Cooper Rush, the ‘quiet killer’ tasked with keeping the Cowboys afloat without Dak Prescott

Hours after he took over for an injured Dak Prescott in Week 1, one of Cooper Rush’s former college teammates sent him a text. Rush had just gone from longtime backup to QB1 of the Dallas Cowboys in a matter of moments as news of the severity of Prescott’s thumb injury trickled through the Twitterverse.

But Rush didn’t seem too interested in that when he messaged his friend back.

“Hey man,” former Central Michigan wideout Jesse Kroll texted to Rush. “I'm pumped for the opportunity you have!”

“Thanks,” Rush plainly texted back. “How’s your dad life going?”

Rush completely brushed off what is arguably the biggest moment in his professional football career to ask Kroll about his 2-month-old baby. Rush is now the starting quarterback for the most popular football team in the country and the most valuable professional sports franchise in the world. But instead of talking about that, he wanted to hear about Kroll’s life and offer some advice after Rush became a father just 18 months prior.

Don’t mistake Rush’s nonchalance for indifference. He understands the role he stepped into: After the Week 1 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Rush said he’s “got to make things click as if 4 [Prescott] was in there.”

But that level-headedness is exactly what Kroll witnessed during his five years with Rush at Central Michigan, too. Kroll describes Rush as simply “a normal Midwestern dad” who “speaks softly but carries a big stick” by letting his actions do most of the talking. And now he’s the starting quarterback for the Cowboys until Prescott returns.

“He's kind of like that quiet killer where he won't say a whole lot, but when he does say something, it, like, really gets under your skin,” Kroll said. “Sometimes it doesn’t make for an awesome story because he’s not the guy to drop some awesome halftime speech and be different in different games. But he's just so level and even-keel it kind of rubs off on you and calms you down if you're, you know, panicking.”

'He knows what he has to do'

Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Shaquil Barrett (58) pressures Dallas Cowboys quarterback Cooper Rush as he throws a pass in the second half of a NFL football game in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Sept. 11, 2022. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

No one is panicking more than the Cowboys right now after losing their franchise quarterback. Though Prescott’s surgery reportedly went well and head coach Mike McCarthy recently said he’ll have a 7-10 day “healing process,” it’s unclear exactly how long the Cowboys will be without him. Original reports speculated a six-to-eight-week timetable for his injury.

Dallas has been here before with Rush. Last year, he started Week 8 during a primetime Sunday night game against the Minnesota Vikings when Prescott sat out with a calf injury. Rush delivered a very solid performance: completing 60 percent of his passes for 325 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in a 20-16 win that included an eight-play, 75-yard game-winning drive in the final minute that resulted in a touchdown to receiver Amari Cooper.

Before that game, the Vikings got a quick scouting report on Rush from one of his former CMU teammates — tight end Tyler Conklin, who played four seasons in Minnesota before signing with the New York Jets in 2022. Conklin compared Rush to, oddly enough, Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins as someone with an overall quiet demeanor but can pop off when called upon.

“He knows what he has to do,” Conklin said of Rush. “He can make all the throws on the field. He's deceptively athletic enough to go out there and get you the first down with his legs, move around and get out the pocket and make a throw down the field.

“He is a hell of a football player and I think he is gonna really impress people this next couple of weeks.”

That was only one game, though. This time, he’ll have to hold things down a bit longer and with an objectively weaker Cowboys squad. The team traded away Cooper, let wideout Cedrick Wilson walk in free agency and released tackle La'el Collins. Right tackle Tyron Smith is out for the foreseeable future as well with a knee injury.

Rush wasn’t spectacular in the 16 snaps he played in Week 1 when Prescott left, either. He completed 7-of-13 attempts for 64 yards and took two sacks in his two drives late in the fourth quarter of the 19-3 loss.

Even still, the Cowboys front office, coaches and players appear to have faith in Rush. Dallas reportedly has no plans to acquire another starter-caliber quarterback, according to ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, despite players like San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo on the trade block. Rush’s familiarity with the offense after playing with the Cowboys since 2017 is a major part of that. Since signing as an undrafted free agent, he’s been a consistent member of that quarterback room throughout offensive coordinator Kellen Moore’s tenure. Rush was even a teammate of Moore’s when they were both backups in 2017.

“Coop’s been around here for a long time,” Moore said Monday. “I think he knows who he is as a player. His demeanor’s very good. He handles the ups and downs that mentally go through a season, a game. I think we are fortunate to have a guy like that in our situation.”

Central Michigan quarterback Cooper Rush prepares to pass against Tulsa in the second half of the Miami Beach Bowl NCAA college football game, Monday, Dec. 19, 2016, in Miami. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
Cooper Rush played at Central Michigan before signing with the Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted free agent in 2017. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Rush’s ‘calm intensity’

Arguably the wildest moment of Rush’s football career came in the 2014 Bahamas Bowl against Western Kentucky.

Rush’s Central Michigan squad was staring at a near-insurmountable 35-point deficit heading into the fourth quarter. But Rush brought the Chippewas back with five touchdown passes and cut the lead to one point in the final 15-minute frame, including an incredible multi-lateral touchdown pass at the end of regulation. A failed two-point conversion ended the comeback, but Rush left the game with a then-FBS bowl game record seven touchdown passes (now tied with Joe Burrow).

But Rush didn’t energize his teammates with passionate declarations or boisterous celebrations. He just stood in the huddle, delivered the play call, broke the huddle and went to work like it was any other play.

Coincidentally, Rush played a huge role in another last-second Hail Mary play two years later against Oklahoma State. Rush heaved a pass during an untimed down to Kroll, who lateraled the ball to teammate Corey Willis at the nine-yard line. Willis scampered in for the winning — albeit controversial — touchdown.

“He was kind of just a fearless player,” former CMU center Nick Beamish recalled. “He was always even-keeled. He was a ‘never get too high, never get too low’ type of player. I think even in the biggest stage, which we saw last year [against the Vikings], I think he's still the same. It's intensity, but it's calm intensity and it's high expectations for everybody around him to kind of keep that same mentality.”

The Cowboys will need that composure to get their season back on track against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 2. The detractors will point at Rush’s lack of experience and athleticism, but his old college teammates believe he makes up for that with preparation and consistency.

“[The Cowboys] are one of the premier sports organizations in the world,” Beamish said. “Like, they're not doing stuff on a whim. There are definitely reasons that they're keeping him around. I think he knows what their expectations are. And I think he's confident in himself that he can live up to them.”

Those expectations, much like Rush’s personality, aren’t unreasonably high or painful low, either. By his own standards, they’re simple and attainable:

“Just go do your job,” Rush said. “Just execute. It’s the same plays, it’s the same other guys, we’ve still got everyone else. I trust in those guys, they trust in me, just all come together as a group and make plays and execute.”