GLENDALE, Ariz. - The cruel irony of Greg Ellis' left Achilles' injury against Arizona was that the ninth-year veteran and first-year outside linebacker felt he was playing his best game of the season at his new position.
Unfortunately for Ellis and the Cowboys, it's the last game he'll play this season.
Wearing crutches in the locker room following the Cowboys' 27-10 victory over the Cardinals, Ellis said he will need season-ending surgery to repair the torn left Achilles' tendon he suffered late in the third quarter. The Cowboys' defensive captain was carted to the locker room after team trainers helped him off the field, his lower calf heavily wrapped at the time.
"Greg brings so much to this team and we help each other out as far as getting everybody going," inside linebacker Bradie James said. "Now everybody's going to have to step up and keep rolling."
The 31-year-old Ellis admitted he was concerned about his career, knowing a torn Achilles' tendon often takes up to a full year of rehabilitation, if not longer. Ellis likely would be hard-pressed to return in time for training camp next July, and he knows some players with torn Achilles never make it back with the same effectiveness.
That's why he said he stubbornly returned to the sideline later in the game rather than stay in the locker room after being carted away.
"I wanted to walk off the field initially because you deal with the reality of stuff," Ellis said. "I don't plan for it to be my last game, but in case it is, I can say I went back out there and walked off without somebody carting me off. That's important to me."
Asked if he initially knew what happened to him, Ellis said, "I just thought somebody kicked me."
His injury tempered the enthusiasm surrounding the Cowboys' decisive win over Arizona on the last leg of a three-game road trip. It's a significant loss to the Cowboys' defense and especially disappointing for Ellis, who had worked diligently in training camp and preseason making the move from defensive end to playing outside linebacker for the first time in his career.
"When you lose a player, your team captain and a guy that's one of your pressure players, it puts a little cloud on it," Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells said after his team's 17-point win. "But that's football. And somebody has to step up."
Ellis entered Sunday's game leading the team in sacks (4.5) and tied for the lead in tackles for loss (3). He had three tackles and two quarterback hurries against Arizona.
But now he'll have to watch his team fight for a playoff spot in the final seven games.
"It's part of life and definitely part of the NFL," Ellis said of his injury. "I'm a realist. I'm that type of person, and I realize there's a possibility that could've been it tonight. I'm going to work and pray that it's not it, but the reality of it is that it could've been it."
Filling The Void
Ellis' injury could thrust first-round pick Bobby Carpenter into the spotlight for the first time this season.
Carpenter replaced Ellis mostly in pass-rush situations for the rest of the game, with veteran Al Singleton substituting on the goal line. Parcells didn't say how he would replace Ellis at left outside linebacker, but Carpenter might be a candidate despite limited playing time this season.
The Cowboys drafted Carpenter as a potential starter at outside linebacker, but moved him inside a few days into training camp partly because of Ellis' successful transition from defensive end. Carpenter has been inactive in three of the Cowboys' first nine games while adjusting to the inside.
Carpenter said Ellis has served as a mentor this season, helping him adjust to his new role. Carpenter also said he mostly has been practicing at inside linebacker, but has taken some outside reps in recent weeks outside with his hand on the ground as a pass-rushing defensive end in the nickel.
"They've been kind of moving me back and forth I think just in case something would happen," said Carpenter, who had one quarterback hurry and one special teams tackle in the game. "I don't mind it. I want to get in however possible."
Rookie free safety Pat Watkins said he traveled with the team to Arizona at the "last second" in light of veteran Marcus Coleman's release Saturday morning.
Watkins made the most of his opportunity as Keith Davis' backup, recording a key interception that led to a touchdown in the third quarter while rotating in on the nickel defense. Cowboys cornerback Anthony Henry appeared to tip Matt Leinart's pass, and Watkins picked it off.
"First and foremost (I) give thanks to Anthony Henry," Watkins said. "It was partially his play."
Watkins started the first six games at free safety but was inactive for the last two after giving up several deep pass plays in coverage. Davis and Coleman alternated against the Panthers and Redskins, but Coleman was cut from the team Saturday after he was arrested on suspicion of driving while intoxicated, according to Irving police.
The Cowboys' two-pronged rushing attack continued to flourish Sunday against the Cardinals.
Julius Jones and Marion Barber combined for 110 yards on 29 carries, with Barber scoring the only rushing touchdown of the game in the fourth quarter. Barber had 14 carries for 65 yards, and Jones had 15 carries for 45 yards.
Keylon Kincade dressed as the team's third running back and ran four times for nine yards during the team's final, clock-killing possession.
Down The Stretch
The Cowboys still have seven games left, but owner-general manager Jerry Jones said he's excited about the team's chances down the stretch.
The club next will play two games in five days, starting next Sunday against the undefeated Indianapolis Colts (9-0) and then meeting Tampa Bay on Thanksgiving.
"We have a great opportunity there to play a team all respect at home," Jones said. "And if we can have a big game there, then you could feel like if you could get in the playoffs who knows what can happen."
- Rookie wide receiver Miles Austin returned two kickoffs for 39 yards in place of rookie running back Skyler Green, who was inactive. Austin also served as the fourth receiver with Terry Glenn out.
- The Cowboys hadn't scored a point in the first quarter over their previous four games, breaking the drought on Mike Vanderjagt's 28-yard field goal Sunday to give the Cowboys an early 3-0 lead. Vanderjagt also made a 38-yard attempt as time expired in the first half.
- The Cowboys continue to be effective on third down. The offense converted 9 of 14 attempts (64 percent) against Arizona.
- The Cowboys' inactive players included Glenn, Green, cornerback Nate Jones, linebacker Junior Glymph, guard Cory Procter, defensive end Stephen Bowen and offensive tackle Pat McQuistan.
Former Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith and his Dancing With the Stars partner, Cheryl Burke, addressed the University of Phoenix Stadium crowd on the field before the game. Smith, who played the final two years of his storied career in Arizona, will compete in the final round of ABC's DWTS Tuesday night . . . Vanderjagt was greeted by fellow Canadian and hockey legend Wayne Gretzky in the Cowboys' locker room after the game. Gretzky is the Phoenix Coyotes head coach, and works just across the street from the football stadium at the new Jobing.com Stadium . . . The Cardinals inducted the late Pat Tillman, a former safety and Army Ranger, into the club's Ring of Honor at halftime. Tillman was a three-year starter for Arizona before he left the team prior to the 2002 season to enlist in the U.S. Army and qualify for the Army Rangers. He was killed in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004.