FRISCO, Texas — Why so serious? Well, if you're the Dallas Cowboys, it's because you understand how critical it was to sidestep an 0-2 hole by upsetting the Cincinnati Bengals and how equally important it is start 1-0 within the NFC East in Week 3, but a possible absence of Dalton Schultz aims the spotlight at rookie tight ends Jake Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot (a.k.a. "The Villain", but more on that in a bit).
With Schultz nursing a knee sprain and potentially being a late-week or gametime decision against the New York Giants, the onus is on Ferguson and Hendershot to be prepped for a full workload on "Monday Night Football".
As they prepare to travel to MetLife Stadium, the 2022 fourth-round pick and talented undrafted native of Indiana, respectively, might find themselves going from training camp notables to primetime targets for quarterback Cooper Rush.
For his part, Ferguson sounds locked and loaded for the opportunity, aided by having played in a total of 45 offensive snaps in his first two NFL games.
"The preseason definitely helped with [acclimating to NFL football]," Ferguson said on Wednesday.. "Just getting the little things out of the way - minor adjustments and things like that. ... I've adjusted pretty well but I've just got to take advantage of every opportunity that comes my way. [Schultz's status] doesn't change my preparation at all.
"In my mind, I'm always thinking I'm going to play even if I'm not going to play. I know I gotta be ready for whatever comes my way."
The former First-Team All-Big Ten talent will also deploy tactics he's learned from Schultz from training camp to this point in his young NFL career.
"I think a lot of it is the little things," Ferguson said. "Whether it be footwork or hand placement or routes - the little things. He's definitely helped me on all of those things. … He's always giving me pointers … When you start to hone in on the little things you start to see your game improve a little bit more."
But what of Hendershot, a less heralded talent who caught the eye of the Cowboys, and especially tight ends coach Lunda Wells, heading into the month of April?
Well, he's lacking for neither talent nor confidence, each attribute fueling the other in a way that's taken him from a town just outside of Indianapolis to center stage with the most viewed and most valuable sports organization on the third rock from the sun.
Dubbed "The Villain" in his younger football days, Hendershot isn't unaccustomed to having all eyes on him, or delivering when they arrive.
"In high school, I had a [type of] confidence about me, probably too much," he explained. "People hated me for it. … People don't like the way I carry myself with my confidence sometimes but if that's just who you are, you gotta bring it. My coaches always come up to me and say, 'The Villain. Bring The Villain out!'"
That moniker showed itself in the aforementioned preseason bout with the Seahawks which, to Hendershot's admission, was also the first time the Cowboys coaching staff became aware of it. At one point in the contest, he was on the bench with his head down and "overthinking" about "trying to do well" and show the team what he was capable of - Ferguson then telling him to "be The Villain".
He went on to finish with three catches for 39 yards while also putting his athleticism on full display on a touchdown grab from backup quarterback Will Grier, also again validating the very large tattoo on his back of himself being a villain - directly next to an equally large tattoo of Heath Ledger's version of Joker.
"I just put my head down and keep putting in the work and preparing like [you're] going to be the starter," said Hendershot. "Last week [when Schultz exited against the Bengals] was an instance of that. I hadn't played [in Week 1] but it comes down to two minutes - the most important part of the game - you gotta go in there. This week doesn't mean anything different to me because I've been preparing this whole time.
"Anything can happen. This is my opportunity to go in there and get a big chunk of reps, so I'm ready to make the most of my opportunities."
One of Hendershot's best tools is his ability to create separation, and it's something he's been focused on leveling up for most of his football career.
"I attribute it back to college where quarterbacks don't look for tight ends," said Hendershot. "I just told myself I don't care if I'm gonna get the ball or not, I'm gonna get open because they watch film just like we do. So the more you get open the more they'll say, 'Alright, that guy is always open so I'm gonna start looking for him.'
"Everyday, every rep, my mindset is to get open, no matter what, and in the long run they'll start targeting me more with the ball."
If Schultz is sidelined on Monday against the Giants, you can bet Rush will do just that, film showing his faith in the rookie in targeting Hendershot on the eventual game-winning drive on a ball that was tipped to Noah Brown instead - who reeled it in just before it hit the turf. For both Hendershot and Ferguson, as Wells iterates to them often, their moment isn't later.
It's now. Always now.
"It's your time to go," Ferguson said of the message Wells gave the young TEs. "He's definitely gotten me up to speed and he's continuously reminded me, 'Hey, it's your time right now. You're going to have to go.'
"In the preseason, [Wells] said this exact same stuff, 'You're going to have to be on your stuff. Make them remember you.' That stuck with me. Even talking to Peyton when we're not here it's, 'Hey, let's make them remember [No. 87 and No. 89].
"It's our time to go. We're here now. It's time to show who we are.'"
And in the very apropos words of Ledger's Joker: here we go.