With Dak Prescott out, Dallas Cowboys turn to Garrett Gilbert at No. 2

OXNARD, Calif. -- As it turned out, the Dallas Cowboys' season did not end Wednesday when Dak Prescott stopped throwing passes because of a muscle strain, but it did speak to the fragility of their potential success.

The Cowboys' hopes are pinned to Prescott, which is why they paid him a $160 million contract that included $126 million in guarantees this offseason. Their dilemma is not uncommon in the NFL. Quick: Name Russell Wilson's backup with the Seattle Seahawks. See, not that easy.

The Cowboys' No. 2 quarterback, at least for the moment, is Garrett Gilbert.

Gilbert, 30, has played in as many NFL games (seven) as he has professional teams -- the Cowboys, Cleveland Browns, Carolina Panthers, Oakland Raiders, New England Patriots, St. Louis Rams and the Orlando Apollos of the defunct Alliance of American Football.

"It's part of being a backup quarterback. You've got to always be ready to step in at any point," Gilbert said.

He has thrown 44 passes in those seven games and has 283 yards, a touchdown and an interception. All but six of those passes came in his one NFL start -- last season against the Pittsburgh Steelers, three weeks after signing with Dallas. All but 40 of those yards came against the Steelers, too.

"That's why he's sitting here as the No. 2, and he's done nothing but continue to impress Mike [McCarthy] and Kellen [Moore] in terms of what they feel like he could do if called upon," Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said. "Feel like he can win a game for us, or games."

The Cowboys, of course, hope it never comes to that, but in the offseason, Gilbert dived deeper into the Cowboys' playbook. He was constantly studying on his iPad. During the spring, he monitored Prescott and listened to how the veteran quarterback saw things.

"Being around [quarterbacks coach Doug Nussmeier] and Kellen and being around Dak and getting to learn this offense from square one was the biggest thing for me and the biggest takeaway," Gilbert said. "I feel much more comfortable with all of our protection stuff, all our checks and audibles. That has been really great for me to be able to get in from square one and get that baseline that I didn't have last year with me playing catch-up and learn game plans on a weekly basis."

Clearly the Cowboys liked what Gilbert did.

Even with Prescott coming off a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle last October, the Cowboys did not look heavily in the free-agent market for a backup. They visited with Jeff Driskel and Brett Hundley but ultimately opted not to sign either player.

Prescott's shoulder strain has not altered their plan at the moment, either.

Gilbert has been the clear No. 2 to Prescott, and with his absence was elevated to be the starter over Ben DiNucci and Cooper Rush.

It is a far different approach from what the Cowboys did a year ago when they signed Andy Dalton, who started 133 games in nine years with the Cincinnati Bengals, to a one-year deal that guaranteed him $3 million. It is far different from the approach the organization took early in Tony Romo's career when he had veterans Brad Johnson, Jon Kitna and Kyle Orton as his backups.

After Romo suffered through back and collarbone injuries, the Cowboys went with low-cost backups, such as Brandon Weeden and Moore, who is now the Dallas offensive coordinator. Oh, and they selected Prescott in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL draft.

"First of all, I think I've got a lot of confidence in all of our quarterbacks," Cowboys tight end Dalton Schultz said. "I see the way they work, and they have a hell of a leader in their room who makes sure everybody's on top of their stuff. I mean don't tell them I said this, but they've got a pretty good coach [Nussmeier] in there, too. Having confidence in your quarterback room is very special, especially when you're a tight end; you can trust those guys and they can trust you."

Gilbert did not pay attention to what the Cowboys did -- or didn't do -- at the quarterback position this offseason.

"Listen, obviously I want to win the backup job. That's my goal," he said. "That's all of our goal that are here behind Dak, but I think to focus on who I'm competing with specifically would be getting in the way of what I'm trying to do and how I'm trying to improve every day. My goal is to simply go out there, get better, be the best quarterback I can be for this team and let the chips fall where they may. That has served me well in the past."

If this run with the first team is short, or if he is ever called upon during the season, he will not try to be Prescott 2.0.

"I'd be doing myself and those guys a disservice if I tried to be Dak out on the field when I was out there," Gilbert said. "Certainly, there some things that are going to sound the same as far as cadence and that sort of thing, but I feel like when I'm out there, I'm operating my own offense there, not trying to be like him."