IRVING, Texas –They call it "the moment of truth," the instant a deep ball down field is either caught by a receiver in single coverage, or a defensive back makes the play.
Sunday's win over the Buccaneers featured the ultimate moment of truth for Mike Jenkins, who was seeing his first extended action in nine and a half months following reconstructive shoulder surgery this offseason. On a second-down play in the third quarter, with the game very much in the balance, quarterback Josh Freeman found him in one-on-one coverage against Vincent Jackson, one of the league's tallest and, strongest receivers, incredibly dangerous on the downfield jump ball.
But as Freeman's pass started to drop, 50 yards from his launch point, it was Jenkins who went up over the 6-5 Jackson to knock the ball away, saving at least a game-tying field goal, and perhaps a touchdown.
"It felt pretty good," Jenkins said. "I used the surgery arm to go up and get the ball. It was a big challenge for me, just going up. That was actually my first time even using my arm like that. Going through practice, I never get a chance to actually go all out and jump up for a ball and come down on my arm that physical. I felt pretty good."
Seeing Jenkins make the play was a moment of truth for the Cowboys as well – a realization they had made the right call this offseason in hanging onto the injured cornerback despite whirling trade winds following their signing of Brandon Carr and drafting of Morris Claiborne. Injuries often test the depth of the cornerback position, making strength in numbers valuable, but this year the Cowboys' trust in their top four corners has allowed them to patch a hole at safety, where Carr started Sunday's game and received extensive playing time.
In only his second game back, Jenkins was a starter at cornerback again, playing 31 of the defense's 60 snaps, plus six on special teams. It wasn't the same role he's held with the defense the last three years, but with where he is in his recovery, having missed all offseason and training camp, it was a good way to get his feet wet. Jenkins played on special teams the week prior, but took just eight defensive snaps.
"I just saw him become more and more confident, and because of that play with the spirit that we've always liked about him," head coach Jason Garrett said. "He's a really competitive guy. He loves to play. I think we saw a lot of that in the game the other day."
With 2012 the last year of Jenkins' contract, his commitment to the club had been questioned going back to draft weekend, but the cornerback actually put to bed any lingering doubt about that in Week 2, giving an impassioned locker room speech following the team's loss in Seattle.
After the patience they showed this offseason, waiting for Jenkins to return to the team, it was just what the Cowboys would've hoped to see.
"There's been a business side to football for a long, long time," Garrett said. "You don't get emotional about it. You say, 'OK, I understand what his motivations are,' how he might perceive this. Let's communicate to the best of our ability what we're trying to get accomplished. We really like Mike Jenkins … we just needed to be patient with his injury. He needed to fight through some of the business aspects of this decision, get him back here, embrace him and get him going. That was our philosophy all along."
Now with improved depth throughout the cornerback position, the Cowboys appear to have one of the top coverage units in the league. They've quieted the likes of Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and now Jackson, and are the only team in the league that has yet to allow a touchdown to a wide receiver. Consequently, the defense is ranked No. 1 overall.
"As long as we keep competing and trying to make each other better, just going hard, and one guy just feeding off another guy, I think we're going to be great," Jenkins said. "We haven't given up one yet. Hopefully we stay on the same path and just try to be the best secondary we can."