Cooper Rush and the Greatest UDFA Quarterbacks Since 2000

Dallas Cowboys QB Cooper Rush
Dallas Cowboys QB Cooper Rush
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Week 4 - When Dak Prescott fractured his thumb in the fourth quarter in the season-opener, it was clear and obvious that the Dallas Cowboys were DOOOOOMed. The Cowboys offense already looked remedial against the Buccaneers, with an offensive line seemingly unable to pass protect; Prescott was pressured on 35.5% of his dropbacks. Now you're sticking a backup quarterback in there? Write the season off after Week 1; Cooper Rush isn't going to save anybody.

From an objective standpoint, the Cowboys had the worst backup quarterback situation to start the season—they didn't technically have one. The initial Dallas 53-man roster only included one quarterback, with Rush on the practice squad. Obviously, the Cowboys were going to use the new practice squad rules to promote Rush regularly on gameday. And with one start under his belt from 2021, Rush was far from the worst reserve passer in the league. But it was clearly not a position the Cowboys overly valued—after all, they released Rush on August 30, giving the entire league a chance to sign him, with no takers.

Mike Tanier listed Rush as a backup quarterback just there to get you under the salary cap in his backup quarterback rankings. And when asked to give our predictions on the Cowboys record while Prescott was healing, most of us were slightly less than optimistic. "Cooper Rush is not going to produce anything but bottom-five offense with this supporting cast." "Dak with five broken fingers is more trustworthy than Cooper Rush." "A clean sweep is definitely on the table, but I'll give them one win in there somewhere." Even the most optimistic among us could only suggest the Cowboys struggling to 4-4, providing "plenty of quarterback controversy fodder for the morning shows."

So, naturally, Rush currently sits eighth in DVOA at 18.8%, ahead of names such as Justin Herbert, Aaron Rodgers, and Tom Brady. Rush is sixth in QBR and 13th in EPA. These numbers are probably a little inflated compared to the actual quality of Rush's play, but it's not like he's putting up these numbers against scrubs, either; the Bengals rank eighth in pass defense DVOA and even the 25th-ranked Giants could be worse. Through two games, Rush has done more than just keep the Cowboys afloat; they're sitting in playoff position and are at least keeping pace with the Eagles for the top spot in the NFC East. And yes, we are indeed beginning to get some manufactured quarterback controversy fodder for the ever-hungering maw that is the World of Content—Jerry Jones told reporters that he "wouldn't mind" a quarterback controversy between Prescott and Rush, sending the NFL's commentary world into overdrive.

Obviously, stories about the Dallas Cowboys and quarterback controversies are great clickbait fodder, but we here at Football Outsiders would never stoop to putting up something so lowbrow and manufactured just to get your views. We would be sure to include at least one (1) stat before doing exactly that.

And hey, it looks like that job was done for us! As the NFL tweeted out, Cooper Rush is the first undrafted quarterback to win each of his first three NFL starts and throw for 750-plus yards in those starts since Kurt Warner in 1999. That's a stat that makes you go wow! And then you think about it for more than a quarter of a second and go wait, what? It's absolutely arbitrary endpoint theater. 750 yards is a strange number to pick—can you rattle off the names of players who average 250 yards per start? Warner had 894 yards in his first three starts; why are we lowering the bar to 750 so Rush can get in? And the caveat that a player had to win as well makes things suspicious as well, plus Rush's three starts didn't come all in one season like Warner's did. It's just begging for some context to try to understand if this is important at all. Let's go through these arbitrary endpoints, figure out what they're hiding, and then use DYAR to actually get some context on Rush versus other UDFA starters.

Undrafted Quarterbacks of the 21st Century

There have been 30 UDFA quarterbacks who picked up their first three career starts since 2000, which we'll call the post-Warner era. Only four have gone undefeated, as Rush joins Taysom Hill, Devlin Hodges, and Kyle Allen in that club. And that's where the 750-yard stat comes in—Allen had 721 yards in his three starts for Carolina between 2018 and 2019. You're going to get lots more engagement by saying Rush is the best quarterback since Hall of Famer Kurt Warner! instead of Texans backup Kyle Allen!

