The 2012 trip to Cincinnati will not be one of those games that is soon forgotten.
In fact, for reasons that are both profoundly sad and reasons that should make you proud, there is a good chance that the unlikely win against the Bengals that ended in a clutch kick by Dan Bailey is the game from 2012 that you might remember most in a few years. And, when asked to recall the defining game of the Jason Garrett era, you might also look to this one as the moment that you saw him in crisis, a time where he was forced to pull back the curtain with the public and show us a bit of that "head coach personality" that he normally seems to hide from anyone who is not on the roster.
A few weeks back, after a frustrating win at home against Cleveland, I felt compelled to write about everything that was going wrong with this team, but also to address the one positive that I think had to be pointed out:
Before we get to the countless concerns that this team seems to have right now as they frantically prepare for their next nail-biter in 72 hours time, let's say something extremely complimentary about this crew under Jason Garrett: This team competes hard. I am not sure every reader will agree, but having watched many Cowboys teams over the years - some who played as hard as they could and some who looked like they picked their spots - I would like to report that the 2012 version of the Cowboys compete as hard as just about any team. From a perspective of "want" and "desire" and "effort" and all of those keywords that denote the characteristics of a professional earning his professional-sized paycheck, I think Jason Garrett's teams play their tails off.
I know that won't make anyone forget legendary Dallas squads that have Lombardi Trophies in their possession, but in the chaos that is modern-day Cowboys football, it would be easy for teams to lose their competitive edge amongst the constant pressure, critique, and distractions of pizza and lingerie promotional events in their own stadium. Very few teams have "art tours" to navigate around, and the fact that this Cowboys team competes as hard as they possibly can on just about every play of every game is something that I don't think should be completely disregarded.That opinion obviously was tested this weekend for this organization. That was written on November 19, 2012, or 19 days before Jerry Brown would lose his life in a single car accident as he was returning home late at night with his roommate, teammate, and good friend Josh Brent behind the wheel. Brent was said to be under the influence of alcohol as they returned from a party and was jailed on intoxication manslaughter charges after Brown was declared dead after the accident.
Hopefully, very few of us will ever know what it is like to lose someone we love in a drunk-driving accident caused by someone else we love. And surely, if we ever are in that situation, none of us will ever be asked to compete in a professional football game the very next day with tears streaming down our face in the national anthem as Lawrence Vickers demonstrated yesterday moments before noon.
But, the Cowboys did just that on Sunday.
And maybe, it was that moment of crisis that you would greatly love to have avoided, but in the middle of it, you saw what your team was all about.
Jason Garrett: It was really, really challenging. But, somehow, we had to come together, all of us. 11 guys. Coaches, players, everybody. We had to come together. And the bonds we had as teammates had to get stronger. They were really strong for Jerry Brown. I think everybody is really, really, really heartbroken.
Clearly, the game played after a life ends seems frivolous in comparison. Seeing the final post on his Facebook page that referenced that Brown was about 2 months from being a father for the first time can make anyone feel the heart ache. But, the show must go on. It always does. It did last week in Kansas City, and it did yesterday in Cincinnati.
And perhaps we saw again how football is the ultimate game of emotion. Because, on paper and at times on the field, you could see some significant matchup issues that separated the Bengals from the Cowboys. This was a road game in which the Cowboys were playing a team that desperately needed a result for their own playoff pursuits. They would feel no mercy on a Cowboys team if Dallas did not compete at the highest level.
And, halfway through the 3rd Quarter, when the Bengals kicked another field goal to take a 19-10 lead, it was clear their execution was not going to be great but that might not matter against a rather flat Cowboys side. Dropped passes and a few untimely penalties knocked the Bengals out of promising drives themselves, but luckily, they were playing a team that was not very good and had a major distraction as well.
And then, for reasons that will surely be written in Cowboys lore a number of ways, the team began to take things over in the 4th Quarter. It started with a key sack by DeMarcus Ware on a 3rd Down, even though it seemed to most observers that Ware was playing with 1 arm yesterday after he appeared to hurt himself earlier in the contest.
