ARLINGTON, Texas -- There were several chances for the Dallas Cowboys to get their act together in Week 9 against the Denver Broncos, but they never did. Instead, they looked like an understudy of themselves -- forgetting their script and basically ad libbing and doing improv the entire game. They paid for it with a second loss on their otherwise stellar season, and one play in particular proved just how ready the Cowboys were to lose on Sunday, with rookie fourth-round pick Nahshon Wright taking center stage in the worst way.
Desperately trying to find some sort of traction after going down 16-0 to the Broncos, a diving interception by cornerback Jourdan Lewis was negated by a holding penalty against Trevon Diggs, and considering the Broncos were set to get the first possession of the third quarter, the penalty was the last thing the Cowboys could afford in that moment. They'd immediately get yet another shot at wildly swinging the momentum in their favor though, when they forced Teddy Bridgewater into a quick three-and-out to open the third quarter and deep in Broncos territory -- clearing the way for what happened next.
Malik Turner, who himself had a good game on Sunday, burst through the line and blocked the punt from Sam Martin and, in that moment, it felt like the Cowboys would ignite a second half explosion to send the Broncos home with a loss. It was not to be, however, because the officiating crew awarded the ball to Denver with a new set of downs.
The league went on to explain why, via Twitter.
"The punt is blocked and goes beyond the line of scrimmage, where it's touched by the receiving team. Since the receiving team touches the ball beyond the line of scrimmage, the kicking team is eligible to recover the ball. Denver recovers the ball, but cannot advance it."
In other words, Wright shouldn't have touched the ball after Turner blocked it, and the rookie admits he got caught up in the moment of it all.
"First, it was a great play by Malik," Wright told media following the loss. "Malik got through and blocked the punt. The ball was coming my way, and I'm at the line of scrimmage. I know shouldn't have touched it, but I was trying to scoop and score and make a play."
So instead of the Cowboys being in position to potentially score a touchdown and shrink the deficit to just eight points (seven, if they successfully attempted a two-point conversion thereafter), the Broncos were given that much more life and they never looked back en route to making it a 30-0 score in the fourth quarter. And, while it rarely ever occurs, head coach Mike McCarthy has now seen it happen to his teams on at least two occasions.
"Yea, I had one in Baltimore a few years back [with the Packers]," said McCarthy. "It's a big play and tough lesson to learn there -- that ball crosses the line. ... I think his instincts took over. I think it's something, he's a young player and we'll definitely learn from it. But then, we all understand what the rule is."
He also made it clear that it's irrelevant to ask if he agrees with the rule.
"It doesn't matter," he said matter-of-factly. "We aren't going to solve anything today."
No, it will not, and arguably the biggest (most certainly one of) opportunities to change the outcome of the game was squandered by the Cowboys, who did a lot of that on Sunday afternoon: squandering. And while McCarthy , that doesn't appear to be the case with Wright's error, as explained by Turner.
"[John Fassel] and [Matt Daniels] are in there like madmen every week drawing up stuff for us to execute," he said. "Basham did his job to open it up for me, and I was able to block a punt. I get to be on the list with [Luke Gifford], and that's awesome. That was my first time to ever getting that close to block a punt, and end up blocking it. It should have been right off his foot.
"It opened up really fast, and I got there really fast. I got there really quick. I should have taken right off his foot, and it shouldn't have gone anywhere. I should've scooped and scored. It will come up again, and we'll make the right play and score on those."
Additionally, however, Turner isn't blaming Wright, but rather the special teams unit as whole for what happened.
"It's all on us, and we'll be in that position again, and it will go our way next time," he added.
The bottom line is the Cowboys needed it, but like so many other opportunities that could've gone their way, they didn't grab it.
"That would have been a huge momentum play for us, especially coming in after half time," McCarthy added. "You have a chance to reset your jaw and you get back out there, and you get three-and-out and block the punt and you're in scoring position -- you're on
the board, and maybe you do something with that momentum."
It's a brutal lesson to learn for the rookie cornerback, but one he now has, and defensive end Randy Gregory balances justifiable criticism of the mental error with an understanding that it's only Wright's eight game in the NFL, making sure he approached Wright on the sideline to build the rookie's confidence after a devastating mistake.
"It hurts, but you have to be prepared," said Gregory. "Anything can happen in a game like that. We want those momentum swings, but we didn't get it right there. We talked about neutral mindset, and that's what we had to do there. Get up, I thought we had the ball, appeared we didn't, defense backed up, and we just have to roll with the punches, get better and come out on top.
"Everyone is going to make mistakes. He is a rookie, so he has a lot to learn. He's going to be a good player for us. That's good we have guys going over there to make sure everything is alright.
"Still a lot of football left to play. You're going to have plays like that, and you're just going to have to bounce back."
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