Only seven UDFA quarterbacks have thrown for more than 750 yards in their first three starts in the 21st century, with Rush joining Taylor Heinicke, Austin Davis, Case Keenum, Brian Hoyer, Tony Romo, and Billy Volek. But none of them went 3-0. Keenum lost all three starts; Heinicke and Davis went 1-2; and Hoyer, Romo, and Volek each dropped one game. Wins and losses are not quarterback stats, and while it's impressive that the Cowboys have kept winning with Rush, that's more a factor of Noah Brown, CeeDee Lamb, Tony Pollard, Ezekiel Elliott, and Micah Parsons than it is Rush lifting the team on his own back. Not that Rush has played poorly by any stretch of the imagination, but wins are a team stat, and the 2022 Cowboys are in slightly better shape than the 2014 Rams.

Instead of drawing arbitrary lines in the sand, let's look at all the UDFA quarterbacks from the 21st century—how they did in their first three starts and how they did over the rest of their careers. How good has Rush been really, and does that mean anything going forward?

Passing DYAR, First Three Games, UDFAs of the 21st Century
Player Teams Years Cmp Att Yds TD INT DYAR Rec Career
DYAR
Tony Romo DAL 2006 68 101 862 5 1 340 2-1 8850
Billy Volek TEN 2003-04 86 131 784 6 1 255 2-1 131
Case Keenum HOU 2013 57 102 822 7 0 242 0-3 1009
Austin Davis STL 2014 81 120 937 6 2 238 1-2 -222
Cooper Rush DAL 2021-22 64 102 775 4 1 237 3-0 229
Kyle Allen CAR 2018-19 59 87 721 6 0 176 3-0 -199
Devlin Hodges PIT 2019 45 60 496 3 2 135 3-0 -122
Matt Moore CAR 2007 49 79 564 3 2 125 2-1 517
Matt McGloin OAK 2013 55 94 712 4 2 122 1-2 -88
Quinn Gray JAX 2007 40 72 555 4 3 114 2-1 417
Todd Bouman MIN 2001 39 72 591 6 3 103 1-2 -66
Tyler Huntley BAL 2021 74 108 631 2 2 21 1-2 -84
Cleo Lemon MIA 2006-07 66 116 702 3 4 15 0-3 -108
Nick Mullens SF 2018 61 93 733 5 4 13 1-2 390
Chase Daniel KC/CHI 2013-18 64 94 587 3 0 2 2-1 -192
Brian Hoyer ARI/CLE 2012-13 74 126 815 6 4 -17 2-1 565
David Blough DET 2019 70 121 745 3 5 -19 0-3 -201
Shaun Hill SF 2007-08 51 92 537 6 3 -19 2-1 444
Thaddeus Lewis CLE/BUF 2012-13 62 96 622 3 2 -25 1-2 -42
Taylor Heinicke CAR/WAS 2018-21 81 123 822 5 6 -48 1-2 75
Taysom Hill NO 2020 54 76 543 2 1 -58 3-0 -72
Scott Tolzien GB/IND 2013-16 53 87 642 1 5 -69 0-2-1 -170
Doug Johnson ATL 2000-02 41 68 535 2 3 -76 1-2 6
Tyler Palko KC 2011 59 95 554 1 6 -172 0-3 -158
Tim Hasselbeck WAS 2003 41 87 441 2 5 -186 1-2 -55
Tim Boyle DET 2021 61 94 526 3 6 -198 0-3 -221
Chad Hutchinson DAL 2002 45 86 484 1 0 -209 0-3 -969
Caleb Hanie CHI 2011 41 79 502 2 6 -312 0-3 -538
Max Hall ARI 2010 29 59 275 1 4 -334 1-2 -550
Anthony Wright DAL 2000-01 30 70 347 3 6 -352 0-3 -505
Kurt Warner STL 1999 62 90 894 9 2 313 3-0 7172

With the acknowledgement that DYAR numbers will change slightly as defensive adjustments get worked in, Rush is in a good spot: fifth among the 30 post-Warner UDFAs and in a clear second tier of players. It's not quite a "bring out the Hall of Fame measuring stick" level of performance, but we haven't seen a UDFA start his career this hot in half a decade. Yes, the level of praise he's getting in some quarters is crazy high, but that's going to happen when you're coming off of a big win over a divisional rival, and it's not like he hasn't earned a little bit of cred.

It's not a winning-sauce mirage, either, like we saw among those who thought that Taysom Hill was going to be an actual thing. Rush's numbers are also a clear rung above guys such as Duck Hodges or Kyle Allen, who were getting by on some unsustainable luck, huge YAC plays, and more than a thimbleful of the backup being the most popular guy in town. Nor has it been one huge game and two mediocre games, like it was for Nick Mullens or Tyler Huntley; while Rush's performance against the Giants was clearly better than his numbers against Cincinnati or Minnesota a year ago, he has never dipped below passable for a low-quality starter. At the very least, he's yet to fall on his face, and that's thing one you're looking for from a backup quarterback—the ability to step in and keep things humming while the starter's out. So far, so good.

