the position. That said, Jaguars quarterback Gardner Minshew has a salary of only $850,000 in 2021 -- $70,000 less than Gilbert’s base pay.

Minshew would make a ton of sense as a clear upgrade over Gilbert, DiNucci, and Rush. But then there’s the question of whether it will really make much of a difference if it’s Minshew or one of the options currently on the roster. Dalton, who led the Bengals to five straight playoff appearances to start his career, went 4-5 as the starter in 2020. How much better would Minshew fair? There’s a good chance that, whatever it is, it won’t be good enough.

Maybe the simple reality is that, once the starting quarterback goes down, the Cowboys are screwed and it doesn’t matter who takes the starter’s place. Consider this excerpt from Ron Jaworski’s The Games That Changed The Game, regarding a meeting that he and Jon Gruden once had before a Monday night game involving the Colts during the Peyton Manning era.

“As we watched, we were surprised to see Manning taking virtually all the reps in the session,” Jaworski wrote. “Jon [Gruden] asked Tom [Moore, the Colts offensive coordinator,] why he wasn’t giving some snaps to Peyton’s backups. . . . He looked at us both in the eye, paused for a moment, then said in that gravelly voice of his, ‘Fellas, if 18 goes down, we’re f--ked. And we don’t practice f--ked.”

The late Ted Thompson, G.M. of the Packers when Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy ran the team in Green Bay, had a different reason for not having a competent backup behind a franchise quarterback.

“You make sure you have so many of every position, given the limitations of a 53-man roster,” Thompson said in 2013. “But quite frankly, you never think about your better players ever getting hurt. If you think that way, you might jinx it. It might happen. Literally, you don’t think about it. It’s a place where you never tread.”

It’s unclear whether the Cowboys tread in that place for 2021. They should at least entertain the possibility, even if the ultimate conclusion is that, without Dak, they should put their head between their legs and kiss their ass goodbye.