PHILADELPHIA — There weren't many bright spots to enjoy in the Dallas Cowboys loss to the Philadelphia Eagle at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday night, but the tight end unit was certainly one of them. Having learned just ahead of kickoff that the team would be without starting tight end Dalton Schultz, the onus on rookies Jake Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot to carry the load for the second time this season.
They'd get an assist from third-year talent Sean McKeon, who was elevated from the practice squad on Saturday, and a quiet first half for the trio evolved to anything but in the third quarter - with quarterback Cooper Rush targeting the unit heavily on what turned into a 15-play, 90+ yard drive punctuated by a 14-yard rushing touchdown from Ezekiel Elliott.
"It was just part of the plan," said Rush of getting the TEs involved against Philadelphia. "We just got kinda off of our run game and got into some bootlegs, and found them in the flat. Those guys do a great job. It's awesome to see [Peyton Hendershot] out there making some plays. He's gonna be a heckuva player.
"And [Jake Ferguson] is in there always. Glad to see [Sean McKeon] get some action, too - got himself a catch while playing hurt. Those guys are great players. We found some stuff that was working and kept going to it, and those guys were ready for it."
Ferguson would aid in nearly overcoming a 20-0 deficit with an electric touchdown of his own in the second half - helping to shrink the Eagles lead to a more manageable 20-17 - but a third interception from Rush all but sealed the Cowboys fate.
"Just a little bootleg - they called it in the huddle and I knew, 'Hey, this might be me on this one,'" said Ferguson of the touchdown play. "Just doing what [tight ends coach] Lunda Wells tells me: to be prepared for anything. If the play is for me, I gotta make the play."
That he did, and Hendershot also delivered a critical catch in the game, though his stat line won't reflect it. For him, not dissimilar from his rookie compatriot, it's about being ready when his number is/was/will be called.
"You gotta go and prepare everyday like you're gonna be the starter, gonna be the guy in there," said Hendershot. " … It's been an eye-opener that any given moment somebody can go down and you gotta be in the game. Just gotta take a lot of mental reps and be ready for my opportunities. … My confidence has grown, but I still have to clean up a bunch of stuff [that comes with] being a young player.
"Just trying to show out on tape and give the coaches a reason to believe in me and give me a chance to go out there and play."
The duo is enjoying a bond that is evident on both the field and in the locker room - giving the Cowboys something promising to look forward to regardless of what the future might hold for Schultz in Dallas.
"I think the way we play and vibe off of each other is a good thing," said Hendershot. "We're two different wilds, two different crazies but we both play hard and play through the whistle, and try to play with that edge. … I love playing with Jake Ferguson."
This week will be yet another in which the Cowboys will monitor the progress of Schultz, who missed his second outing in three tries after reaggravating his knee sprain in the Week 5 victory over the Los Angeles Rams. And should the team need to turn to their youth at the position again, the same resiliency put on display in Philadelphia is what they're confident will again show itself if adversity strikes against the Lions.
"We just knew that we're a battling team," Ferguson said. "Being around these guys through all of this prep, you know each other and you know guys are gonna battle. I know that, in the tight end room, if I get tired or one thing doesn't go my way I can look at them. You got a group of guys that can battle and you saw it tonight.
"Things just didn't go our way [in the end], but that starts with the prep and it starts with next week."