Tony Romo, Working Man

Tony Romo is off in a tier all by himself, and really should be our measuring stick for best UDFA passers rather than Warner. Warner is in the Hall of Fame because he had the more successful career, what with the Super Bowl win and being the best quarterback in both St. Louis Rams history and Arizona Cardinals history. But our numbers tend to prefer Romo, as he was a more consistent feature near the tops of our leaderboards. Romo's 340 DYAR in his first three games isn't just the UDFA record since 2000; it's the record since DVOA records began in 1981. Romo started his career with three straight road games and each one went over 270 passing yards, 85 DYAR and 25.0% DVOA. He could well have started 3-0 as well and put this Rush/Warner stat to bed if it wasn't for a wild final 35 seconds against Washington, which saw:

  • Washington kicker Nick Novak missing a 49-yard go-ahead field goal;
  • Romo marching the Cowboys deep into field goal range with the score tied at 19;
  • Dallas kicker Mike Vanderjagt having a 35-yard game-winning field goal attempt blocked by Troy Vincent with just six seconds left, which should have sent us into overtime;
  • Sean Taylor returning said blocked kick 30 yards, only to be tackled as time expired;
  • Kyle Kosier getting flagged for a face mask on the return, moving the ball to the Dallas 29 and more importantly giving Washington one more untimed down;
  • Novak redeeming himself by kicking the 47-yard game-winning field goal.

Wins and losses are not quarterback stats. Fortunately, that was the only bit of bad luck Tony Romo ever experienced in his career, and wasn't ominous foreshadowing or anything.

Even apart from Romo, there's a general trend towards players who do well in their first three games being better over the course of their careers, which makes sense—all things being equal, playing well is better than playing poorly. It's probably most accurate to say that if an undrafted player stinks in his first few starts, he'll never get the chance to prove that initial impression wrong. But for the most part, players who started out strong at least parlayed that into solid careers on the bench, being able to point to a month or so of solid play as evidence that they should be clipboard-holders over some untested draft pick. A hot performance in September might keep you cashing paychecks for half a decade or more.

Asking Rush to be another Romo is putting far too many expectations on him. Asking Rush to be a long-term reliable backup like Billy Volek or Case Keenum is a far more realistic possibility—and a great outcome for a player who, in NFL.com's official scouting report, was dinged for having a "frumpy body with little muscle definition," a "lollipop arm," and a "slow, plodding setup." At the very least, it makes it less likely the Cowboys can play the practice squad game with him too much after Prescott comes back; I'm sure there is a quarterback-needy team or three who would be far more interested in Rush today than they were on August 31.

A Distant Early Warning From Austin Davis

But then again, a hot start does not necessarily mean you're going to have a long, productive career in the NFL. Take the case of Austin Davis, the holder of the prestigious all-time record of "most passing yards in the first three starts for an undrafted free-agent quarterback" at 937. Davis was forced into action midway through Week 1 for the 2014 Rams. You'll be shocked to hear this, but projected starter Sam Bradford blew out his knee before the season began. Shaun Hill, another former UDFA who had a decent run of success in the league, suffered a quad injury in the first half and missed a chunk of time. What followed was a brief stretch of Austin Davis mania—back-to-back 300-plus-yard games against the Cowboys and Eagles, two not-terrible teams! An upset win over the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks! Brett Favre, showing some of his characteristic good decision-making skills, proclaimed that Davis could be the next Tom Brady or Kurt Warner!

Yeah, that never happened. Davis' game against Seattle was the last start of his career with positive DYAR; fumbles, a zillion sacks, and general poor play got him benched for Hill a month later, and a brief stint replacing Josh McCown in Cleveland quickly had Browns fans chanting for Johnny Manziel. Davis managed to parlay his month and a half of solid play into four more years in the league, still a well-above average result for an undrafted player. But Brady or Warner he wasn't.

(This is where I'd put in a highlight reel of Davis playing with the Rams, but the Internet seems to have scrubbed most of that except for this YouTube video of every Davis touchdown Instead, I'll leave you with this Reddit thread from October of 2014, where Rams fans debated whether Davis was the quarterback of the future or not. Comes complete with fans of divisional rivals hoping the Rams would be dumb enough to cut bait on Davis and waste first-round picks on quarterbacks, and this comment getting upset that ESPN radio said that Davis wasn't Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. Just as a cautionary tale for anyone getting too excited about Rush this week.)

