Staubach. Aikman. Romo. … Gilbert?
True, this Dallas Cowboys season isn’t quite what had been promised. But even as the ’Boys lost their fourth straight game before the recent bye week, backup quarterback Garrett Gilbert gave the team a chance at home against the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers. More than that, he gave fans something of a happy story in this year of injury (Dak Prescott, original backup QB Andy Dalton), unmet expectations (first-year head coach Mike McCarthy), and Jerry Jones’s most dubious marketing triumph yet—the NFL record for highest attendance during a pandemic.
Amid all that, the 29-year-old Gilbert added an unexpected chapter to what was already a considerable Texas football legend, good, bad, or otherwise. The Austin-raised quarterback never won the Heisman Trophy or led his team to a Super Bowl, but he’s still part of the generation that turned Texas into an NFL and college QB factory.
If you’re a Longhorn, you don’t have happy memories of Gilbert. If you’re an SMU alum, you’ve got nothing but good will toward him. If you just love Texas high school football, he’s one of the best who’s ever played. And now, after (barely) playing in the NFL for seven seasons, he’s got the job that every kid in Texas dreams of: quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys.
Gilbert may not start another game this year—Dalton, who not only suffered a concussion but also spent time on the reserve/COVID-19 list—is slated to return against the Vikings on Sunday. Then again, the Cowboys are 2–7, so Garrett will probably get another start or two, even if it’s only to audition for the role of Prescott’s future backup.
Here’s how Gilbert got from there to here, starting almost fifteen years ago.
The Best HS Quarterback … EVER
The son of former NFL quarterback Gale Gilbert, Garrett Gilbert was hyped by Lone Star Gridiron’s Chris Doelle in his first start at Lake Travis High School. Doelle called it “the coming out party of the best high school quarterback I have seen EVER. … Garrett Gilbert has the tools to become the greatest—and looks to be in the prototype mold for both the college and pro levels as well. He is that good.”
As the Cavaliers quarterback, Gilbert lived up to the hype, leading the Austin-area football powerhouse to state championships in both his junior (2007) and senior (2008) years—even with a coaching change between the two. Chad Morris, the second of those coaches, recalled inheriting a quarterback who was not just 6 feet four inches tall and 219 pounds with a big, accurate arm, but was also “extremely intelligent—a student of the game,” he said. Morris, now the offensive coordinator at Auburn University, continued: “[Gilbert] grew up around football his whole life. I’ve coached a lot of great ones, and he’s one of the most accurate guys that I’ve been around, and very, very well versed. Nothing ever really rattled him.”
Gilbert left Lake Travis as Dave Campbell’s “Mr. Texas Football,” the Gatorade National Player of the Year, and the state’s all-time passing yardage leader.
Next stop, that little football school just twenty miles from home. UT head coach Mack Brown passed on Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III in the previous recruiting class to clear the way for Gilbert, the heir apparent to Vince Young and Colt McCoy.
The Burnt Orange Years
As you would expect of a true freshman, Gilbert played sparingly behind Colt McCoy—until the Heisman runner-up hurt his shoulder five plays into the 2009 BCS championship game, which pitted the 13–0, number-two-ranked Longhorns against 13–0, number-one-ranked Alabama.
The Horns trailed 24–6 at halftime, with Gilbert throwing two of his four interceptions. He played better in the second half, with UT down just 24–21 early in the fourth quarter, but a sack/fumble and another interception put the Crimson Tide ahead for good. The 37–21 win gave Alabama the school’s first national championship since 1992—the beginning of a run of dominance that continues to this day, as well as the beginning of the end for Mack Brown and Texas Longhorn football.
But that wasn’t the sentiment back then. Even as the Longhorns faithful licked their wounds following that 2009 loss, the team’s future with Gilbert seemed bright. “Texas lost the title game, but found quarterback in Garrett Gilbert,” read one Sports Illustrated headline. According to Yahoo Sports, UT offensive coordinator Greg Davis “smirked” when asked how much stronger Gilbert’s arm was than McCoy’s, who was that year’s Heisman runner-up. “It’s uh, noticeable,” he said.
Most effusive of all was the Austin American-Statesman’s Kirk Bohls: “Thrust into an incredibly difficult situation with no time to gather himself mentally, Gilbert showed every sign of developing into the next McCoy, a two-time Heisman finalist who succeeded the one-of-a-kind Vince Young, who followed NFL reserve quarterback Chris Simms and the ever-popular Major Applewhite, who followed the magical James [Brown].”
Things did not go quite as planned. The Horns went 5–7 in 2010, with Gilbert throwing 17 interceptions to 10 touchdowns. Greg Davis left the program. Booed by UT’s normally patient and understanding fans, Gilbert started just two games in 2011 before getting the hook for Case McCoy and David Ash. He had season-ending shoulder surgery, accelerated his coursework, and headed to SMU as a graduate student transfer.
