One foot was in the grave. "Or bust" was engulfing "Super Bowl." The Dallas Cowboys, fame and fortune and forecasts be damned, were careening toward the most disappointing, disastrous season in franchise history.
They still might end up there, just not this week.
Trailing the Washington Redskins 7-0 late in the second quarter last Sunday night at FedEx Field the Cowboys appeared to be trapped at their 1-yard line, a setting rife with more doom, more gloom. With conservative play calls looming in a tight, tense game where points were as scarce as prescience at DISD, Dallas would likely punt, give the Redskins positive field position and hope to go into halftime trailing only 10-0.
Enter Rock Cartwright's ass. Tony Romo's pinkie. And, ultimately, the Cowboys' heart.
Instead of its 1, Dallas received possession at the 20. After seemingly downing a Washington punt, Cartwright, lying on the goal line, had the ball knocked into him by bonehead Redskins' teammate Khary Campbell. After a review, referee Jeff Triplette, with a straight face, mind you, explained it thusly:
"No. 31 was lying on the goal line when the ball touches him in the rear."
Taken out of context: perverted porn.
In the confines of Cowboys-Redskins: saving grace from a touchback.
Three plays later, on third-and-5, Romo zinged a 13-yard pass to Roy Williams. Then a laser to Jason Witten for 28 yards. And, finally, a step-into-it spiral that hit Terrell Owens perfectly in stride for 25 more to Washington's 2-yard line. Marion Barber capped the drive with a touchdown plunge.
The score was tied. The momentum was turned. And, because we were all finally convinced that Romo's little finger was no big deal, the season was saved.
Cowboys 14, Redskins 10 was a victory, but more so a resurrection of faith. A butt cheek from spiraling to 5-5 and having this column scream for Wade Phillips' firing, the Cowboys instead will be 8-4 headed into December and, eventually, the playoffs.
With a little more functionality to match the frills, there's hope yet that these Cowboys won't be just another defective Victoria's Secret bra.
"This was a 'Show me' game," Romo said. "We showed each other, ourselves and everybody else that we're capable of playing good football."
We've known all along this Cowboys team had talent. In Washington it finally showed us some testicles.
The ballsy bailout, appropriately in D.C., started with the quarterback.
After missing three games with a fractured pinkie, Romo obviously wasn't 100 percent. He sometimes couldn't get a grip on the ball, producing a couple of squirrelly floaters that rekindled your Brad Johnson-induced tic. But what he lost was overshadowed by what he regained: His demeanor.
Even in some early-season wins, Romo wasn't his giddy, kiddy self. Even when the Cowboys dramatically forced overtime in Arizona with a last-second field goal, he sorta stared into space like a man facing an impending IRS audit.
But in Washington Romo's persona was born again, dripping with grins and ingenuity. He smiled. He jumped on teammates' backs. He improvised a hip-high pitch to Miles Austin for a crucial third-down conversion. He trusted rookie Martellus Bennett—I know, the last guy you expected, right?—for the game-winning touchdown. He listened to Survivor's "Burning Heart" before the game and addressed the media wearing a 1940s Ben Hogan-esque cap afterward.
He wasn't perfect. But he was Tony Romo.
"All the time away gave me a chance to miss the game quite a bit," he said. "It's games like this that make it so much fun."
Romo's return, however, wouldn't have been enough. He needed help. He got it.
From an inspired, improved defense.
Admit it, when the Redskins stormed to a touchdown on their first possession you commenced kicking dirt on the Cowboys' coffin, on Phillips' 3-4 defense and on a playoff-less season. I know I did. But Dallas dug in, recorded three sacks and held Washington to only a field goal (set up by a long kickoff return) the rest of the way.
Thanks mostly to Terence Newman. Out since October with a sports hernia, Newman returned to shut up his critics by shutting down Cowboy-killer Santana Moss. The Redskins' runt receiver had eight catches for 145 in Washington's September victory in Texas Stadium, but only five for a harmless 29 last Sunday.
Newman, who campaigned for and was granted more man-to-man coverage schemes, had an interception and one of the game's biggest plays, knocking down Jason Campbell's fourth-down pass toward Moss with 6:40 remaining and his team clinging to a four-point lead.
The defense's late-game stop set the table for an offense that beautifully blended creativity and common sense.
Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett was at his head-coach-in-waiting best, putting Owens in motion and getting his most explosive weapon the ball on reverses, hitches and quick slants. The Cowboys bunched Owens, Witten and Williams, then ran cunning draw plays up the middle. They installed a new, inverted wishbone formation, with Witten and Bennett in the backfield with Barber. They relied on a reinvigorated offensive line that kept Romo untouched and improved to 4-0 with left guard Kyle Kosier in uniform. They utilized Bennett, featured Austin over Patrick Crayton and kept Johnson off the field except for two extra points.
But mostly, especially when it counted, the Cowboys put the game in Barber's hands. After Newman's knockdown, Romo simply pitched the keys to the highest-paid running back in franchise history. And Barber responded by eating the game's final 6:40, producing positive yards on 11 consecutive plays including a crucial 10-yard catch on third-and-8 from midfield.
Faced with fourth-and-1 at Washington's 17 with 1:08 remaining, Phillips shocked us all by showing not only a pulse, but a killer instinct. Who knew? Forgoing a field goal that would've provided a 7-point lead, Phillips instead went for the first down.
"I thought it was a great call by Wade," Garrett said. "He wanted to go win that game right then and there and the guys responded."
When Barber scooted around right end and dove for a three-yard gain, Phillips had the biggest victory of his Cowboys' coaching era while Dallas' sideline—and fandom, really—erupted in an intoxicating mix of relief and rejoice.
"This was huge, no doubt," said Witten. "Our backs are still against the wall. We're not out of this thing yet. But this gives us some confidence and some momentum."
The Cowboys now face winnable home games against the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks, who are a combined 5-15. After 10 days' rest, they will head into December needing only to split games against the Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Giants, Baltimore Ravens and Philadelphia Eagles to make the playoffs. Consider it done.
The Super Bowl, though long ago written off, remains a possibility.
The Cowboys still have to improve. Still have to convince 10-year veteran Flozell Adams that a "false start" is a bad thing. Still have to maximize Williams' talent. And still have to tweak special teams that are more disorganized than a Dallas reunion.
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But after the quarterback's rebirth in Washington, we're convinced it all can, and will, happen. Right?
Because Tony Romo now has two things wrapped around his little finger: