The Dallas Cowboys’ spooky Halloween began nearly two hours before kickoff. The big question was whether quarterback Dak Prescott, who has been nursing a calf injury, would get the green light to start the Week 8 matchup with the Minnesota Vikings. That shoe dropped 100 minutes before game time:
Dak Prescott will be inactive tonight for the @dallascowboys, per source. Cooper Rush will start and Will Grier will be the backup vs. the @Vikingsp. Pre-game warm-ups for @Dak did nothing to change expectations.
— Chris Mortensen (@mortreport) October 31, 2021
That turned Sunday night into the official Cooper Rush game, the scariest news fans could have expected given that the 27-year-old Rush had a total of three pass attempts to his name and zero NFL starts in his career heading into the evening. But Rush sizzled, and the scary story had quite the happy ending. How he did it can best be explained by one number: 9.5
That’s the average depth of each pass attempted by Rush over the course of the game. While some teams game plan so that their backup quarterbacks don’t throw deep at all—the Jets’ Mike White, himself a former Dak Prescott backup, had an average target depth of 4.1 yards this week—the Cowboys and Rush let it all hang out.
The first-half results were not exactly favorable. Dallas trailed 10-3, and most win probability models didn’t give them a great chance at a comeback. Per the nflfastR win probability model, which includes the pre-game Vegas spread as a factor, the Cowboys had just a 19 percent chance of overcoming that touchdown deficit at the moment they took possession of the ball in the third quarter.
Rush had not inspired much confidence in the comeback, either, completing just 10 passes for 110 yards through two quarters, while taking a sack and tossing an interception. But things would turn around quite quickly for Rush—and by “quickly,” I mean three plays into the second half.
Cooper Rush & Cedrick Wilson (73-yd TD)
Rush finds Wilson on a post route 23 yards downfield with 3.0 yards of separation. Wilson (50 YAC) was expected to gain 37 yards after catch according to our xYAC model, and had a 17.6% of scoring a TD at catch.#DALvsMIN | #DallasCowboys pic.twitter.com/XMZiq1LbIv
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) November 1, 2021
A 73-yard rocket to Cedrick Wilson provided the offensive boost the Cowboys sorely needed after the lackluster first half. And while some success can often be attributed to luck (as we would see later in the game), this pass was no such thing. It was precision, the definition of hitting a receiver in stride. Per the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Wilson was traveling 19.13 mph when the pass arrived, just a shade under his 19.76 mph top speed on the play. Of Rush’s 16 pass attempts that traveled at least 10 yards in the air, this might’ve been the most impressive.
There is another 10-plus-yard pass attempt worth talking about, though, one which wasn’t necessarily the most impressive throw but will go down as the most memorable of the game. In the waning minutes of the game, with very little going right for the Cowboys since that 73-yard touchdown, Rush found Amari Cooper 25 yards deep down the right sideline. It was scarily close to an interception, but sometimes the bounces go your way.
The concentration by Amari Cooper here 😱
— NFL (@NFL) November 1, 2021
It was terrifying. It was beautiful. It was football epitomized. And it also happened to give Dallas about a 13 percent bump in win probability. Next Gen Stats gave this one a 35.4 percent completion probability at the time of the throw, which accounted for the location of the throw and the separation between Cooper and the nearest defender, but not the things that made it special: the moment the ball rolled up Bashaud Breeland’s arm and the bounce off of Cooper’s right hand.
Somehow, according to Next Gen Stats, another even more consequential pass play was yet to come. Following a wild third-down conversion by Ezekiel Elliott, Rush again looked for Cooper more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. This time, it was on the left side of the field and in the back of the end zone.
— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) November 1, 2021
The chance of that pass being completed? Just 26.5 percent, making it the least likely completion of the day for a pass under 15 yards. It was quite emblematic of the day the Alabama product had as well. Cooper averaged just 1.5 yards of separation on his targets, third-lowest in the NFL this week. And yet he was still able to catch eight balls for 122 yards and a game-winning touchdown.
Cooper Rush didn’t have a traditionally great day at the quarterback position. There were mistakes. There were turnovers. There were nearly as many incompletions as completions. But when it mattered most, he was willing and able to sling the ball downfield and let his receivers make a play. Fortune favors the bold, and on Sunday, Dallas was the beneficiary of Rush’s courage.