A three-game sample size isn't huge, and even sub-replacement-level players can spin off a few good games in a row if luck hits the right way—say, for instance, playing a Tampa Bay defense without Gerald McCoy and Mason Foster, or an Eagles defense without DeMeco Ryans. A number of the other quarterbacks near the top of this list are coasting off of one stellar performance—Devlin Hodges clobbering the Browns in 2019, or Nick Mullens destroying the Raiders on Monday Night in 2018. Three games is a small enough sample size that one big day can disproportionally bump you up.

Living in the Limelight

That's not the case for Rush to this point. Rush's play so far reminds me more of a Volek or a Keenum than it does of Davis or some of the other undrafted flops. Yes, the Cowboys are giving Rush all the help they can manage, keeping extra tight ends in for blocking and running more play-action than they did for Prescott a year ago. And yes, the defense is putting him into situations where he doesn't have to try to win the game on the strength of his arm. But Rush has shown an ability to play mistake-free football without having to be restrained to pure dink-and-dunk nonsense. On those play-action passes against the Giants, Rush was 11-for-15 for 158 yards, and that's including CeeDee Lamb dropping a 48-yard touchdown pass off of play-action. Rush currently has an average depth of target of 7.9 yards, a respectable 17th in the league, and is safely in the top 20 in completion percentage over expectation—both the sort of numbers you'd expect from a below-average, but solid starter. He's not really pushing the ball downfield except on plays designed to draw the defense in, but when he has been asked to make those throws, he's doing it.

The Cowboys would be much happier keeping his throws short and accurate, and they're not going to take away the aids of play-action and quick passes any time soon—Rush has the second-quickest time to throw in the league, at 2.5 seconds per Next Gen Stats, as the Cowboys are setting him up with a lot of "throw to your first look or throw it away" sorts of plays. But within that context and with those aids, Rush has shown that the Cowboys are going to be OK while Prescott recovers.

And it is just "OK." While Rush finished sixth in DYAR this week, that's at least partially an artifact of defensive adjustments not being included just yet. It's doubtful that he's going to continue posting 35.0% DVOA games week in and week out. He does have physical limitations that other passers do not have—hence why the Cowboys are scheming him up for deep shots, rather than asking him to bullet the ball somewhere on pure arm talent alone. Rush is playing very close to his ceiling at the moment, while Prescott's ceiling is MVP candidate. Any question, anywhere, that the Cowboys have a legitimate quarterback controversy at this point isn't just putting the horse before the cart; the horse is a foal and the cart just a gleam in the carpenter's eye.

But what Rush can do for the Cowboys is give Prescott time. We saw what happened last year when Russell Wilson rushed back from a fractured finger; he looked terrible for about a month until he had time to get back to full strength. With Rush providing competent, high-level backup football in Dallas, the Cowboys can afford to let Prescott get to 100% before sticking him back in the lineup. Currently, the thinking seems to be that Prescott could be ready to go for the Week 6 matchup against the Eagles, which would give Rush two more starts. That seems a much wiser idea than trying to rush Prescott back for the "slim chance" that's being reported that he'll be ready in Week 5; the last thing you want to do is rush him back too early, have him either aggravate the injury or play poorly because of it, and then you really do have a quarterback controversy. That's an own goal they can entirely avoid, in large part because Rush gives Dallas a puncher's chance against both Washington this week and the Rams coming off of a short week in Week 5.

So I guess what we're saying is that Prescott doesn't have to Rush. And that Jerry Jones should probably hold his horses a little bit when talking his backup quarterback up to the press. Just a thought.

Comments

17 comments, Last at 30 Sep 2022, 3:06pm

#1 by Bryan Knowles // Sep 29, 2022 - 4:17am

This week's Keep Choppin' Wood winner isn't a player.  It isn't a unit, or a team, or even an official. No, it's part of the game we have never ever awarded -- a part of the field itself.  A cruel, heartless part of the field which reared it's ugly head on Sunday, turning what would be normal, routine plays into bloopers that shall live unto eternity forever.  We are talking, of course, about the back of the end zone, which has given temporary reprieve to both Mark Sanchez and Dan Orlovsky at the expense of Thomas Morstead and Jimmy Garoppolo.