SMU is currently having its best era since the eighties under Sonny Dykes and another UT quarterback transfer, Shane Buechele. But it was head coach June Jones who first took the school from NCAA-sanctioned laughingstock to respectability, leading the Mustangs to four bowl games between 2009 and 2012 after a 25-year drought.
Gilbert spent two seasons, 2012 and 2013, rebuilding his value in Jones’s run-and-shoot offense, which enabled him to set school records for passing yards (538), completions (45), and touchdowns (7) in a single game. He entered the 2014 NFL draft along with first-round picks Blake Bortles (number 3), Johnny Manziel (number 22), and Teddy Bridgewater (number 32), becoming the last of 14 quarterbacks taken, when the St. Louis Rams selected Gilbert in the sixth round, with the number 214 overall pick.
Super Bowl Champion
To call Gilbert a “longtime NFL backup” isn’t strictly true. Prior to the Steelers game, he’d attempted a total of six passes for six NFL teams in six years. He never saw the field during his stints with the Rams, the New England Patriots, the Detroit Lions, or the Oakland (now Las Vegas) Raiders. But Garrett still earned a Super Bowl ring in 2015 as a member of the Patriots’ practice squad, giving him mild bragging rights over his father, a backup quarterback on the Buffalo Bills teams that lost four straight Super Bowls in the early nineties (including two to the Cowboys).
Between NFL gigs, Gilbert also spent time back at SMU, working as a graduate assistant for his old high school coach, Morris, who succeeded Jones as the Mustangs’ head coach. The onetime Lake Travis prodigy and Morris protégé seemed headed for a future as a Texas quarterback turned quarterback coach/offensive coordinator, à la Kliff Kingsbury, Graham Harrell, or Major Applewhite.
“When he was on our staff, I just enjoyed talking ball with him,” Morris said. “Listening to his reads, and his teaching progressions.” But Gilbert’s transition to coaching was interrupted by a chance to continue his NFL career. “Then he gets called up,” Morris recalled, “and decides, y’know, he wants to give it one more shot.” Morris told Gilbert: “Go, go, go. Keep chasing your dream. Coaching will always be here.”
Gilbert actually worked out for the Cowboys in 2017 before joining the Carolina Panthers for two seasons, off and on, while also coaching high school football. He threw his first-ever NFL pass on December 26, 2018, then got waived on New Year’s Eve.
But there was still a wild card in the pack.
“Best QB in AAF History”
Remember the Alliance of American Football? That’s the spring football league that went out of business after just eight weeks in 2019 (you may recall the San Antonio Commanders). As opposed to the XFL, which went out of business because of COVID-19 this year (you may recall the Houston Roughnecks and Dallas Renegades).
But for Garrett Gilbert, the AAF was a career changer. Playing for another quarterback whisperer in Steve Spurrier, Gilbert sparked the Orlando Apollos to a 7–1 record, leading the league in both passing yards and passer rating. It wasn’t the NFL, but it was the most action he’d seen in his professional career. The practice time, game experience, and opportunity for scouts to evaluate him got Gilbert back into the NFL, this time with the Cleveland Browns, where his old friend and fellow Lake Travis alum Baker Mayfield was the starting quarterback. Gilbert made one appearance for the Browns in 2019, and he was still on Cleveland’s practice squad when Dallas called him home.
Quarterback controversy, anyone? You can always find one if you look! Before Gilbert’s start against the Steelers, Dallas hadn’t scored a touchdown in two games. Behind Gilbert, the Cowboys jumped out to a 13–0 lead, but still mostly relied on field goals, and could only keep it close from there, losing 24–19. But Gilbert was poised, mobile, and a clear upgrade over rookie Ben DiNucci, while his numbers—21 of 38 passing with one touchdown and one interception—were no better or worse than the more experienced Dalton’s. “Garrett Gilbert should be starting QB of the Cowboys,” SB Nation’s “Blogging the Boys” proclaimed after the game.
Whatever happens in Gilbert’s remaining games this season, the homegrown quarterback has already changed the ending of his story. Being a professional football quarterback is kind of like being a songwriter from Texas—even if you’re not one of the ten or twenty best, you’re still darn good. Gilbert might not be the next Kurt Warner—who went from Arena football to the Super Bowl—or even Mayfield’s equal, but he managed to outlast Johnny Manziel and Andrew Luck, and he joined Colt McCoy and Robert Griffin III on the list of flashy Texas high school and college stars who became workhorse backups in the NFL.
“He’s definitely paved his own path and had to work through the hard way,” Morris said. “And I think he’s got a great appreciation for where he is right now. He’s just a great kid and he loves football. To see him starting for the Cowboys is pretty unique.”