Then, the Cowboys' offense finally started exposing the middle of the field on 3 different big plays where Romo found Kevin Ogletree for 23 (on 1st and 20), Miles Austin for 15 (on 3rd and 10), and then Dez Bryant on that dig route for a 27 yard Touchdown. To suggest Romo was under duress all day would be an understatement, but if anyone is pretty accustomed to running for his life when looking for open receivers, you would certainly think it had to be Romo by now.
The touchdown brought the Cowboys to within a 19-17 margin and there was still 6:35 to go. By all accounts, this game was supposed to be over and the Bengals were supposed to be one giant step closer to the AFC playoffs with the Steelers looking pathetic at home against San Diego. But, perhaps the collars were tight, as receivers were dropping passes, defensive backs were dropping interceptions, and they simply looked like the team that was flat.
Or, perhaps they simply assumed the Cowboys would not have a rally inside them, but on the next drive - one that would make or break the game for either team - Anthony Spencer capped off another fantastic effort with an interior pass rush that got to Andy Dalton on 3rd and 4 for one of the more timely sacks of his career. For a guy who lacks sacks in sheer volume, he does have a knack for getting them with the game on the line, it seems. He closed the Washington game in 2011, as well as the Carolina game this season, the Philadelphia road game this year, and now this game all with crucial game-winning or game-saving sacks. That is a very neat trick for the linebacker that it seems Cowboys fans are finally willing to concede is a pretty fine player.
So, that put the ball back into the hands of the offense with 3:44 left. They would mount a 50 yard drive from their own 28 to the Bengals' 22 yard line without a single play that would net more than 9 yards. DeMarco Murray ran as hard as he ever has, and while his stat line will not rock the NFL today, those who watched that final drive know that Murray was not going to be denied. We can only wonder where this team might be if he was present and accounted for all season long. He makes all of the difference in the world to this offense.
The drive was not easy - it never is - but, despite close calls (including the irony of a dropped interception by Terence Newman) and more bruises (Nate Livings got blasted into next week by Rey Maualuga right before the 2 minute warning), the team completed the drive and put the game onto the foot of Dan Bailey.
And while Bailey's clutch kicking record is not anywhere close to his broader kicking record, he does give you a feeling of confidence in a kicker that Dallas has not had in a while. As he put it through the uprights, the Cowboys secured a rather unlikely 20-19 win and got their record back over .500 for the first time since 2-1 against Tampa Bay.
Seeing DeMarcus Ware carry Brown's jersey off the field along with embraces, tears, shaking voices, and emotions everywhere, it was clear how this team felt. To attach a win to a young man's death seems in some ways a hollow media creation and in other ways a meaningful moment that brought a group of men together. I don't particularly like linking the two events of the weekend, but it seems impossible not to do just that.
Those guys, who already had a reputation for playing hard for their team and each other, rose up late in a game that might have been nearly impossible to play, but also might have been vital to their coach's future. These are the harsh realities of life in pro sports. If they finished 6-10, everyone could point to a tragedy derailing an already depleted roster, and that logic would be accepted.
But, they didn't. They kept fighting. And on Sunday, they found a victory which very few thought possible (including me). I didn't see this win coming and I frankly left quite impressed with their guttiest effort of the season happening when they needed it most and when it would have been understandable, if not excusable, not to compete.
It tells me plenty about the Garrett administration and the veterans on this team that are often having their legacies minimized by poor playoff production. But, if they are building something here that can grow into something better soon under Jason Garrett, the idea that this team competes hard suggests that his first declaration that they "would be tough to play against" can be checked off.
The events of Saturday were horrible and now must be addressed by the team for the foreseeable future. But, the events of Sunday likely made their fans proud of how they came together in very difficult circumstances and battled hard despite heavy hearts.
It may have been the Garrett-Era's greatest victory. And that, might be enough to keep the era going after 2012.