ARLINGTON, Texas – If Lucky Whitehead needed a strong night to make his case for a roster spot, he certainly did that.
The Cowboys' 21-14 victory against the Texans on Thursday was plagued by the mistakes you might expect from a game composed mostly of backups. The shifty rookie wide out was not, however, as he showed why he has been considered a contender for the vacant returner job.
"I went out here just to have fun – it's another game of football," Whitehead said. "I just wanted to go out there and do what I've been doing, let it come to me. And it's definitely slowing down."
With Cole Beasley sitting out, Whitehead got the bulk of the return work and did his best with it. He returned five total punts for 69 yards, an average of 13.8 yards per return, and he returned two kickoffs for an average of 28 yards.
The highlight of the night was a 33-yard return in the fourth quarter, when Whitehead fielded a 57-yard punt at his own 19 and winded his way up the Houston sideline to midfield. The big play drew quite a reaction from the fans – which in turn drew a reaction from Whitehead on the AT&T Stadium jumbotron.
"When they get excited, it builds me up and I like to get out there and just keep doing it," he said. "I just tried to limit my mistakes and keep building on the returns."
That may have been the most telling stat for the rookie – he didn't showcase any of the ball security issues that hampered him earlier this preseason. On top of that, he was far and away the Cowboys' top receiver. Dustin Vaughan targeted Whitehead nine times on the night, and he finished with four catches for 40 yards.
"You've just got to come out here and just play – and perform," he said. "At the end of the day it's just football, and I've been doing it for a while now. It was a little different for me earlier on in preseason … but I feel like I've adjusted."
Whether that's enough to earn a roster spot will be determined in two more days. The Cowboys must make their final roster cuts by Saturday afternoon, and it promises to be a nerve-wracking wait for Whitehead.
"Of course it's going to be stressful, because it's not in your hands anymore," he said. "But I feel like I put in a lot of hard work, and I just tried to show I belong here. It's not up to me anymore. I've just got sit back and just wait."
Hardy's Excused Absence
It raised questions around AT&T Stadium when Greg Hardy failed to report for pregame warmups – and ultimately failed to show up for the game at all. That's unusual enough on its own, but the Pro Bowl defensive end also missed Wednesday's kickoff luncheon.
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett put the questions to rest during his postgame press conference.
"His girlfriend, they induced labor on their baby in the last 24 hours, so he was just simply involved with that," Garrett said. "We've had a number of those guys over the course of training camp where guys have been gone for a day or two. So I don't know the news with that today. When I spoke with him last night, the baby had not been born yet. So hopefully that has happened and everyone's healthy and we'll see."
That's been a relatively common phenomenon for the Cowboys recently. Corey White also missed time during training camp while he awaited the birth of a daughter.
There has been speculation that Hardy will seek to appeal his four-game suspension after Thursday's ruling to nullify Tom Brady's punishment, but that remains to be seen. In the meantime, Hardy is set to begin serving his suspension on Saturday at 3 p.m., when the Cowboys are due to make their roster cuts.
Zack Martin hasn't done any heavy lifting since he suffered a neck stinger back on Aug. 18, but don't expect that to limit him now that the preseason is over.
The Cowboys have allowed Martin to do limited work in practices over the past two weeks, but he hasn't appeared in full-team activities in that timespan. Despite that, you can expect the second-team All-Pro to be ready when the Cowboys begin gameplanning for the Giants.
"We're as ready as we can be right now. As we dive in to New York, we'll see what they have and what they present us," Martin said. "We'll be getting ready by getting in to the game plan next week, but I think guys are feeling good after training camp and ready to get rolling."
Corey White was already one of the stars of the Cowboys' preseason, but he certainly solidified it when his three-yard pick-six put Dallas on the board for the first time.
"That's just experience," White said.
That's understandable, since the fourth-year defensive back had a bit of a leg up on the rest of his competition. White played the vast majority of the game while the Cowboys rested their starting defensive backs, and his 19 career starts vastly outnumbered most of the players on the field.
"It's a little different, but I have fun – I do what they ask me to do here," he said. "We were a little short at safety, so I stepped in there."
White played all over the defensive formation, at cornerback, nickelback and safety. The results were impressive, as he tallied five tackles, a pass breakup and a quarterback pressure to go with the interception and touchdown.
If there were any doubts about the veteran's roster spot, it seems safe to say White put them to rest.