IRVING, Texas – So early Saturday morning ends one of the worst, most emotionally draining weeks, and for many seemingly the longest, in the Dallas Cowboys' 53-season history.
Death is never easy to deal with. It becomes worse when it's one of your own, and on top of that during the season, less than 48 hours before a game, no matter if the guy is a Pro Bowler, a starter or a practice squad guy, as Jerry Brown was. No matter if he's a five-year veteran, a five-month Cowboy or a five-week teammate.
He's a teammate, a bond that is hard to break.
And Josh Brent is a teammate, too, no matter where you fall on the Cowboys defensive linemen now expected to face charges of intoxication manslaughter as the driver early last Saturday morning in the one-car accident that killed Brown, his best friend, teammate and passenger in the car.
To my knowledge, such tragedy has never befallen the Cowboys during the middle of a season, one teammate driving the car in which the other perishes in a high-speed accident about 12 hours prior to the team departing for an away game. They have not yet invented the word to describe what this football team has gone through for the past seven days. There is a four-letter word staring with "h" and ending with "double-l's" that comes to mind.
That's right, a full seven days, because the pain never ends. Not after winning this past Sunday in Cincinnati. Not after having Monday off to just grieve in your own manner. Not after Tuesday's memorial service where Jerry Brown's mom, Stacy Jackson, showed remarkable compassion to Josh Brent and uncanny composure. And not even after getting back to work these past three days, several people telling me these practices just might have been the best they've seen all year.
"Very serious, very focused," DeMarcus Ware said, his eyes matching his words.
Yes, the week officially ends at about 2:15 Saturday morning, the time Brent lost control of his Mercedes, hitting a curb and reportedly flipping over and not coming to a stop until 900 feet later. The pain does not end, yet that does not matter, the season must soldier on, the Cowboys playing the Pittsburgh Steelers this Sunday at Cowboys Stadium in the first of their final three games.
At 7-6, their season still is very much alive. Their hopes of playoff possibilities still are mathematically real. This is no time to let yourself down, let all the hard work of an offseason and training camp and having endured what must be endured through the first 14 weeks of a season blow up in this real-life distraction.
Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, who I've been told has handled this tragic situation involving both Brown and Brent masterfully, with equal parts of emotional sensitivity and cold football reality, somehow has convinced this team the show must go on for at least three more performances. Opponents will feel for you, but they won't feel sorry for you on Sundays. He called it "compartmentalizing."
Not sure my compartments have the necessary space in each. How 'bout you?
This will not be easy, mentally, emotionally nor competitively, since the Steelers come to town with the No.1-ranked defense and, as we've come to know, with their own defense so beat up and depleted, the Cowboys must rely on their offense if they are to have any chance of winning.
Great, and now their most dynamic offensive player, Dez Bryant, looks as if he is suffering from elephantiasis of his left index finger, the one he fractured and suffered likely ligament damage in the fourth quarter of the 20-19 victory over Cincinnati this past Sunday. But even though he hasn't caught a pass of any substance this week during practice, and even though he will have the finger braced significantly for Sunday's game (and he's left-handed), he says, "I'm good," meaning he intends to play.
How well, that's a different story, and what most of you are holding your breath over, although no one is counting out this highly-competitive guy who doesn't want to let his teammates down.
Now, isn't this all something, especially for those fans and members of the media who were calling for the Cowboys to trade their 2010 first-round draft choice early in the season or those who felt he was more trouble than he was worth. And with a little patience, a little more maturity and a sense of responsibility, Dez Bryant is suddenly now the one guy the Cowboys can't do without.
But even if Bryant isn't effective, you want to bet against this team? You know, most everyone has wanted to know just who are these Dallas Cowboys? What is their overriding characteristic?
Well, let me help you out. One word: *Resilient. *
They have trailed at halftime in nine of 13 games, and have won four of those. They have recovered from a 28-3 halftime deficit to lose by seven. They have recovered from a 23-10 deficit to lose by five and a fingertip landing out of bounds. They trailed 24-13 in a second half, only to lose 31-29 when Dan Bailey's 51-yard field-goal attempt into a crosswind sailed wide at the bitter end.
