FRISCO, Texas – This thought occurred to me Monday night when witnessing Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapse before our very eyes on national TV, medical personnel rushing onto the field and the EMT vehicle immediately pulling up.
This was bad. Real bad. And we came to find out, maybe worse than that, Hamlin going into cardiac arrest needing chest compressions and immediate oxygen to restart his heart with players from both teams in emotional disbelief and some 60,000 people at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati eerily silent.
Something most of us have never seen before. Not in person, not on national TV. And even worse, never did we get any positive signal, the game suspended, maybe for good. That bad, causing me to think how will this emotional scene of a life in jeopardy affect players around the league? How do they have the courage to return to practice, some the next day and the rest on Wednesday to prepare for the final regular-season game of the 2022 season?
But here the Cowboys were, returning to The Star on Wednesday after Tuesday's day off, certainly their football mortality having passed before their very eyes. This was not a torn ACL. We've seen those. Not a neck or back injury, having someone strapped to a board and whisked away on a mobile cart. Not even the time in training camp 2002 when Cowboys wide receiver Anthony Lucas went to the ground right in front of me fracturing his kneecap a second time. Swear I heard the break, a career-ender for this 25-year-old.
And I thought that was gruesome. But this? Would guys even wonder about their NFL futures.
Now Mike McCarthy knew before any talk of Commanders or playoff scenarios or game plans on Wednesday, he had to take care of these young men's emotions, their mental health. And that was the gist of the morning team meeting. Even brought in chaplain Jonathan Evans to speak.
"We obviously know what's in front of us professionally, you know," McCarthy said, "but our spirituality reality playbook was open today, and we're working through it."
So when asking Dak Prescott how the spirit was in Wednesday's practice, he said good. Guys got back to work. And he knew what I meant, though pointing out how the Cowboys went through a similar emotional crisis the week of Thanksgiving 2020 when beloved strength and conditioning coordinator Markus Paul suffered a stroke here at The Star on Tuesday, then passing away before a game the Cowboys had to play, he mentioned, "The sad reality of death is life goes on."
But for players, does fear come to the forefront of their minds?
"If you are going to let fear drive your life," said the guy who's experienced the death of his mother while he was in college and the death of his brother in April of 2020, "you better not drive your car anymore."
Understood. And yes, this football is only a game. But it is their job most of all, one they've chosen and sacrificed greatly for, physically and mentally.
- Center Of Attention: While the Cowboys do have a wildcard playoff berth in their back pocket going into the last regular-season game Sunday, they still must sort out this offensive line issue. Center Tyler Biadasz suffered a high ankle sprain in the 27-13 win over Tennessee, and for sure will miss this Washington game, with hopes to return for the first playoff game. so the Cowboys must adjust, and who knows, maybe as they did to finish the game in Nashville, Tenn. That Thursday night they did so by moving left guard Connor McGovern, trained as the emergency backup center, to center, left tackle rookie Tyler Smith to guard where he played through training camp before moving out to tackle when Tyron Smith suffered the torn hamstring tendon injury and 18-year veteran left tackle Jason Peters coming off the bench to play left tackle. That would leave Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin on the right side, alongside right tackle Tyron Smith, who has returned from that surgery to start the past three games in place of the injured Terence Steele (ACL). Also, the Cowboys continue to get Josh Ball ready as the backup tackle on both sides. Even at all that, the Cowboys still need a game day backup center, but have exhausted the three allotted practice squad elevations of the previous candidates, Dakoda Shepley, Brock Hoffman and even Aviante Collins. But maybe in time for the rescue is Matt Farniok, who previously served in that role before landing on injured reserve. The Cowboys moved last year's seventh-round draft choice Wednesday to the 21-day return to practice list, and while talking to him on Monday, Farniok sounded as if he's more than ready to go. We'll see.
- Corner, Too: After losing Anthony Brown to a ruptured Achilles in the Indianapolis game, the Cowboys have tried Kelvin Joseph at left corner, then a combination of rookie DaRon Bland moving out from the slot and veteran Mackenzie Alexander into the slot, then a combination of Bland and Nahshon Wright with OK success, but still have the recently signed four-year veteran Trayvon Mullen on the 53-man roster as a possible candidate, too.
- Back it Up: How often does this happen, for the third consecutive week the Cowboys are going to have faced a backup quarterback, a backup to the backup quarterback and now once again a backup to the backup QB, Washington announcing Wednesday they are starting rookie Same Howell, who has played in exactly zero games so far this season. Here is a note to consider, though. In Howell's final season at North Carolina in 2021, while throwing 24 TD passes and getting intercepted nine times, the guy also ran 183 times for 828 yards and 11 touchdowns, just another headache to be aware of.
- Last Call: After the first six games of the season, the Cowboys were 4-2 and converting just 32.1 percent of their third downs, but now they have been so good that third-down conversion percentage has risen to 47.4 percent, and on a seven-game streak of converting at least 50 percent of their third downs . . . If the Cowboys beat Washington for their 13th win, this will be only the fourth time in club history to win a franchise-high 13 games, first in 1992, then in 2007 and again in 2016, meaning Dak Prescott will be the only franchise quarterback to start the majority of games in two 13-win seasons . . . This is significant, kicker Brett Maher's 137 points with a game remaining already set the franchise single-season record for most points scored by a kicker . . . Like this one, too, Dak, in just his seventh season, has tied Troy Aikman for the franchise's second most career touchdown passes at 165, and granted the game has change, but took the Hall of Famer Aikman 12 seasons to reach that mark, both far behind Tony Romo's record 248.
And for this week's last word, we turn to head coach Mike McCarthy, pointing out how resilient this Cowboys team has been, losing the season opener 19-3 to Tampa Bay and Dak for the next five games, but here they are heading into the final game of the season at 12-4 with a chance to win the NFC East if they beat Washington and the Giants beat the Eagles, and even grab the NFC No. 1 seed if all that happens plus Arizona beats San Francisco.
Point being, it's a long season.
"You know, there was a lot made of losing the first game, but it was just one loss," McCarthy said. "Sometimes you tend to feel like we lost more than one game that day, but we only lost one game, but the most important thing was we lost Dak Prescott. So, but it was Week 1, I've done this so long, there is so much football, with a 17th game, it adds a whole other layer to this playoff situation. It's a longer year.
"And it's a good reminder, you don't lose seasons in Weeks 1 and 2. Everybody wants to get off to a fast start, but we didn't in Week 1, but we responded and kept playing, and that's what we really need to do this week. I was never really worried about the team back in Week 1, I had great confidence in Cooper (Rush). Obviously, the Philadelphia game we didn't play good in the first half . . . that's this league, it's so damn hard, it really is. Everybody says it, but it's real, it's so hard to win one game and I think you have to just keep that in mind."
Got that right.
Who out there would like to take a shot at pulling up your Tweets late night on 9/11?