The biggest question mark on the Dallas Cowboys outside of defensive end is backup quarterback.
In some ways, it might be bigger.
The Cowboys lost 11 of 12 games last season without starter Tony Romo. They are 1-14 without Romo since 2011.
While Romo’s return after missing 12 games last season with a twice-fractured collarbone is the biggest reason for optimism this year, the reality of his age and injury history remains the elephant in the room.
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Romo, 36, not only twice broke his collarbone last year, but also underwent back surgery following both the 2012 and 2013 seasons.
The notion of him finishing a season injury free seems more a pipe dream than a game plan. And the Cowboys know they must finally find ways to win games with another quarterback.
So how have they addressed it?
By putting all their trust in the slightly built, unproven and seemingly meek-armed Kellen Moore — that’s how.
We put in a whole year with Kellen. We felt at the end of the year, when we eventually played him, that he showed us enough to have an opportunity to be the guy in that spot.
Scott Linehan on backup quarterback Kellen Moore
Moore, listed generously at 6-foot, 200 pounds, has two starts and no wins in the NFL since going undrafted in 2012 after winning 50 of 53 games in four years at Boise State.
He spent three years on the practice squad with the Detroit Lions before signing with the Cowboys midway through last season when he played in the final three games, starting two and amassing four touchdown passes, six interceptions and 779 passing yards.
Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, who had Moore in his first two seasons in Detroit, said the quarterback’s time is now because of his knowledge of the system, experience in the system and feel for the game.
435 passing yards against the Redskins in the season finale for Kellen Moore, in just his third NFL game and second start. The yardage was the sixth-most ever in a single game for a Cowboys quarterback.
“I obviously have the background with him,” Linehan said. “He really has a good grasp and feel for what we are doing. If you go outside, there is plenty of thought you may find somebody with more experience, more starting wins under their belt. But they are going to have to start over in a new system.
“We put in a whole year with Kellen. We felt at the end of the year, when we eventually played him, that he showed us enough to have an opportunity to be the guy in that spot.”
The Cowboys looked at signing veteran Matt Moore in free agency, but he chose to remain with the Miami Dolphins.
They also attempted to trade up to take Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch in the first round of this year’s NFL Draft, but they were outmaneuvered by the Denver Broncos.
The Cowboys eventually took Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott in the fourth round, but he is more of a developmental prospect for the future.
The backup job is essentially Moore’s to lose.
You get the ball out, get the ball to playmakers and let them make plays. There are a lot of different ways to play quarterback. You find your way and the offense can fit around you.
“I had an opportunity to play a little bit last year,” Moore said. “This is the plan and I’m fortunate to be here.”
Moore has no bigger fan than Linehan.
“He understands the game,” Linehan said. “He understands how we put together the game plan and what we are trying to do by the situations we are in, the personnel, the reads. He is a coach’s kid and I’m partial to those kinds of guys. He is a well-coached coach’s kid.
“He has a lot of really good feel for how to play, a very calm demeanor. He has a really good approach, plus he is real smart. He has an uncanny ability. He is not the tallest guy in the room but he can still see and move around and make really accurate throws. He throws with great anticipation. I think the kid has earned the shot to be in the role he is in right now.”
Linehan’s opinion is not just based on hope.
Moore completed 61 of 104 passes for 779 yards with four touchdowns and six interceptions and a 71.0 passer rating in the three-game closing stretch.
The biggest tests was the season finale against the Washington Redskins when he completed 33 of 48 passes for 435 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions and rating of 100.6.
Though the game had no playoff implications, the final three quarters showed the Cowboys that Moore was worth betting on. He overcame a struggling start where he completed three of seven passes for 25 yards with an interception and a lost fumbled snap.
“It wasn’t perfect,” Linehan said. “We had some adversity in those games. He had some mistakes as everyone in those games did. The quarterback is definitely amplified. There were two quarters we would like to throw out. But after that, it looked like ourselves. That was a starting point. We have to go out and put that behind us and start anew in 2016.”
The Cowboys are starting anew with Moore as the backup because of what he also proved to his teammates and the rest of organization.
“I don’t feel like I was the person who had to do the selling,” Linehan said. “Kellen did it with his teammates.”
Moore understands his strengths and limitations. Linehan said the Cowboys don’t have to change much from what they do with Romo when Moore is in the game.
He also knows he is not Romo and must play within himself just as he did in Detroit when playing behind the strong-armed Matt Stafford.
“I know who I am,” Moore said. “I spent three-and-a-half years with Matthew Stafford. There are a couple of throws Matthew would throw in practice that I’d say I’m not even trying that.
“You get the ball out, get the ball to playmakers and let them make plays. There are a lot of different ways to play quarterback. You find your way and the offense can fit around you.”
Cowboys preseason schedule
Saturday, Aug. 13 at Los Angeles Rams, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Friday, Aug. 19 vs. Miami, 7 p.m., (KTVT/11)
Thursday, Aug. 25 at Seattle, 9 p.m. (KTVT/11)
Thursday, Sept. 1 vs. Houston, 7 p.m. (KTVT/11)
Sunday, Sept. 11 vs. New York Giants, 3:25 p.m. (KDFW/4)
Sunday, Sept. 18 at Washington, Noon, (KDFW/4)
Sunday, Sept. 25 vs. Chicago, 7:30 p.m. (KXAS/5)
Sunday, Oct. 2 at San Francisco, 3:25 p.m. (KDFW/4)
Sunday, Oct. 9 vs. Cincinnati, 3:25 p.m. (KTVT/11)
Sunday, Oct. 16 at Green Bay, 3:25 p.m. (KDFW/4)
Sunday, Oct. 23 Bye
Sunday, Oct. 30 vs. Philadelphia, 7:30 p.m. (KXAS/5)
Sunday, Nov. 6 at Cleveland, Noon, (KDFW/4)
Sunday, Nov. 13 at Pittsburgh, 3:25 p.m. (KDFW/4)
Sunday, Nov. 20 vs. Baltimore, Noon (KTVT/11)
Thursday, Nov. 24 vs. Washington, 3:30 p.m. (KDFW/4)
Thursday, Dec. 1 at Minnesota, 7:25 p.m. (KXAS/5, NFL Network and Twitter)
Sunday, Dec. 11 at New York Giants, 7:30 p.m. (KXAS/5)
Sunday, Dec. 18 vs. Tampa Bay, Noon, (KDFW/4)
Monday, Dec. 26 vs. Detroit, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Sunday, Jan. 1 at Philadelphia, Noon (KDFW/4)