ARLINGTON, Texas – Garrett Gilbert ended up on the far 15-yard line, the Pittsburgh 15.
He looked exhausted. He looked exasperated.
The Cowboys' fourth starting quarterback in nine games this season begrudgingly removed his helmet. It was as if he couldn't resign himself to the fact that the game was over, the final four seconds on the Cowboys' last of 73 plays ending with an incompletion in the
east end zone.
Prohibitive-favorite Steelers 24, way underdog Cowboys 19.
That was the native Texan's last stand. He stood motionless for a minute or three. Watched the Steelers, now 8-0 for first time in their lengthy history, celebrate. Saw his teammates drag off the field with a seventh loss in nine games. Almost as if he couldn't bear to leave.
"Losing sucks," he would say afterward of just what was going through his mind. "I felt like the guys played really hard and played really well, and our guys deserved a chance to win the game."
And the guys did have a chance to win the game, thanks in part to the 29-year-old quarterback from Austin, Texas, making his first NFL start in his seventh season in the league, nearly entering his name into the 61-year history books of the Dallas Cowboys.
Yep, right there with some of those fabled stories. Like what Clint Longley did in 1974, the improbable rookie backup quarterback leading the Cowboys to a comeback win over Washington on Thanksgiving Day after Roger Staubach was knocked out of the game, his teammate Blain Nye memorably characterizing his performance as "the triumph of an uncluttered mind."
Or maybe Steve Beuerlein, taking over for the injured Troy Aikman in 1991, leading the Cowboys to a victory over the then-undefeated Washingtons in Game 12 of the season at RFK.
Or possibly what Jason Garrett did on Thanksgiving Day 1994, the Cowboys' third-string quarterback making his second NFL start in his second season and leading the Cowboys to a 42-31 win over Green Bay.
Gosh darn, the guy who played his high school ball at Lake Travis, his college ball at the University of Texas and then SMU, the son of his NFL quarterback father Gale having kicked around the NFL on five different teams and then starring for the Orlando Apollos of the AAF, gave the Cowboys a chance when not a single person gave them anything more than a 100-1 chance.
The guy who had attempted all of six previous passes in the NFL and last played an entire football game on March 30, 2019, against the Memphis Legends. All the makings of _Paper Cowboy_.
Why, Gilbert completed 21 of 38 passes for 243 yards and a touchdown – the first Cowboys touchdown they had scored in their last 26 possessions. He gamely ran for another 28 yards. He gave no quarter to the beating he was taking in the pocket, sacked twice and harassed endlessly by a Steelers defense coming into the game with a league-high 30 sacks. And then they had the nerve to blitz, too.
Of all things, Garett had the Cowboys leading 13-0 at one point, easily their largest lead of the season, and like 19-9 entering the fourth quarter, only the second time all year they owned a fourth-quarter lead, and needless to say the largest.
"Garrett is definitely a warrior," said rookie receiver CeeDee Lamb, the recipient of Gilbert's 20-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter, needless to say his first in the NFL. "That's the way he responded."
And let's not forget Gilbert didn't arrive on campus until signing Oct. 13. He did not practice with the team until a week later. His first practice snaps came a week after that to prepare to back up rookie Ben DiNucci. And his first first-team practice snaps did not come until this past Wednesday, from there receiving the majority of the first-team snaps since the Cowboys coaching staff had decided he'd be the starter over the recently-arrived Cooper Rush.
But the fairytale ending that would have had Gilbert connecting with Lamb on a crossing route at the goal line on the final play of the game just wasn't to be, his head coach Mike McCarthy dropping to 1-4 coaching against his hometown Steelers with, if you can believe this, all four losses coming down to the last play of the game.
"That was a hard-fought football game to say the least," said McCarthy, his one victory over the Steelers coming in Super Bowl XLV with Green Bay right here at AT&T Stadium.
But these hard facts prevented the betting public from taking this one in the shorts.
First, the Cowboys kicked too many field goals, Greg Zuerlein required to make four of them (38, 44, 45, 39), one of those after reaching the Pittsburgh 14-yard line and another after McCarthy decides to kick from the 22 on a fourth-and-foot to go up 19-9.
