OXNARD, Calif. - Once the draft had passed and most of free agency's biggest signings had been complete, the move that plenty of Cowboys fans were waiting for the team to make was to acquire a backup quarterback. Andy Dalton had left the team for Chicago and a chance at a starting quarterback job and Dak Prescott was coming off of major ankle surgery.
But the team made no such moves. Perhaps they didn't like the options out there, but in some sense, there's no doubt that standing pat meant they had some degree of confidence in three of the players who had backed up Prescott in the past: Garrett Gilbert, Ben DiNucci, and Cooper Rush. All three are present in training camp.
But when Dak Prescott left practice on Wednesday with what turned out to be a minor shoulder strain, it was Gilbert who stepped in and took reps with the first team. There was a collective sigh of relief when it was confirmed that the starting quarterback was not seriously injured, but within the circumstances was a potential tell that Gilbert might have a lead on the competition for Prescott's backup, though Mike McCarthy alluded to Prescott's unavailability as a chance for all three backups to excel.
"When one player doesn't practice, it's an opportunity for others," McCarthy said.
But it was Gilbert who was playing the role of Prescott, who McCarthy confirmed won't be throwing in practice for "2-3 days" which likely means until next week sometime. The former University of Texas quarterback said Thursday that it was a moment he was ready for.
"You've always got to be ready," Gilbert said. "It's a fun opportunity for me. I enjoy getting in there with those guys and going against our number one defense." He also emphasized that the players "move a bit faster with those guys [in the first team], especially on the defensive side of the ball."
Gilbert was a sixth-round pick in 2014 who has bounced around to eight different organizations, but is entering his second season with the Cowboys where he impressed the organization and the coaching staff enough to bring him back in 2021.
"Garrett's played a lot of football," McCarthy said of Gilbert on Thursday. "[Gilbert and Rush] have great football minds. That's a big part of why we have confidence in them."
Last season, Gilbert started a Week 9 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers and threw for 243 yards, one touchdown, and one interception, nearly leading an upset before losing 24-19. On Wednesday he claimed that starting that game in his home state was "obviously a dream come true" and that it's something he can take with him as a backup this year.
With a 17th regular season game added to the schedule this year, there is a possibility that Gilbert could be called upon to fill in for Prescott at some point, if even for a drive or two, but during training camp he won't be trying to mimic QB1.
"I think I would do myself and those guys a disservice if I tried to be Dak when I was out there," Gilbert said. "When I'm out there I'm trying to operate my own offense."
For as much as he's bounced around in his seven years in the NFL, playing within the same system for two consecutive years, as well as getting a real full offseason with the team following last year's COVID-19 restrictions, is a welcome confidence boost for Gilbert, who says he's learned a lot from extended time with Kellen Moore and, especially, Prescott.
"He's been in this offense five years now," Gilbert said of Prescott. "Just being able to pick his brain on how he operates the offense has been great. That's not even to mention his leadership, which is probably his best quality."
McCarthy won't commit to a backup quarterback when so much can change over the preseason, but he did admit that Gilbert was likely to get the largest portion of Prescott's snaps over Thursday's practice. Gilbert and DiNucci both started games last year, and ultimately the Cowboys will need to decide which of their three backup quarterbacks they trust the most.
"Quarterback reps are so hard to come by, but I think these guys are what you're looking for. [These next few practices] will be good for these guys."
For his part, Gilbert said he isn't looking at DiNucci or Rush as competition for the moment.
"Obviously I want to win the backup job," Gilbert said. "That's my goal, that's all of our goals that are here behind Dak, but to focus on who I'm competing with specifically would be getting in the way of what I'm trying to do. My goal is to go out there and get better and be the best quarterback I can be and let the chips fall where they do."