ARLINGTON, Texas -- After Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys front office stunned the NFL world Friday by trading for 2021 third overall pick quarterback Trey Lance Friday night from the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for a 2024 fourth-round pick, Will Grier, Dallas' current third-string quarterback, knew his time was up with the Silver and Blue. The Cowboys are going to keep three quarterbacks max: starter Dak Prescott, steady backup Cooper Rush, and Lance, the developmental prospect with a high upside. So, he entered his start Saturday in the Cowboys preseason finale as a lame duck.
However, the emotional weight of playing his final game as a Dallas Cowboy didn't slow down Grier. Quite the opposite actually as he threw for 305 passing yards and two touchdowns on 29 of 35 passing in addition to rushing for 53 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries. His efforts resulted in 31-16 Cowboys home victory over the visiting Las Vegas Raiders.
"[It's] bittersweet man, just close to a lot of these guys," Grier said in the locker room postgame on Saturday, choking back tears. "That's the hardest part. I mean, it was up and down, I was motivated. It was tough. It was a weird situation. And I think at the end of the day, I just relied on the fact that I know how to play football and I'm good at it. So I knew when the game started, I could just play football and that is what I did."
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was blown away by Grier's tour de force Saturday, revealing postgame that the quarterback battled plenty of emotions pregame.
"To have him [Grier] walk in here and throw 300 yards is really, really good," Jones said postgame Saturday night. "He was playing with a lot of emotion because he was emotional before the game. That was a big game for him."
Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy was similarly floored by Grier's gutsy display, comparing the effort to that of a talented passer he coached as the Green Bay Packers quarterbacks coach in 1999 who went to be a three-time Pro Bowl starter with the Seattle Seahawks, Matt Hasselbeck. It's hard to contextualize preseason football, but to earn that comparison from McCarthy, someone who has coached NFL football for 30 years, is a big deal.
"That was the best preseason quarterback performance I've seen since probably 1999, Matt [Hasselbeck], had some, some of these, but I, I'm just so proud of him [Grier]," McCarthy said Saturday night. "When I got the phone call [about the Trey Lance trade], when I hung up, I called Will immediately, and that's tough. I thought he handled it very well and, and I just asked him to go out there and play your ass off tonight."
Even though Jones traded for a higher-profile developmental quarterback, Grier holds no ill will toward him or the Cowboys as a franchise.
"It's been tough, but I've been through tougher stuff," Grier said. "Got a lot of respect for this organization and the Jones family. I understand it's a business at the end of the day, and I respect that and the hardest part on me is just leaving this place to be honest. Got really close with the team and that's the toughest part about what we do. I've been through harder things and I'll rebound and be just fine."
Grier concludes his 2023 preseason with 640 passing yards, four passing touchdowns and two interceptions on 64 of 84 passing (76.2% completion percentage) in three games played. He's been sacked seven times and compiled a passer rating of 103.3. His regular season experience is only two games from his rookie year with the Carolina Panthers. Across two starts against the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints in Weeks 16-17 of the 2019 season, Grier threw for 228 passing yards and four interceptions while taking six sacks, resulting in a 33.2 passer rating. His second start lasted less than two quarters after a sack from Saints Pro Bowl pass-rusher Cameron Jordan knocked him out of the game.
On his way out Saturday night, Grier made sure to shout out Dallas Cowboys starting quarterback Dak Prescott since he called the plays in place of McCarthy while the head coach evaluated the performance of the younger players suiting up Saturday.
"He did a great job," Grier said of Prescott. "It was a lot of fun for both of us and I just want to see him go win the Super Bowl and get everything he deserves."
In past years, McCarthy had ensured other assistants called offensive plays in place of him during his teams' final exhibition games when calling plays with the Green Bay Packers. Entering his first season calling offensive plays for the Dallas Cowboys, McCarthy made an unorthodox move by having Prescott call the final preseason game. The offensive staff, including McCarthy, put the game plan in place along with Prescott entering Saturday's game. Then, it was all on the quarterback during the game.
"I thought Dak was outstanding, and this was something we talked about, probably Monday, something I really, I really wanted him to do and he jumped all over the opportunity, which I thought was important, because there's some preparation that goes into it," McCarthy said. "He had some big two big practices, Tuesday and Wednesday. Prep really started on Thursday. But, you know, him and Will were ready to go tonight, that was clear and I thought he did a great job. It's a phenomenal experience for a quarterback to do that. So, I'm glad he did it."
The idea to have Prescott become the Cowboys' offensive coordinator for this week's game stemmed from McCarthy doing whatever he could to keep his starting quarterback engaged in the game planning process despite Prescott not taking a snap in the entire preseason.
"I honestly did it to keep his head engaged and mentally in the game," McCarthy said. "I don't know if you guys stood out there with us in Oxnard, but we had a post-practice period where we would walk the field and call the two minute. So, the last two weeks there, you know, I had both him and Cooper [Rush] calling it. So he didn't know at the time, but I was preparing him for this because I really wanted him to take this opportunity. So maybe it was the first time and I thought he was outstanding."
One of the most critical effects of Prescott's stupendous play-calling performance is revving Prescott up for the regular season, specifically regular season football while running McCarthy's.
"The emotional and mental rehearsal and just being in it is so important, and I can tell you from experience when you're out of here, you could watch all the film that you want," McCarthy said. "You can sit there and you look at all the analytics you want and go back and read all of your reports and so forth. But if you're not in it because you have to be like that to play quarterback, and you have to be like that [quickly snaps his fingers] to call plays. And if you're not in it, it's different. So, that's where I think that's a really good experience for him to play the game. For him to call it that [game Saturday], to me that's just part of preparing to play. That's the way I look at it."
Despite all the preparation Prescott put into Saturday's coaching victory, he deflected most of the credit to Grier's on-field performance after four of Dallas' seven drives ended in touchdowns. The other three concluded with a missed 59-yard goal, a made 59-yard field goal, and three kneel-downs to end the game.
"I've been around for a while, so I kind of understand the flow and what you're trying to get at knowing the quarterback, knowing what he's good at, knowing what he's wanting to do, I think is a huge part of it," Prescott said. "So, I give credit to that as much as me calling a couple of plays, that guy plays his ass off and any time a quarterback plays like that, it doesn't matter who's calling the plays. It's preseason football. Those guys [the Raiders] gave us three coverages on the other side. I'm not going sit here on my high horse and act like I just called the Super Bowl or something. So, it was a game, it was fun to do and fun to experience that. As I said, man [Will Grier] just played his ass off. That's who Will is. That's who Will has been from the time that he's been here. It's awesome he got to put that performance on display. I hope the rest of the league saw that and took notice."
As much fun as Prescott had with the headset on, he's already turned his attention toward putting his helmet and shoulder pads back: the Cowboys' 2023 regular season opener on the night of Sunday, September 10 at the New York Giants.
"Damn sure excited to get out there and play some football," Prescott said. Being more involved, I guess you can say in this game, that excitement, the preparation, that kind of went into that. But at the same time, knowing I've been watching the guys we've got in a couple of weeks and ready to kick off this thing the right way and with a lot of excitement. "[I have] a lot of anticipation, and we a great team that's headed up to New York."