DALLAS - It was an ordinary Saturday morning as 105.3 The Fan Cowboys insider Mike Fisher took inventory of the complement on the Cowboys charter to Cincinnati. Dallas at 6-6 and the Bengals at 7-5 were both chasing their respective division leaders for a spot in the playoffs.
The Cowboys, who ran a 3-4 defense under defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, were depleted at nose tackle with Jay Ratliff struggling with a groin injury and Sean Lissemore recovering from an ankle injury. Just about the only healthy true nose tackle was Brent, who still had not arrived for the team charter.
"I got a text from a colleague that said Josh Brent is in trouble," Fisher said. "And we kind of worked from there. And as I recall it, I think they made us get off the plane. I believe I was on the tarmac when a law-enforcement friend of mine texted me and said Josh Brent was in a car accident."
Not only was Brent in a car accident, but he was intoxicated. And not only was Brent driving the car at speeds upwards of 110 miles per hour in a 45 miles per hour zone, but his best friend, practice squad linebacker Jerry Brown, was with him and the only casualty of the accident.
From the tarmac, Fisher wanted to be right about something so tragic than first.
Said Fisher: "We're trying to be first, but you've got to be right. But, gosh, if you end up saying it was a left ankle twist when it was a right ankle twist, okay. We'll deal with that. That's okay. That happens. But you don't want to get this wrong. You don't want to report this prematurely. So, with a heavy heart and a really delicate approach to it and a careful approach to it, we broke that story live on The Fan while standing outside the team plane and continued to update until we got on the team plane and left."
Now, not only had the Cowboys virtually exhausted their complement of nose tackles, but they were playing with the dark cloud of grief hanging over their heads among the many gray clouds that hung over Paul Brown Stadium on Dec. 9, 2012.
Yet the Cowboys chose to let Brown's memory unite them for hopefully a solid December showing in a competitive run to the playoffs. A white 53 jersey with Brown on the back sat on the sideline throughout the game as a reminder to Dallas to play with courage.
The Cowboys came out of the gate with an 11-play, 61-yard drive that culminated in a 37-yard Dan Bailey field goal to establish a 3-0 lead. Only 4/11 of their previous opening drives that year ended with a score.
Cincinnati responded with a 70-yard drive that featured running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis getting 19 yards off the right side and receiver Marvin Jones going around left end for 37 yards. Quarterback Andy Dalton found receiver Andrew Hawkins for an 8-yard touchdown to help the Bengals pull ahead 7-3 with 6:49 in the first quarter.
When Dallas went three-and-out the next drive, the Bengals followed that up with another scoring drive. The four-point play difference was defensive end Jason Hatcher's sack of Dalton on third-and-4 from the Cowboys 5-yard line that made Cincinnati settle for a 25-yard Josh Brown field goal to go up 10-3 with 1:43 left in the first quarter.
After another sputtering Cowboys drive, the Bengals appeared to be on the prowl as they reached midfield in three plays. Fortunately for Dallas, the second-year signal caller out of TCU was picked off by cornerback Brandon Carr who returned the takeaway 37 yards to the Bengals 27-yard line. Dallas scored on a 1-yard DeMarco Murray rush up the middle to tie the game at 10-10 with 10:39 in the second quarter.
The Bengals scored on 3/4 of their first half drives, and their latest 66-yard drive ended with another field goal as Brown's 33-yard attempt gave Cincinnati a 13-10 lead before the halftime break, where they would come out of the tunnel with possession to start the second half. Just like the previous drives, Brown was kicking a field goal, this time of 25 yards to give the Bengals a 16-10 lead with 9:26 in the third quarter.
The Dallas offense was stalled and could not get any momentum, punting the ball away after a three-and-out to start the third quarter. Cincinnati capitalized with another Brown field goal, a 52-yarder to give the Bengals a 19-10 lead with 6:50 to play in the third quarter.
Needing just a touchdown and a field goal to take the lead, the Cowboys could get neither as the Bengals pass rush was affecting quarterback Tony Romo. Drives were stalling either due to his being sacked or the offensive line holding defenders to keep him from being sacked.
Dallas didn't have an effective drive until 9:47 left in the game when they drove 78 yards for a Dez Bryant touchdown. Romo hit the third-year receiver in stride, who slipped by three Bengals defenders for a 27-yard touchdown to narrow the margin 19-17 with 6:44 to play.
The defense, who was playing with very heavy emotions that affected their focus in pregame, came up strong. On third-and-4 from the Cincinnati 36-yard line, outside linebacker Anthony Spencer dropped Dalton for a 10-yard loss to give the Cowboys offense the ball back. Kevin Huber's punt traveled 50 yards and receiver Dwayne Harris' 4-yard return gave Dallas a chance to win the game starting at their own 28-yard line down two with 3:44 to play and two timeouts.
Murray was the workhorse of the drive. He carried the ball six times for 20 yards and caught two passes for 12 yards. His best run was on third-and-5 from the Bengals' 30. Standing to Romo's left in shotgun formation, Murray took the inside hand-off and bounced it around the right side and slipped through defensive end Carlos Dunlap and safety Reggie Nelson for a 6-yard gain.
Dallas and Cincinnati both elected to let the clock run down and let Bailey's foot decide the game. After a 2-yard run by Murray, Dallas called a timeout with four seconds remaining. Kicking towards the south end zone, the same end zone where Bailey's three points started off the scoring, the third-year undrafted kicker out of Oklahoma State nailed a 40-yard attempt to give Dallas a 20-19 lead as time expired.
Rather than drown in the tears of sorrow and Ohio River Valley rain, the Cowboys found a way to go to 7-6 and stay in stride with Washington for the NFC East crown.
"Jason Garrett pulled it together for everyone that week in Cincinnati," Fisher said. "And I thought that was a unique showing of leadership from Redball."
"All we asked our team last night was to understand, somehow, some way try to channel all the emotions they have into honoring Jerry today in their performance," Garrett said in his postgame presser. "And I think that's a hard thing to do. Everyone in our organization who knew him or has known him is completely numb for the last couple of days. And football is a game of emotions. And a lot of emotions were circulating, and somehow, some way we had to kind of process it all and understand that life is different from football and we had a job to do today."
The visitors locker room at Paul Brown Stadium was somber. The players still didn't know all the details of the accident. And now that business was over, they could release their emotions. Fisher believes many of the players were thankful it wasn't them who was involved.
Said Fisher on what mind be going through the players' minds: "'I thank my God that that wasn't me. Because I was friends with Josh Brent. I was friends with Jerry Brown.' Or, 'I was at the same club that night.' Or, 'I was at the same club the night before. It isn't me and I'm fortunate.' And I think that was going through a lot of players' minds as well."
The flight home was equally somber. Players weren't in the back of the plane for a silver and blue dance party. There were no dominoes or boomboxes. It was "businesslike at best," according to Fisher.
"And maybe that's the compliment that you can give that group that year," said Fisher. "That was a very professional football team in all the right ways, including its leadership on down, including not getting too ridiculously high in the high moments, and then in trying to manage your emotions in the tragic Josh Brent situation, which obviously is the lowest of the low."
Thankfully, such tragedy won't surround the latest encounter in the Cowboys-Bengals series at AT&T Stadium, but like last time, the two teams are trying to keep pace with their division leaders. At 3-1, Dallas looks to catch Philadelphia as Cincinnati at 2-2 wants to stay in the company of Baltimore and Pittsburgh at 3-1 rather than the bottom of the division with Cleveland at 0-4.
Check out Mark on Twitter @therealmarklane for more of his thoughts on the Cowboys this season.
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