The Cowboys' biggest loss of the season started with a fist bump.
While attractive free-agent defensive backs such as Eric Weddle, Dawan Landry and Johnathan Joseph were plucked by NFL teams during the first frantic days of post-lockout training camp, Dallas sat inexplicably idle. Fans who remember last year's defense — the porous bunch that surrendered a record 436 points and a whopping 33 passing touchdowns (the Packers and Steelers allowed 31 combined) — grew antsy. Visions of Gerald Sensabaugh pointing an accusatory finger at Alan Ball (only to have it boomeranged back toward him) and Mike Jenkins quitting on a tackle should have departed with head coach Wade Phillips during last year's disastrous 6-10, but the early-camp signings of offensive linemen Doug Free and Kyle Kosier won't make us forgive or forget the worst defense in team history.
Enter the pounding of flesh.
Owner Jerry Jones has an insatiable desire for create the big splash. Deion Sanders in 1995 ring a bell? He was the best cornerback in the game, and Jones overpaid to land him as a free agent. The reward? Super Bowl rings all around. In 2011, Nnamdi Asomugha is Deion Sanders. The best cornerback in the game who can not only take away half the field but also instantly inject Super Bowl aspirations into a team predicted to be middle of the pack — a team that hasn't seen the Super Bowl since Sanders wore a star on his helmet. Add Asomugha to your roster and you immediately become a better team, a bigger story.
So last Friday, inside The Alamodome, Jones made a play for Asomugha, one that almost transformed his team's season.
As the crowd of around 5,000 settled in for head coach Jason Garrett's afternoon practice, they could sense the sudden tension. With big names resurfacing with new teams by the minute, surely the Cowboys were going to join the party. On the sideline near his team's 7-on-7 drills in helmets and shorts, Jones whipped out his cell phone. This was it.
Impassioned talking. Demonstrative hand gyrations. Nervous pacing. Something was up, and perhaps about to go down.
Around 4:15 p.m. Jones did something that caught his players' attention and sent a buzz throughout the stadium: He summoned defensive coordinator Rob Ryan away from practice and, yep, handed him the phone. The Internet whirred about the Cowboys' late play for Asomugha. Ryan was Asomugha's defensive coach with the Oakland Raiders for five years. Suddenly, two plus two equaled foreplay.
Screw the action on the field. The crowd and the media were scrutinizing Jones and Ryan, analyzing body language, squinting to read lips and constructing play-by-play of a phone call.
"I did not get Rob to break from drills and come over unless it was serious business for the Dallas Cowboys," Jones told me later, in an interview on KRLD-FM 105.3 The Fan. "You guys were probably right to keep an eye on what was going on."
After minutes of walking alone in the end zone, Jones waltzed to the other side of the field, to his son and team vice president Stephen Jones. After a brief exchange, the Joneses bumped fists and shared what appeared to be a triumphant chortle.
The Cowboys earlier in the day had re-signed defensive end Marcus Spears, but you don't fist bump over Marcus Spears. And you don't get Ryan involved unless it's an epic player with direct ties. Moments later NFL insider Adam Shefter of ESPN Tweeted that Asomugha's main suitor — the New York Jets — were suddenly out of the running. Tweeted ESPN's John Clayton: "How about them Cowboys!"
It all made perfect sense. As emotions rose and expectations engorged, Jones jumped on the radio in the middle of all the turbulence. I've known and covered Jones since his arrival in Dallas 22 years ago, and I believe his expectation — his plan — was to break the news that his team had signed the NFL's most coveted free agent right then and there.
Before the interview I asked him about Asomugha's status.
"It's happening fast and furious as we speak," he said. "I can't comment one way or the other right now, but, hopefully ... maybe we'll have something here."
During the interview Jones' enthusiasm and intent were only thinly veiled.
"It's going down by the minute," he said, "and it's highly competitive. I don't want to say anything on here that would influence this in any way. You don't want to show all your cards just yet and show your hand, but I might be able to do just that in 10 minutes. It's happening that fast. That's why I'm having Rob on the phone doing some work for me."
Jones was fidgety, anxious, like an expectant father told his baby's head was crowning yet too nervous to light that cigar. Make no mistake: The sideline drama did indeed surround Asomugha. The Cowboys were on the verge of signing him.
"Lot of folks," Jones beamed, "thought we wouldn't be active in this area of super free agency."
At that moment the news broke across the Internet. According to multiple high-profile NFL reporters, including ESPN's Chris Mortensen and Sports Illustrated's Peter King, Asomugha was agreeing to a five-year, $60 million contract with ... the Philadelphia Eagles.
I read the news to Jones live on the air. I felt like a messenger about to be murdered.
"It's too hot of a topic ... ," Jones said, his energy and focus clearly diminished as he, too, read the tweets on my computer screen. "It's fluid."
We continued to make what in hindsight feels like small talk, about the 2008 trade for Williams ("I'd like to have that one back") and last year's pratfall ("I've never been involved with anything in my life more surprising or disappointing"). But Jones constantly eyed his old-school flip phone. Resignation set in.
"The fact that we're sitting here bidding on the No. 1 guy in free agency shows we're going for it," he said. "We had an opportunity that all of the sudden fit, and we were ready for that. We acted on it, believe me, firmly acted on it. Until my eyes watered."
Two days later Jones was keeping a stiff upper lip, promising to be active in free agency but finally admitting his disappointment. The Cowboys went after a high-profile free agent and lost, which happens about as often as 70-degree July days in North Texas. "I can't think of one," Jones said, asked about previous swings and misses in free agency.
Ryan downplayed the loss of Asomugha, and linebacker DeMarcus Ware labeled cornerbacks Jenkins and Terence Newman "just as good." But there's no denying all the frenetic foreplay left the Cowboys' jocks as blue as the stars on their helmets. In the end, the biggest story of training camp will be a fish tale. About the one thiiiis big that the Cowboys came thiiiis close to landing.
"We have a lot of bait in the water," Jones said a day after Asomugha jumped off his hook. What was almost a celebratory hand salutation instead quickly deteriorated into another middle finger from Philly. It was December when the Phillies stole Cliff Lee from the Rangers. And now Asomugha will haunt the Cowboys twice a year as an Eagle.
What's next? Tyson Chandler, 76er?