This team has been decimated by injuries, and I know, I know, everyone has injuries, but come on, not this many injuries. To understand just how many a whole bunch is, let me make a list of guys one by one on the reserve lists out for the season or no better than questionable for Sunday's game:
FS Barry Church, IR
DE Kenyon Coleman, IR
LB Sean Lee, IR
LB Bruce Carter, IR
C Phil Costa, IR
P Chris Jones, IR
CB Orlando Scandrick, IR
NT Jay Ratliff, Out
NT Josh Brent, NFI
WR Dez Bryant, Questionable
CB Morris Claiborne, Questionable
LB DeMarcus Ware, Questionable
OG Nate Livings, Questionable
FS Charlie Peprah, Questionable
LB Orie Lemon, IR
DL Ben Bass, IR
FS Matt Johnson, IR-R
LB Caleb McSurdy, IR
Let's see, if you are scoring at home, that is seven starters on injured reserve if you count the punter and the nickel back. That's another starter out for this game, and likely the next two for sure, and his immediate backup now out for the season. There are four more starters questionable, and I'd say Claiborne and Livings definitely are highly questionable trying to pass the necessary tests after leaving last Sunday's games with concussions.
And cheers for questionable starters Bryant and Ware for insisting they will play. But then just how effective will they play?
Aw, poor Cowboys, you say I'm making excuses for them? You're right, and a damn good excuse, too.
But as Cowboys COO Stephen Jones told me, adding up the injuries, the halftime deficits and recovering from last weekend's tragic accident to win a game, "But I wouldn't bet against these guys."
Like who would be that foolish.
Here is another scary list: Guys added to the roster since the start of the season:
LB Ernie Sims
P Brian Moorman
C Ryan Cook
S Eric Frampton
S Charlie Peprah
CB Vince Agnew
DL Rob Callaway
CB Sterling Moore
CB Michael Coe
DL Brian Schaefering
LB Brady Poppinga
WR Anthony Armstrong
OT Darrion Weems
Exhausting, isn't it? And very real, too.
"I've never been a part of a season or a team that's had so many guys lost for an extended period of time," Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo said the other day. "We were joking earlier this week that we needed name tags out at practice just because of all new guys coming in."
Not sure he even meant to be funny, and to think Frampton has been replacing Peprah on the dime defense. Cook is now the starting center. Sims is now a starting linebacker. Moorman is the punter. And if Claiborne isn't cleared to play, watch for Moore and the recent-arriving Coe to play on the nickel and dime defenses this Sunday.
Who out there wanted to trade Mike Jenkins?
"This is the most our team has been exposed to (injury) since I've been here," said Romo, and he's not even close to going out on a limb with that one, since this might be the most injuries in ages, and definitely the most roster turnover since, well, since 1989 when Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones installed that roster revolving door out front here at The Ranch.
But the good news with all of these new guys, according to Ware is this: "They feel like, 'I have extra responsibility and accountability to this team.'"
And so this march through the turbulent, at times frustrating and certainly disheartening, but at the same time heartwarming and hopeful season continues.
Who knows, there might eventually be a breaking point, a point where the Cowboys' resiliency expires. But brother do these guys compete, and Jones points right to the head coach he thoroughly supports for why. So does everyone else out here in the know.
Let's see if they have another one in 'em on Sunday, when this team should be appreciated big time by another sellout Cowboys Stadium crowd because, just guessing, those Terrible-Towel waiving Steelers fans invading Cowboyland will be appreciating their team, 7-6 no matter.
"We know this game is as big as last week, as big as the last couple of weeks," Romo said of Sunday's game against the playoff-conscious Steelers, too. "It's been like that for a while. As the season keeps going, we put our head down and keep going to work. We continue to have injury issues that have not been obviously beneficial to us, but guys have stepped up, and we're having to find different ways to win football games this year.
"We have to emotionally get to the point where we realize this game is as big as any we've played this season."
Thanks to a heavy dose of resiliency, somehow, someway maybe even bigger.