Gilbert and Cooper Rush went through something of a competition during the week of practice, although Gilbert took most of the first-team snaps.
Gilbert, who was signed off the Cleveland Browns‘ practice squad on Oct. 12, will be making his first NFL start and his first start of any kind since playing for the Orlando Apollos of the defunct Alliance of American Football in 2019. He entered the league in 2014 with the St. Louis Rams and has spent time with the New England Patriots, Oakland Raiders, Carolina Panthers and Browns.
With the struggles of rookie Ben DiNucci in last week’s 23-9 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles and the placing of Andy Dalton on the reserve/COVID-19 list Tuesday, coach Mike McCarthy was determined to have a more experienced quarterback against the undefeated Steelers.
But Gilbert has thrown fewer passes in an NFL game than DiNucci, who was 21-of-40 for 180 yards against the Eagles. Gilbert is 2-of-6 for 40 yards in six appearances with the Panthers and Browns.
McCarthy was looking for more command of the operation than what DiNucci, a seventh-round pick, displayed.
“He’s played a lot of quarterback,” McCarthy said Friday of Gilbert. “This guy grew up as a quarterback. His father [Gale] was a quarterback. I mean, he knows how to play the position. There’s no lack for confidence or know-how. Just really it’s about getting the timing and the continuity in order as far as running the offense. So, yes, I find him to have a lot of confidence. He’s been like that since the day he arrived.”
Gilbert’s six pass attempts will match the fewest by a non-rookie quarterback making his first start in franchise history. Reggie Collier (1986) and Drew Henson (2004) entered their first starts with the Cowboys with just six attempts.
Rush was the Cowboys’ backup quarterback behind Dak Prescott from 2017 to 2019 but threw only three passes. After the Cowboys signed Dalton, he was released and rejoined ex-coach Jason Garrett with the New York Giants until his release in September.
The Cowboys contemplated bringing in Rush after Prescott was hurt but opted for Gilbert. Rush’s familiarity with the offense and the skill players was seen as a plus. Plus, offensive coordinator Kellen Moore has a familiarity with him, having been a teammate and coach of Rush’s.
Despite Gilbert being named the starter, McCarthy said during the week the goal was to get both quarterbacks ready to play, which was not something they could do a week ago when pressing DiNucci into action.
“You just really pay attention to all the little things that go into playing the position,” McCarthy said Friday. “I think at the end of the day, we have two young guys that don’t have a ton of game-day experience but they’re both very smart. The game comes easy to them. This is more about the timing and being connected, being in touch with the cadence and the operation. These are things you normally knock out in a training camp. But we’re up against it a little bit with the time in front of us. Both Garrett and Cooper, they know how to play quarterback.”
It’s not the ideal quarterback position for Cowboys as they face the NFL’s last undefeated team.
It’s the third time they have had to start four quarterbacks in the same season. In 2001, the Cowboys started Quincy Carter, Anthony Wright, Clint Stoerner and Ryan Leaf on their way to a 5-11 finish. In 2015, they started Tony Romo, Matt Cassel, Brandon Weeden and Moore on their way to a 4-12 finish.
NFL Network first reported the plan to start Gilbert.