Maybe the biggest killer was on third-and-goal from the Steelers' 5-yard line. Gilbert, under immense pressure, was hit just when trying to airmail the ball away, causing a lollipop that safety Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepted in the end zone. Oh my, think about those likely gimme three points had the Cowboys down-shifted the offense on that critical down, possibly allowing them to attempt a game-winning field goal with those four seconds remaining.
Then there was the Lamb fumble as he was heading toward the 50-yard line, the ball popping out right into the hands of Fitzpatrick on the fly, allowing the Steelers to then drive for a half-ending field goal. Yet another critical three points that probably would not have been.
But possibly most stymying the Cowboys effort to end their three-game losing streak was the offensive change the Steelers made once falling behind 19-9 with 2:13 left in the third quarter. They totally abandoned their running game. And, I mean, no running back on the field.
The Steelers went to a four-wide, one-tight offense. And veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was getting out-played for nearly three quarters by Gilbert, would then throw passes on his next 22 of 23 snaps, the only exception an end-around run by wideout Ray-Ray McCloud.
Even after the Cowboys defensively acquiesced, going from running almost exclusively their nickel package to a dime package in a 4-1-6 alignment, they just couldn't contain all those Pittsburgh wideouts scattering all over the field. And matters grew worse when losing cornerback Trevon Diggs (foot) halfway through the fourth quarter. That meant, with Chidobe Awuzie still not activated off injured reserve, in came Saivion Smith at corner, with Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis, and then adding safety Darian Thompson up front to the mix with Jaylon Smith, the only linebacker on the field.
But from that point on, Roethlisberger, who only threw for 111 yards in the first half, would throw for 193, spreading out the Cowboys when completing passes to nine different players. Think about this, though, the Cowboys much-maligned defense held Pittsburgh, averaging 30 points a game, to a season-low 24.
Then, on top of all that, two highly-critical officiating decisions went against the Cowboys … again. With the Cowboys leading 19-18, they appeared to get off the field on a three-and-out with Roethlisberger's incomplete pass on third-and-10 from his 21 with 3:58 left in the game. But Jaylon Smith, blitzing, was called for roughing the QB, though replays showing his hand barely grazing Roethlisberger's facemask and coming down on his shoulder pad. Four plays later, Big Ben hit tight end Eric Ebron for the 8-yard, go-ahead touchdown with 2:19 to play.
There also appeared to be a no-call on a Cowboys' fourth-and-8 from their 41-yard line, only 1:45 left and needing to go for it when Cameron Hayward and T.J. Watt sacked Gilbert for a 17-yard loss. Seemed to be an egregious defensive hands to the face of Connor Williams by Heyward that went undetected, leading to the jail break.
This a second week in a row these types of rulings, not to mention ticky-tacky personal fouls on Leighton Vander Esch and Randy Gregory, costing the Cowboys greatly.
When asked after the game about some late penalties, McCarthy's blood pressure still was boiling, saying, "Well, I tell you what – you can write as much as you want. Go for it. I'm not going to."
And thus, the budding tale of Garrett Gilbert coming to the Cowboys' rescue on this Nov. 8 of our pandemic year 2020 never came to fruition, and really a shame. All leaving the Cowboys heading into their bye week at 2-7, now tied for last with the Giants in the four-team NFC East, a half-game behind Washington (2-6) but now three losses behind the not-so-high-flying Eagles (3-4-1).
As for Gilbert, who knows if he'll get another starting chance, depending on backup Andy Dalton's reserve/COVID-19 circumstances coming out of the bye. If not, that, too, will be a shame, after waiting this long for his first one.
"As a competitor, every one of us wants to be out there playing," said Gilbert, who did start eight games in the AAF before the league collapsed with two games to go. "Certainly, it's been a long journey to get here, and that's what even makes it a little bit tougher to swallow; just not being able to finish that one off and get a victory in my first one."
Exactly why his world stood still for those precious few minutes in the end.