open field
A Blown Opportunity
open field

A Blown Opportunity

Unable to get a game-clinching first down late in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys opened the door for Matthew Stafford to drive the Lions 80 yards in 50 seconds for the winning TD. That's of little consolation to Jakar Hamilton, the practice squad safety who got burnt twice in the final minute
(Rick Osentoski/AP)

DETROIT — After the Lions-Cowboys game at Ford Field on Sunday, both teams walked side by side up a curved ramp to their respective locker rooms. Dejected Dallas players looked up a final flight of stairs to see Detroit’s behemoth defensive tackle, Ndamukong Suh, standing at the top, smiling and offering sincere congratulations to the offensive linemen he’d harassed all day.

Congratulations for what?

The Cowboys lost in the most gut-wrenching way possible. They had their fifth win of the season locked up until the offense stalled late in the fourth quarter, leaving the door open for Lions quarterback Matt Stafford to march 80 yards on just six plays—with no timeouts—and score the game-winning touchdown on an impromptu one-yard sneak with 12 seconds left to play. Detroit improved to 5-3 and looked every bit the playoff team in their 31-30 victory, while the Cowboys melted down in more ways than one.

In the third quarter, wideout Dez Bryant (three catches for 72 yards and two touchdowns) came off the field and began yelling at quarterback Tony Romo and a few Dallas coaches. He blew up again after Detroit scored the go-ahead touchdown, and had to be cooled down by veteran teammates Jason Witten and DeMarcus Ware before taking the long walk to the locker room.

Leon Halip/Getty Images Dez Bryant finished with three receptions for 72 yards and two touchdowns—as well as two outbursts on the sideline. (Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Wearing his silver game pants and a sleeveless shirt, Bryant stood inside the cramped space a few minutes later, alone in the center of the room while others sat in front of their lockers and undressed. Holding one arm across his chest and using the other to prop up his chin, he stared off into space as owner Jerry Jones gave a press conference in whispered tones a few feet away. The only other sounds came from the equipment manager tearing tape off shoulder pads and throwing damp jerseys into bins.

So intense was his yelling on the sideline, Bryant had little voice left by the time he faced the media.

“It’s all good passion,” he explained. “I feel like that’s what we need. I’m going to remain the same way ... You’ve got to let that dog come out and just put it all out there on the line.”

Bryant still had the public backing of his quarterback, his coach, Jason Garrett, and Jones, and he was far from the most dejected man in the room. Twelve lockers away, Jakar Hamilton, an undrafted rookie who’d been a member of the practice squad until last Saturday, sat shirtless and silent. Written in cursive across his left collarbone: Money is the root to all evil. And in bold across the right: Dead Presidents. On his mind, mixed emotions: The 24-year-old safety had finally made it to the NFL, completing a long, winding journey from Strom Thurmond High in Johnston, S.C. ... to Georgia Military College ...  to the University of Georgia ... to tiny South Carolina State ... to the white-hot spotlight at Ford Field.

Then again, he might have blown his shot to become a fixture on the 53-man roster.

Hamilton can thank Stafford for his welcome-to-the-NFL moment. Make that moments. After Barry Church pulled a hamstring in the second half, the Detroit QB decided to go after the inexperienced back up, who was added to the roster after J.J. Wilcox was kept out with a knee injury. Trailing by six with 38 seconds to play, Stafford dropped back on 2nd-and-10 from his own 47; he looked to his right as a ploy, then launched the ball to Kris Durham deep down the left sideline. Fooled by Stafford’s deke, Hamilton was late to arrive and could only push Durham out of bounds after the 40-yard reception.

I’m at a loss for words, but I’ve just got to continue to work hard,” Hamilton said. “I let the team down. I lost the game, just by those two plays. I should’ve made those plays.

Stafford later told The MMQB he was zeroing in on Hamilton to pick on the rookie. From the Cowboys’ 23,  he located Hamilton on the right side and pinpointed Calvin Johnson in the seam—the 14th and final reception for Johnson, who finished with an unfathomable 329 yards. Hamilton was late again, though he managed to bring Johnson down at the 1-yard line. Stafford scored on the next play, leaving Hamilton feeling as though the entire loss fell on his tattooed shoulders.

