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‘I believe I’m a starter’: After Dak Prescott’s season-ending injury, what does Andy Dalton offer Cowboys?

Jori Epstein
USA TODAY

ARLINGTON, Texas — Andy Dalton scanned the field, rolling furiously out of a sack as the clock ticked down to 34 seconds.

Then Dalton zinged a 19-yard pass to Cowboys receiver Michael Gallup, who clutched the ball and dragged the toes of his left foot on the turf before falling out of bounds. The possession was convincing, upheld on review.

Dalton gathered the huddle again, hoping to cross midfield and position kicker Greg Zuerlein for a game-winning field goal before time expired.

This time, Dalton sailed a pass 38 yards down the right sideline to a leaping Gallup. Zuerlein connected from 34 yards, lifting the Cowboys over the Giants, 37-34.

“That was a big moment for all of us,” offensive coordinator Kellen Moore said Monday. “For Andy to go out there, make plays, a little bit off schedule. … He and Michael were on the same page.

“Obviously, the last ball was a big one.”

The Cowboys hope it won’t be Dalton’s last this season.

Before the third quarter of Sunday’s game, Dalton had played two snaps and thrown one incompletion in four and a half games in Dallas. Then Dak Prescott suffered a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle on a quarterback draw. Dalton was fitted with a headset in his helmet as Prescott was splinted with a sterile dressing and transported to a local hospital for immediate surgery.

A Cowboys team already ravaged by injuries was dealt its most significant blow yet.

Dalton was sacked on his first play in. A fourth-quarter series would end with his lost fumble on a botched snap from rookie center Tyler Biadasz. But for the better part of a quarter and a half, Dalton was in control of the Cowboys offense. He completed 9 of 11 passes for 111 yards.

“We trusted him,” rookie receiver CeeDee Lamb said. “He is very calm and composed. Like he’s been there before.”

Perhaps because for 10 seasons, Dalton has.

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Dallas Cowboys quarterback Andy Dalton (14) looks on before an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020, in Arlington, Texas.

‘I believe I’m a starter’

The Bengals selected Dalton out of TCU in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft. Dalton immediately seized the starting role and maintained his job as Cincinnati’s QB1 for 133 games through the end of 2019, his three-game benching last year amid the team's 0-8 start serving as the only non-injury interruption.

Each of Dalton’s first four seasons, he led the Bengals to playoff contention. In 2011, 2014 and 2016, Dalton was named to the Pro Bowl. But four straight losing seasons earmarked the end of his tenure. Dalton left Cincinnati with a 70-61-2 mark as a starter, the best winning percentage of any Bengals quarterback with 25 or more starts, while completing 62% of his passes for 31,705 yards, 204 touchdowns and 118 interceptions.

The Cowboys signed him to a one-year deal in May.

“I believe I’m a starter in this league and I feel like could bring a lot to the table,” Dalton said May 6. “I’m going to try to be the biggest asset to this team, try to help out this offense, help out Dak and help out everybody as much as I can.

“Just looking at the big picture of everything, I’m looking at the next half of my career.”

The insurance policy seemed savvy, but history suggested Dalton wouldn’t be needed much.

Prescott hasn’t missed a start since Dallas selected him in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL draft. Sunday marked his 69th straight contest, a stretch over which he has completed 66% of his passes for 17,634 yards, 106 touchdowns and 40 interceptions. Prescott added 24 more touchdowns by rush one via reception. There was no quarterback controversy.

“Dak’s been great ever since I signed here,” Dalton said Aug. 18, during his first training camp as a backup. “He’s a great leader, I think that’s number one. You can see just getting the guys around him to buy in to everything we’re doing, make sure everybody’s on the same page, pushing guys to be the best they can be. … Then throw in his physical traits of being able to throw the ball well and move around well and all the things.

“It’s been a fun working relationship.”

From the beginning of training camp through Week 5, Dalton’s role in that “fun” relationship was away from the public eye. He’d show up to meetings with organized notes and details honed from old game plans, a “wealth of knowledge” to share, head coach Mike McCarthy said. Dalton cycled through fundamentals drills with Prescott and rookie Ben DiNucci, the three beginning each day with what McCarthy calls “quarterback school.” Footwork, throwing progressions and a two-minute drill challenged each quarterback to apply in-game technique naturally. They served as each other’s receivers in practicing the two-minute drill. They then faced off as competitors in a target-accuracy game, monitoring each man’s completion rate daily to scribble atop the quarterback meeting room whiteboard.

The responsibilities change as Dalton is elevated to starting snaps, with DiNucci now the backup. Dallas also intends to sign quarterback Garrett Gilbert off the Browns practice squad, multiple people with knowledge of the move confirmed to USA TODAY Sports on Monday night. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because the agreement was not yet official.

“It’s one of those things where you never want anything to happen, but you got to stay ready,” Dalton said Sunday after the Cowboys improved to 2-3. “That’s what I’ve done. I’ve stayed ready, and I’ve been ready to go into these games.

“I feel like I was prepared for these moments.”

'There’s no quit’

The Cowboys will have an extra day to prepare Dalton for his next moment, as Dallas will host the Arizona Cardinals on "Monday Night Football." The 3-2 Cardinals have challenged opponents more than the 0-5 Giants.

Arizona’s defense has allowed 20.4 points per contest this season, fifth stingiest in the league. They’ve held opponents to 222.4 passing yards (also fifth best) and 346.6 yards total (10th).

Dallas has been beset by injuries on both sides of the ball. Prescott joins tight end Blake Jarwin (torn ACL), right tackle La’el Collins (hip) and left tackle Tyron Smith (neck) as offensive players to undergo season-ending surgery. Still more players, including center Joe Looney, will miss the Arizona game. But alongside a loaded receiving corps and running back Ezekiel Elliott, Dalton will need to lead the next-man-up brigade.

“We still need to attack people, be aggressive,” Moore said. “People give us opportunities downfield and we're going for it.”

As Prescott was discharged from the hospital and returned home to recover Monday, Moore and Dalton began breaking down Dalton’s late-game film and started to scheme his next appearance. Moore has confidence Dalton’s experience and mobility will enable him to work in sync with an inexperienced offensive line. The chemistry he showed with Gallup in the game-winning drive excites coaches and players, too. Moore’s top concern, then: Catching up to speed on Dalton’s play-call preferences. Expect the volume of calls and texts traded between them to balloon.

“As we put the game plan in, what’s he most comfortable with? Make sure we’re along the same lines,” Moore said. “As the week progresses, obviously once we hone in and get very specific about what our approach is…just [make sure] we’re on the same page.”

Dalton’s taking each moment, like he did in the fourth-quarter huddle, in stride.

“We just have to all play together and find ways to win the game,” Dalton said. “We feel like we’ve been in those (high-pressure) moments too often already this season. What it’s shown is that there’s no quit in this team and no quit in what we’re doing.

“There’s no flinch.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.