Cowboys receiver Jesse Holley was in tears the entire pregame at Candlestick Park on September 18, 2011 as Dallas prepared to face the San Francisco 49ers. Droplets of frustration and disappointment streamed from his eyes and caught the attention of backup quarterback Jon Kitna.
“What’s wrong?” The 16-year-veteran wondered.
“What do I have to do to show these coaches that I'm ready to play?” Holley exclaimed.
Dez Bryant being a scratch due a quadriceps strain was a given throughout the week. In practice, Holley got all the reps when Dallas would practice its 11-personnel, or three-wide formations. Now, hours before the game, he found out Dwayne Harris would be taking Holley’s spot in three-wide. And the worst part was Holley found out by overhearing receivers coach Jimmy Robison talking to fellow wideout Kevin Ogletree.
Maybe the coaches wanted to see what the sixth-round rookie out of East Carolina could offer instead of given another chance to a 27-year-old journeyman who bounced around practice squads in the NFL, CFL, and even out of football before winning Michael Irvin’s “Fourth and Long” reality show in the summer of 2009. Whatever the case, Holley, who had been a special teams leader since 2010, was unraveling in pregame for the first time in his life.
Kitna placed his hand on Holley’s shoulder. “Do you have a uniform on today?”
“Yeah,” Holley said.
“Then you have the ability to impact this football game,” said Kitna. “Man, stop crying, quit the crying, let's go and play some football. You got the potential to do some things. Recover a fumble. Block a punt. Do something. You can impact this football game.”
Holley, now an in-studio analyst for the Dallas Cowboys Radio Network, recalls how Kitna’s simple pep talk swept away the frustration and restored his confidence. “That was my mindset going into it: impact the football game really on the special teams end and not necessarily on the offensive end.”
Kitna himself would later impact the game. After halftime with Dallas down 14-7, Romo, who had been playing very pedestrian the entire first half for some inexplicable reason, didn’t return from the locker room. Unbeknownst to the players Romo had broken his ribs and was suffering with a punctured lung.
“You're really off and on the field,” Holley explained. “You're listening to coaching adjustments on the sidelines. You're into the game. You hear things about what happened. You hear something about he might have broke his ribs. I don't think any one of us as far as players knew exactly the extent of what happened to Romo until after the game.”
One of the most respected men in the locker room, Kitna gained the team’s confidence the previous season as he filled in for an injured Romo for 10 games compiling a 5-5 record. His first drive of the second half with Dallas down 14-7 and inside the San Francisco 30-yard line led to an interception. But an Alan Ball interception of Alex Smith gave the Cowboys the ball back at the 49ers 18-yard line. Four plays later, Kitna found Austin for a 5-yard touchdown, a toe-tap catch in the right back corner of the end zone.
Said Holley: “The thing with Jon Kitna was when you think about today's Cowboys, you say Tony Romo gets hurt, you know, oh my goodness where do we go?”
After the Dallas defense forced a three-and-out, the Cowboys had a chance to break the tie and get back the momentum from the 49ers. Kitna converted a third-and-10 with a 20-yard pass to tight end Jason Witten. However, on the next third down, San Francisco cornerback Tramaine Brock intercepted Kitna and setup his offense at the Dallas 29-yard line. All Smith needed was one play to find tight end Delanie Walker for a touchdown to give San Francisco a 21-14 lead.
During the last Cowboys drive, Romo got the clear from the medical staff to return to the game and began warming up on the sideline and barking out encouragement.
“We were playing well with Jon Kitna,” Holley said, “but to see your quarterback come back out of the locker room and come back out onto the field, that gave you that extra boost of confidence that we were still in that football game.”
Romo’s first drive was an unimpressive three-and-out that concluded with a fumble Romo quickly fell on. Yet the 49ers offense stalled at the 37-yard line and could only get three off a 55-yard David Akers field goal to establish a 24-14 lead with 11:12 to play.
The Cowboys confidence never wavered down 10 points on the road with 0-2 on the horizon.
“We knew that we had enough time, we knew that we had enough weapons,” said Holley. “Offensively we were playing well. And having Romo come back into the game was more -- it revived us and gave us more confidence.”
Romo engineered a nine-play, 80-yard drive going 5/7 and hitting Austin on a 25-yard touchdown. But it was during that drive that Austin began to decline physically.
Said Holley: “[Austin] caught a route, made a move, and he comes back to the huddle and I'm standing next to him and he's like, 'Jess, I'm done.' I'm like, 'What do you mean you're done?' He's like, 'My hamstring is shot, brah. I can't run. I'm done.' I'm like, 'We don't have Dez. We need you. You can't be done.' He's like, 'Man, I cannot run.”
The Cowboys coaching staff had seen enough of the rookie Harris, who had not been targeted the entire game, and gave Holley his shot. The former North Carolina Tar Heel noticed something peculiar about the way the 49ers secondary played him.
“We run a couple of plays and I noticed that the cornerback was playing me off,” Holley recalled. “Like, he's playing me off and outside. And I come back to the huddle and I'm like, 'Tony, they're not guarding me. They're not guarding me. We can make a play. I can make a play.'”
