Catastrophe or opportunity for Cowboys and their backup QB?

Rick Gosselin

Losing a starting quarterback can spell catastrophe.

It can also spell opportunity.

That’s the fate of the Dallas Cowboys in 2020. The loss of quarterback Dak Prescott for the season with a gruesome ankle injury seems to spell catastrophe for a franchise that has devoted its premium draft picks and salary cap-dollars to offense. Through four weeks, Prescott emerged an NFL MVP candidate with three consecutive 400-yard passing games.

But former Pro Bowl quarterback Andy Dalton spells this as his opportunity. It’s the reason the Cowboys signed him in the offseason -- as an insurance policy for Prescott. And if Dalton did hit the field, he wanted it to be in a loaded offensive huddle that included a pair of 1,000-yard receivers, a two-time NFL rushing champion and a blocking front littered with Pro Bowlers.

Failure can be an option. But so can success.

Ask Earl Morrall.

Twice injuries placed him on the field, once in 1968 with the Baltimore Colts and again in 1972 with the Miami Dolphins. Both times he was replacing a Hall of Famer – Johnny Unitas with the Colts and Bob Griese the Dolphins -- and both times Morrall became a driving force of a Super Bowl team.

When a preseason injury sidelined Unitas in 1968, Morrall stepped in and led the Colts to a 13-1 record and a Super Bowl appearance. Morrall was named the NFL MVP on the strength of his 2,909 passing yards and league-leading 26 touchdowns.

Four years later, when Griese suffered a broken ankle in the fifth game of the 1972 season, Morrall became the quarterback of record in the NFL’s only perfect season, winning all nine of his starts to send the Dolphins into the playoffs with a 14-0 record. Morrall was voted to the Pro Bowl and was named the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year off the Super Bowl champions.

Morrall is not alone in his success. An injury gave Tom Brady his chance. Same with Kurt Warner, Ben Roethlisberger and, more recently, Prescott himself. Dalton would love to add his name at the bottom of this list of backup quarterback successes:

In 1980, with the Oakland Raiders scuffling along at 2-3, quarterback Dan Pastorini suffered a broken leg in the fifth week against Kansas City. The Raiders turned to Jim Plunkett, who steered Oakland to six consecutive victories on the way to an 11-5 finish for an AFC wild card. The Raiders knocked off Houston, Cleveland and San Diego in the AFC playoffs, then Plunkett passed for 261 yards and three touchdowns in a 27-10 Super Bowl romp over the Eagles.

In 1990, the Giants were coasting to an NFC East title with an 11-2 record when quarterback Phil Simms suffered a broken foot in the 15th week against the Buffalo Bills. Jeff Hostetler stepped in and beat the Cardinals and Patriots to close out a 13-3 record season, then steered the Giants to post-season victories over the Bears, 49ers and Bills to capture the franchise’s second Lombardi Trophy.

In 1998, Brad Johnson threw four touchdown passes in the opener against Tampa Bay to give the Minnesota Vikings a 1-0 start to their season. But with the score tied in the fourth quarter of the second game against Cleveland, Johnson left with a sprained ankle. Randall Cunningham stepped in and threw the winning touchdown pass to Cris Carter and then remained on the field the rest of the season, posting a 13-1 record and taking the Vikings to the NFC title game.

In 1999, coach Dick Vermeil’s job was on the line in St. Louis. The Rams were coming off consecutive last-place finishes in the NFC West and Vermeil needed the Rams to make a playoff push in 1999. But the season appeared to be a lost cause when quarterback Trent Green suffered a season-ending knee injury in an August exhibition game. That forced the Rams to start their Arena League-refugee Warner, who had thrown only 11 career NFL passes. He went on to pass for 4,353 yards and 41 touchdowns to deliver the Rams their first Lombardi Trophy and win NFL MVP honors.

In 2001, the Patriots opened 0-2 with Drew Bledsoe as their quarterback. The Patriots gave him a 10-year, $103 million contract just six months earlier. But Bledsoe suffered a near-fatal chest injury in the second week of the season, forcing the Patriots to turn to Brady, a late-round draft pick in 2000 who threw only three passes as a rookie. Brady posted an 11-3 record to deliver the Patriots an AFC East crown and their first Lombardi Trophy. And five more after that.

In 2004, after leading the Pittsburgh Steelers to a season-opening victory over the Raiders, Tommy Maddox suffered a sprained elbow in the third quarter of a loss to the Baltimore Ravens. He was replaced by rookie Ben Roethlisberger, who won his first 13 NFL starts and took the Steelers to the AFC title game.

In 2012, Alex Smith quarterbacked the 49ers to a 6-2-1 start before suffering a concussion in the ninth week against the Rams. Colin Kaepernick stepped in the next week and passed for 232 yards and two touchdowns in a 32-7 romp over the Chicago Bears. Even though Smith was completing 70 percent of his passes and was cleared to play the following week, coach Jim Harbaugh stuck with Kaepernick, who went 5-2 the rest of the way to help the 49ers win the NFC West. He then beat Green Bay and Atlanta in the playoffs to take the 49ers to the Super Bowl.

In 2016, the Cowboys lost the franchise’s all-time leading passer Tony Romo with a back injury in the fourth preseason game. That forced the Cowboys to play their rookie fourth-round draft pick Prescott, who responded by posting a 13-3 record to help the Cowboys capture the NFC East and win NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.

In 2017, Carson Wentz was making a push for NFL MVP as the quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles. He had thrown for 3,296 yards and 32 touchdowns through the first 13 weeks, steering the Eagles to an 11-2 record. But he suffered a season-ending knee injury in that 13th game, forcing the Eagles to go with backup quarterback Nick Foles. He won the next two games to give the Eagles the NFC East title, then knocked off Atlanta, Minnesota and New England in order in the post-season to give Philadelphia its first Lombardi Trophy. Foles was named the Super Bowl MVP.

In 2018, the Baltimore Ravens were plodding along at 5-6 with Joe Flacco at the helm. But over the bye week, coach John Harbaugh benched Flacco and promoted rookie Lamar Jackson, who went 6-1 as a starter down the stretch to deliver the Ravens an AFC North title with a 10-6 record. Jackson then went 14-2 in 2019 on his way to NFL MVP honors.

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