Sanchez, the man in charge for the infamous butt fumble, can be placed somewhat in the rear-view mirror now that w ehave the Butt Punt -- Thomas Morstead, pinned deep in his own territory, driving a punt at full force into the glutious maximus of his personal protector, Trent Sherfield.  While nothing may ever be quite as funny as the butt fumble, the sound of the ball smashing into Sherfield's back door is one that I'm going to remember for years to come, and the sight of Sherfield bouncing backwards just before the punt is beautiful icing on the cake.

https://twitter.com/NFL/status/1574128585308180480

Orlovsky, who will forever be remembered for running out the back of his own end zone for an unintentional safety in 2008, celebrated on Twitter as a new member in that infamous club was brought into action, with Jimmy Garoppolo avoiding pressure by putting two feet firmly out of bounds in a game the 49ers ended up losing by just one point.  Orlovsky's remains funnier, as he wasn't really under immediate pressure, but I mean, you expect more from a quarterback of Garoppolo's caliber, all jokes about his noodle arm and lack of field vision notwithstanding.

https://twitter.com/ClutchPointsApp/status/1574223820076077057

Both plays would have been entirely unremarkable had they occured pretty much anywhere but the very back of the field.  Morstead would have had plenty of room to get off a punt if he had had his normal drop. Garoppolo would have just taken a pretty painful sack had he not been in the end zone; he dropped back and took the safety while trying to avoid being sacked for a safety. Two perfectly normal plays, immortalized forever by field position.  Back of the end zone, this one's for you.

Points: 0

#2 by colonialbob // Sep 29, 2022 - 3:23pm

Objectively, Orlovsky just rolling out and running several steps out of bounds is way funnier than Garoppolo losing track of where he was and putting half a foot on the end line as he sets to throw. But then, Garoppolo's safety saved him from a pick six, which is also objectively very funny. Dilemma.

Points: 0

#8 by Aaron Brooks G… // Sep 29, 2022 - 4:11pm

turning what would be normal, routine plays into bloopers that shall live unto eternity forever. 

A Pick-6 is a "normal, routine play"? Maybe for Handsome Jim!

https://twitter.com/NFL/status/1574128585308180480

Stupid, sexy Flanders.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WaeRM7X_yS4

Points: 0

#9 by KnotMe // Sep 29, 2022 - 4:12pm

If you made a blooper reel you could set it to this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AjPau5QYtYs

Points: 0

#3 by Shattenjager // Sep 29, 2022 - 3:35pm

The headings are awesome. No further comment.

Points: 0

#11 by mansteel // Sep 29, 2022 - 4:36pm

Hah! Didn't notice that on first reading. Thanks for pointing it out.

Points: 0

#15 by serutan // Sep 29, 2022 - 7:03pm

Me either. I admire someone who can squeeze 3 meanings into a heading.

Points: 0

#16 by Vincent Verhei // Sep 29, 2022 - 7:22pm

As I told Bryan privately, they are worthy of glittering prizes.

Points: 0

#4 by ImNewAroundThe… // Sep 29, 2022 - 3:59pm

The cheapest backup QBs opponents won't game plan for>>>>>>

Points: 0

#5 by Aaron Brooks G… // Sep 29, 2022 - 4:03pm

Wins and losses are not quarterback stats

Tell that to P-F-R. QB Wins are a thing just like Pitcher Wins are a thing, and they absolutely matter to voters. Just ask Ken Anderson.

Points: 0

#6 by Aaron Brooks G… // Sep 29, 2022 - 4:05pm

Warner is in the Hall of Fame because he had the more successful career, what with the Super Bowl win and being the best quarterback in both St. Louis Rams history and Arizona Cardinals history.

You don't need the "Arizona" modifier for the Cardinals. He's the best QB in franchise history, no matter the city.

Points: 0

#10 by Bryan Knowles // Sep 29, 2022 - 4:13pm

While I think I'd agree, Jim Hart makes it far from clear-cut.

Points: 0

#12 by mansteel // Sep 29, 2022 - 4:38pm

Given the respective lengths of their Cardinal careers, Neil Lomax has an argument to be placed above Warner as well.

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#13 by Aaron Brooks G… // Sep 29, 2022 - 4:51pm

I'm going to smart-ass and nominate Tom Tupa.

\who started 13 games at QB for the Cardinals

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#7 by Egtuna // Sep 29, 2022 - 4:09pm

This piece was exceptionally well written and fun to read. Duck Hodges! Can't help but think of Duck from Mad Men.

Points: 0

#14 by jheidelberg // Sep 29, 2022 - 6:09pm

So in a near best case scenario, Cooper Rush becomes Case Keenam.  That guy named Dak Prescott will be looking might good to Dallas fans upon his return.  But congratulations to Cooper Rush for at least being competent enough to get the last two wins under his belt.  

Points: 0

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