EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Amari Cooper limped to the sideline at MetLife Stadium for the second time in three weeks and had one obvious thought.
It's understandable, given what happened last month in this building. Cooper aggravated a quad injury on the Cowboys' second offensive snap, and he left the game just one play later. He'd finish the day with one catch for three yards, and the Cowboys would suffer an embarrassing 24-22 defeat to the New York Jets.
"I wouldn't say it was a redemption thing, but I felt like I would be able to play the whole game," Cooper said Monday night. "I wanted to come out here and actually contribute to a win this time."
It didn't always look so certain. Leaning on his locker after a 37-18 win against the New York Giants, Cooper revealed that he'd tweaked his knee during practice last week. Early on in a sloppy game, he once again aggravated the problem and exited the game.
"It was kind of a weird thing, it just locked up," he said. "So I was just playing with my knee trying to get it to unlock or whatever it was that was causing me pain."
For a guy who has battled through half a dozen different injuries this season, Monday night was different. In that loss to the Jets, it was evident early on that Cooper's day was done. This time around, he fought off the pain by jogging and squatting on the sideline.
He even joked that he used the added time provided by a stray cat's foray onto the field to loosen up his injured knee.
"I was kind of happy about that, because that's right around the time my knee was hurting. So it was like I had a little bit more time to get this thing right," he said.
The point being: regardless of how he did it, Cooper had no intention of watching another Cowboys game from the sideline.
"I couldn't let that happen again, and I was going to try my hardest to play through it," he said.
Play through it, he did – even if it was touch-and-go at times. Cooper went into halftime with just three catches for 30 yards, and he was stuck on those numbers heading into the fourth quarter. Dak Prescott looked for him downfield on a couple of occasions, but it just didn't seem like things were clicking.
No worries. Over the course of a long career, Cooper said he's learned the art of patience.
"When I was a young lad, I used to kind of get frustrated if I didn't get the ball early in the game," he said. "But I learned pretty quickly that you can go for like 100 yards in the fourth quarter, or 100 yards in the last five minutes of a game. So I'm a lot more patient now."
Look at the box score, and Cooper's words ring true. One simple snap – a 94 concept – changed the entire dynamic of the game, as Cooper's inside man in the slot ran a go, or nine route to clear out the space around him. With that taken care of, Cooper needed only to run a dig, or four route into the open space around him.
"It just kind of vacated, it was wide open," he said. "So when I caught the ball, I just saw green grass. I didn't even really turn on the jets – I just kind of high-kneed to the end zone."
It's insane to think a guy who was battling a knee injury could score from 45 yards away, all without turning on the jets – but there you have it. After worrying whether he'd be able to finish the game, the Cowboys' catalyst finished with four catches for 80 yards and a touchdown – a performance his quarterback didn't even know was hampered by injury.
"I assumed he's good to go, I had no idea about that," Prescott said. "If he's on the field, I know he's going to give us his all and give us his best."
That much is true, and it's impressive for a guy who has dealt with foot, ankle, knee and quad injuries since the season started. That's probably why he laughed when a reported asked him to rate his health on a scale of 1-10.
But if Cooper can turn himself around so successfully in the course of one game, it seems unwise to bet against him over the course of six days.
"I don't know, I would say like an eight," he said. "But we've got a whole 'nother week before our next game, so I think I can get to a 10."