Romo made note of this on the Cowboys final drive of the fourth quarter with 4:03 to go down three points. Holley caught two straight passes off slants, one of 11 yards and the other eight, to move the Cowboys out to their own 45-yard line. The game was almost lost as Austin took and end-around to the left side on third-and-2 at the 49ers 28-yard line and fumbled the ball. Left tackle Doug Free scooped up the ball and gave Dallas a chance to send rookie kicker Dan Bailey out for a 48-yard field goal.
Bailey, who had missed a 21-yard attempt on the Cowboys’ first drive of the game, still had the team’s confidence. “We had watched Dan Bailey hit 60-yarders all training camp,” said Holley. “We had seen him hit them in practice. We had seen him hit them in OTA's. There was nothing but confidence in Dan Bailey.”
With four seconds remaining in regulation, the undrafted Oklahoma State kicker tied the game at 24-24.
San Francisco won the toss but could only muster one first down before punting the ball away. Prior to Andy Lee’s 58-yard punt, Holley sensed his time had arrived and remembered Kitna’s words in pregame.
“I can block this punt and recover it for a touchdown and win the game,” Holley said. “So, I was actually thinking maybe we could get a punt block or have that happen and we'll be able to recover it.”
It was a good punt by the 49ers that backed Dallas up to their own 22-yard line with 12:57 to go in overtime. The three-time Pro Bowl quarterback tried to give some advice to the reality show winner, but all Holley could say was he was ready.
Said Holley: “I don't know what he said because I kept over-talking him. So, whatever he said I paid no attention to. I kept telling him, 'Tony, I'm ready. Tony, I'm ready. I'm ready, Tone. I'm ready. Let's make a play. I'm ready.'”
According to Holley, Romo came to the huddle and said, “All right, let’s win this football game.” Head coach Jason Garrett called a safe play that gave Dallas for a first down throw to set up second-and-short; a real drive-starter. Holley, who heard the play being called in Romo’s headset in the quarterback’s helmet, claims that is not what Romo called in the huddle.
“He nixed off whatever Jason Garrett said in his headset,” Holley said. “Tony nixed that off. It was not an audible at the line of scrimmage. Tony changed the entire play. And I remember him calling the play that we ran. And in my mind I'm processing what he's saying to me. And I'm like, 'Holy crap. This is going to me!'”
The play Romo called was an all or nothing play with Holley as the only option. If nothing else was open, Romo would have dumped it off to running back Tashard Choice or threw it into the stands. Either Holley was going to get 15 yards in the middle of the field splitting the safeties if the 49ers were in Cover-2 or he was going to get one-on-one coverage on the outside with single-high safety, an option that is rarely ever open. However, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio called single-high safety with man coverage on Holley, who fake-blocked as Romo play-faked to Choice. 77 yards later, Holley caught the ball and was headed to the end zone to win the game.
“When I caught the ball, I didn't think he would chase me,” Holley recalled. “So I began to run like I'm going to go as fast as I can. And I realize about 40-something yards in, 'Man, I'm gassed.' And, so, I can hear Donte Whitner, I can hear him breathing and coming to try to catch me. So, I'm like, 'I'm going to give it everything I got.'”
Whitner caught Holley, whose hands immediately went into the air. As he was falling to the ground inside the 5-yard line, Holley extended with the ball to try to score a touchdown. Even though he didn’t cross the goal line, Holley arose from the Candlestick Park grass with arms rejoicing.
Holley jokes that he pulled up at the end so Bailey would have a chance to redeem himself.
“If it wasn't for me, we wouldn't know the greatness of Dan Bailey,” Holley smiled. “I had to let Dan Bailey redeem himself for missing that early chip shot of a field goal.”
All the media outlets pursued Holley after the game and wanted to know about the play. The only explanation Holley could provide was that Romo changed the play, something even the receiver couldn’t grasp and had to approach the quarterback about on the flight home.
Said Holley: “As I'm walking back to my seat, I pass Tony Romo's seat. So I kind of just stopped and I kind of bent down to him. And he's like, 'Great play.' And I go, 'Man, why did you change the play?' In Tony Romo fashion with that smile and that dimple, he looked at me and he said, 'You told me you were ready.'”
Overtime heroics on the road created Miles Austin and sent him to two Pro Bowls and earned him a six-year, $57 million deal. Not so for Holley, whom the coaches treated like a friend-zoned guyfriend to whom a girl would whine about her failed escapades. Laurent Robinson signed with the Cowboys the next day and would go on to have an 858-yard, 11-touchdown season that garnered him a five-year, $32.5 million deal with Jacksonville while Dallas wanted to keep him on a three-year, $16 million deal.
“Had that been me, I would have taken that deal,” Holley said. “I loved being in Dallas that much. I would have stayed for that deal.”
Instead, Dallas parted ways with Holley, a man Garrett said numerous times he would love to have 53 of on the Cowboys.
“It happens and God has a plan for all of us and that wasn't the plan that He had for me,” Holley said. “And I'm okay with that at this point in my life.”
At this point in the season, Dallas is down their star receiver again as they go to San Francisco. Who among them will step up and be the next Jesse Holley?
What do you remember about Jesse Holley's heroics in San Francisco back in 2011? Let Mark know on Twitter @therealmarklane.