“I’m at a loss for words, but I’ve just got to continue to work hard,” he said after the Cowboys leveled off at 4-4. “I let the team down. I lost the game, just by those two plays. I should’ve made those plays.”

Hamilton, of course, isn’t the only one to blame. Through eight games the Cowboys have one of the NFL’s worst pass defenses, despite having spent roughly $12 million in cap space on three cornerbacks this season. Almost 10% of the available salary cap was used on Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick, who have all appeared nothing short of helpless at various points this season.

Duane Burleson/AP Calvin Johnson caught 14 passes for 329 yards—a career high and the second most ever in an NFL game. (Duane Burleson/AP)

Claiborne, a 2012 first-rounder, was picked on in a Week 1 victory over the Giants and a Week 2 road loss to the Chiefs. Scandrick had his worst outing against Peyton Manning in a 51-48 loss to the Broncos in Week 5. And Carr played the stooge on Sunday in a visit to his home state.

He lined up across from Johnson in man coverage for most of the first half and failed nearly every time Stafford threw his way. Running every route in the playbook from digs to posts, Johnson looked as if he was going through drills in August while Carr routinely stumbled. Bryant, who last week said he could do anything Johnson could do, seethed on the sideline. Even when Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin went to zone looks in the second half, Johnson added 173 receiving yards to the 156 he put up in the first half.

“It was a big task, and I knew that heading into this game, but I wasn’t going to shy away from it,” said Carr, 27, a fourth-rounder taken by the Chiefs in ’08. It didn’t help that Ware, the four-time All-Pro defensive end, was out for the second game in a row with a quad injury, or that the Cowboys sacked Stafford just once. Then again, Johnson had the second-most receiving yards in a game in NFL history despite being listed as probable with a tweaked knee.

“I’m the one out there playing this game,” Carr said. “I’m the one out there going through it and trying to check his game and give him my best shot. I just let it rest at that.”

Carr went on to say he wasn’t sure the Cowboys had the necessary mentality to finish games, to step on the throats of wounded opponents. With 1:33 left to play, Dallas led by three and got the ball back at Detroit’s 31 on downs. A first down would have secured a victory, but the Cowboys had to settle for a 44-yard field goal. Not able to step on throats? Perhaps that’s what Bryant was trying to stir up when the TV cameras caught him hollering (with arms flailing) at wide receivers coach Derek Dooley, Romo, Witten and Ware late in the fourth quarter.

Leon Halip/Getty Images Though he was able to beat double coverage just like Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant failed to show that he can do anything Megatron does. (Leon Halip/Getty Images)

Though he was targeted just six times, Bryant said his outburst wasn’t about him not getting the ball. He also said it wasn’t spurred by jealously of Johnson’s performance. “You guys can say whatever you want to say,” Bryant said to reporters. “When I told you it wasn’t a comparison and I told you to take a different route with it, that’s fine. This is a team sport.”

Romo agreed that Bryant isn’t a “me” guy. If you buy that, the only thing Bryant could have been screaming about was the Lions’ coming back from 10 down with six minutes to play and Dallas’s offense doing nothing to stop it. The Cowboys didn’t convert a single third down during the fourth quarter, and Bryant had the only offensive play of any note: a spinning, tackle-breaking 50-yard romp that came on the heels of his first sideline outburst.

Jones later suggested that the screaming was good for the team, that the Cowboys perked up afterward. He could only have been talking about that one play, an anomaly in what has become a trend of sluggish fourth-quarter Dallas collapses. This one, however, wasn’t punctuated by a Romo interception but by a defense caught unawares when Stafford lunged across the goal line instead of spiking the ball to stop the clock.

But, sure, congratulations.

Bryant, the budding superstar, and Carr, who signed a five-year, $50 million contract last season, might be able to forget this one quicker than Hamilton. His head still ringing from the roar of a revitalized Lions crowd, the rookie was the last man to leave the locker room. Would it be the last time he ever wore a Cowboys game jersey? It’s anybody’s guess, and he knew it.

“It was an experience for me that I’ve never had in my life,” he said, “being in the type of game, how loud it was, going against one of the greatest receivers to ever play. I guess I need to prepare a little more than what I thought I was doing.

“I’ve got to show these guys I can shake this off and continue to work hard.”

And so do they.