EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – A kick return touchdown is a brutal way to lose a lead regardless – but this one stands out.
Given his history as an extraordinary special teamer for the Cowboys, there was something especially painful about watching Dwayne Harris' dreadlocks fluttering behind him – from underneath a Giants helmet – on his way to the end zone.
"That was a huge play in the game," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett. "Whenever you have a return like that, it's more than just the returner. They did a good job blocking – he had lanes. Certainly he's a guy that's made a lot of plays throughout his career and that was a big play that he made today."
The touchdown nullified Matt Cassel's exceptional touchdown pass to Devin Street, which had tied the game minutes earlier. It also proved to be the game-winning score in a back-and-forth afternoon.
Harris didn't bother denying that it felt especially good, considering that it came against the team that drafted him back in 2011.
"It felt great, especially my first kickoff return in the NFL," he said. "It felt great to do it against my old teammates."
Harris is one of many former players the Cowboys have to deal with this season – and he's the first one to truly hurt them. Harris was largely a non-factor in the Week 1 matchup with New York, and former running back DeMarco Murray had a terrible game in the Cowboys' Week 2 win over Philadelphia.
Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones said it was a cruel reminder of the cost of doing business in the NFL.
"Of course we had such respect for him, and it's just a classic case of having to make choices," Jones said. "But he left here with us knowing he was an outstanding special teams player and we knew all of the recognition that he had in special teams."
The Giants signed Harris to a hefty contract in the spring, and the wide out said his decision to leave Dallas hinged on the opportunity to make a bigger impact as a receiver.
"Cowboys didn't really want me to be nothing but a blocking receiver, so I came here," he said. "I wasn't getting really a lot of opportunities in the offense there."
Harris did add two catches for 43 yards on the night, including a 38-yard gain. But as Cowboys fans well remember, he truly shined when given the opportunity to make a difference in special teams.
"He's made strong contributions offensively and, of course, punt return, kickoff return," said Giants coach Tom Coughlin. "We haven't had much before tonight, and tonight's kickoff return was outstanding."
As seems to only happen with the Cowboys, one of the biggest storylines of their loss to New York came away from the field of play.
The Cowboys' sideline took the spotlight during the fourth quarter of the 27-20 loss when, following Dwayne Harris' game-changing kickoff return touchdown, Greg Hardy inserted himself into the team's special teams huddle.
"He wanted to get in there and kind of get after some of the guys a little bit, maybe get them fired up. It was just not the right time," said special teams coordinator Rich Bissacia. "It's really not an issue. I just had to communicate what we were going to do next on the return."
Hardy drew plenty of attention for what appeared to be an altercation with Bisaccia. The scrutiny only increased later, when Hardy and Dez Bryant appeared to exchange words on the sideline.
Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones said he didn't see the incident, but he welcomed that type of passion and intensity for competition among his roster.
"Those guys walk the walk and talk the talk," he said. "So when those guys get in there and give it back and forth, everybody in there knows that it's real and they're very much doing that for their own benefit."
Hardy declined to speak about much of anything following the game, responding "No comment" to every question he was asked at his locker. His teammates – and members of the special teams units – classified it as a non-issue.
"It was just him firing us up – that's all it was. He's an emotional guy, and we need that intensity – offense, defense, special teams, whatever that may be," said Devin Street. "Him being the vet that he was, he just came over and just gave some words of encouragement and guys were just going back at him."
Added Danny McCray: "We needed to make a play, and we understand it. That was kind of our fault to give up that lead, and he was just showing us the passion to show that we need to fix it."
It took seven weeks, but Lucky Whitehead finally showed what made him a coveted free agent signee after last springs' NFL draft.
With an extra week to prepare, the Cowboys created several wrinkles for their speedy receiver. Whitehead didn't log a catch, but he carried the ball four times for 35 yards – mainly as a motion man on end-arounds and jet sweeps.
"The bye week definitely helped," Whitehead said. "I'm really glad they put in a few sweeps for me. It's a chance to show them I could help the offense."
It was easily the biggest contribution Whitehead has made since the season started, as he also returned two kickoffs for an average of 22 yards per attempt. The rookie has had no shortage of experience in practices and preseason games, but he said it was rewarding to make a contribution in live action.
Given the preseason hype about Whitehead's abilities, it had to have been especially rewarding. Whitehead was considered a contender to win the Cowboys' returner job, but he had been relegated to minimal participation until Sunday. Despite that, he said he didn't allow it to affect his mindset.
"My confidence never wavered," he said. "As rookies, we got practice reps in camp and stuff. Right now, I'm a young player and I'm learning from the older guys."
Best Wishes For Beasley
On a day plagued by mistakes, it was a relatively fitting ending that Cole Beasley's muffed punt ended the Cowboys' hopes of a comeback.
Beasley had to adjust to windy conditions on Brad Wing's punt with 1:36 to play, and the ball slipped through his grasp and fell back to the Giants.
"The guy did a great job of hitting it," Bisaccia said. "He had a little bit of breeze behind him going that way in the game. I thought he did a heck of a job hitting it. Beas catches from a lefty every day and we just didn't catch the ball. That's part of it."
It was one of four turnovers on the day, and it sealed the Cowboys' fate. Beasley tweeted an apology to the fans following the game:
Jason Witten didn't flinch when offering his support for Beasley, saying there's no one else he'd rather have handling return duties.
"Cole has been competitor since the day he got here. No challenge has been too big for him. He's dynamic at what he brings to our football team and we've all made mistakes like that and he'll learn from it and he'll be better because of it," Witten said. "That's what makes Cole the competitor and the player he is, because he will do that. He's mentally tough. He understands that."