The Dallas Cowboys entered the 2022 NFL season with Super Bowl aspirations, but their playoff path hit a bump in the road Sunday night when quarterback Dak Prescott injured his right thumb while throwing a pass in a 19-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Prescott is now expected to have surgery and could miss six to eight weeks, probably putting him on injured reserve.
Dallas won the NFC East in 2021 and came into the season projected to be one of the conference's top contenders. But what happens now? What does this mean for the Cowboys' season? Where will they turn at quarterback? Are there any trade or free agent options on the table for Dallas?
We asked our reporters and analysts to weigh in on the biggest questions surrounding Prescott's injury and what comes next. Can the Cowboys stay in contention, and who might be the starting quarterback while Prescott recovers? Then we took a closer look at how the injury might impact other teams around the league, from the top division competitor Eagles to the potential trade partner 49ers to the Week 2 opponent Bengals. Let's get started.
What does this mean for the Cowboys' 2022 season?
Todd Archer, Cowboys reporter: This is the worst possible situation for the Cowboys. Prescott was their most important player, and now he's gone for perhaps as many as seven games (Dallas has a Week 9 bye).
Could coach Mike McCarthy get a pass if Dallas crumbles? Maybe, but he was able to make the playoffs in Green Bay in 2013 when Aaron Rodgers missed seven games with a broken collarbone. McCarthy entered this season already on the hot seat, and if this team implodes, owner Jerry Jones might not give him a fourth season.
What is Prescott's timetable for return? And how might this injury impact his game once he returns?
Stephania Bell, injury analyst: The projected timetable is 6-8 weeks, but that could be refined post-surgery based on the exact procedure and Prescott's healing progression. As the bone heals, the work toward restoration of range of motion and strength gets underway.
The thumb in particular is highly mobile in multiple directions; residual stiffness here could create challenges for a quarterback whose job is to grip and throw the ball with accuracy and velocity. Getting full return of both is critical, but assuming that happens, he should be able to return to action without limitation.
Is Cooper Rush really going to be the guy?
Archer: At least for now. In 2015, the Cowboys acquired Matt Cassel from the Bills after Tony Romo suffered a broken collarbone in Week 2 against the Eagles. Cassel went 1-6 and had five touchdown passes and seven interceptions, so perhaps the Cowboys opt for an in-house solution this time around.
Rush performed well in his first career start last season at Minnesota (325 yards passing), but the skill position unit and offensive line he had that night is not the same group the Cowboys have now. Will Grier is Dallas' other quarterback, currently on the practice squad.
Could Jimmy Garoppolo be a replacement? What would the San Francisco 49ers want in a deal?
Archer: Bill Parcells once said you just can't call 1-800-Quarterback and find a guy. Maybe the Cowboys can dial 1-800-Garoppolo -- but would the Niners' backup sign off on a deal to Dallas since he has a no-trade clause? He might want to stay in San Francisco. Plus, the Cowboys covet draft picks and might not be open to giving away a high-end selection to quickly solve what they hope is just a seven-game stretch. Even if this stretch without Prescott will likely define their season.
Nick Wagoner, 49ers reporter: As Todd points out, Garoppolo holds all the cards in this situation. Not only does he have a no-trade clause, but he made it clear when he took a pay cut to stay in San Francisco that he viewed it as the best situation for him. Would moving to Dallas, which is already battling offensive line woes and other injuries on offense, allow him to play well enough to resuscitate his offseason market value? That's debatable.
What's more, the Niners wanted to keep Garoppolo because of the insurance it gives them behind Trey Lance. Yes, it was a monsoon in Chicago on Sunday, but Lance didn't show enough to ease concerns about his state of readiness. All of which is to say, the Niners would almost certainly listen if Dallas calls but also won't just give Garoppolo away for a late Day 3 pick. He's more valuable to them at his current cost than he might be in a trade unless that deal brings significant (think at least one Day 2 pick) capital back.
What are Dallas' options in the QB market elsewhere?
Jeremy Fowler, NFL reporter: If the Cowboys do explore the quarterback market, they would be wise to call the Pittsburgh Steelers on Mason Rudolph, who is currently relegated to third string despite a strong preseason. Pittsburgh received trade interest on him before roster cuts but would need a decent return to deal him. Giving up a Day 3 pick for a QB with a 5-4-1 record as a starter could be a prudent option for Dallas.
Otherwise, most teams don't want to trade good backups. Viable free agency options are scarce, too. Cam Newton's name has been prominent in fan chatter, but the unsigned veteran does not seem like a practical fit in Dallas. The Cowboys like Rush enough that only a clear upgrade would trigger a drastic move.
How does this impact receiver CeeDee Lamb and the rest of the Dallas offense?
Eric Moody, fantasy writer: The fantasy value of Lamb, running back Ezekiel Elliott and tight end Dalton Schultz plummets. Prescott has missed 12 games since 2020 due to injury after starting the first 69 games of his career, and the Cowboys are 5-7 in those games, averaging 21 points and 216 passing yards per game with a Total QBR of 43.
Lamb is the unquestioned No. 1 option in the passing game, and he'll see plenty of targets to salvage his fantasy value as a low-end WR1. Schultz could still post decent numbers if the Cowboys simplify their offensive scheme to better position Rush for success. The tight end fantasy landscape continues to be as desolate as the Sahara Desert, so Schultz is still on the TE1 radar. Elliott has played 11 games in his career with Prescott, averaging 18.4 touches and 77.6 total yards in those games. He can still be viewed as a flex option.
How has Dallas' Football Power Index projection changed?
Seth Walder, analytics writer: The Cowboys entered the season with 9.6 projected wins and a 45% chance to reach the playoffs. Now? Dallas is suddenly projected for 7.5 wins and a 25% chance to reach the postseason. In the Cowboys' current state with Prescott injured, ESPN's FPI believes the Cowboys are one of the worst teams in the NFL. They already had a below-average roster outside of quarterback and now have what the model believes to be the worst current starting QB in the league, assuming Rush is the starter.
What does this mean for the Philadelphia Eagles? Dallas was their top competition in the NFC East.
Tim McManus, Eagles reporter: It means their path to their first divisional title since 2019 got a whole lot easier. Coming into the season, this was largely viewed as a two-team race for the NFC East crown. Thanks to a productive offseason, Philadelphia appeared to pass Dallas in terms of overall roster talent, but the Cowboys had the perceived edge at the most important position in sports: quarterback. Now that advantage is gone for about half the season.
The Commanders and Giants each had plucky Week 1 wins, but the Eagles are the clear favorites here.
Dallas plays Cincinnati in Week 2. Is this the Bengals' shot to get right after a disappointing opener?
Ben Baby, Bengals reporter: Definitely. The Bengals are looking for a good elixir to start their season after a disappointing upset loss to the Steelers. Cincinnati is about to start a two-game stretch playing backup quarterbacks. After the Bengals face Rush and the Cowboys, they travel to New York to play Joe Flacco and the Jets. That combination should get the defending AFC champions back on track.