ARLINGTON, Texas — Since the loss of a teammate two weekends ago, the Cowboys have looked like a different team. A better team.
Last week’s dramatic win over the Bengals was obviously fueled by emotion. The feelings were still raw, with Jerry Brown, Jr. having died less than 48 hours earlier.
That type of emotion is like high-octane fuel, it burns fast. What we saw from the Cowboys on Sunday against the Steelers was a team playing with focus, intensity and resolve.
How often have those three words been associated with the Cowboys this season?
The 27-24 overtime win was the kind of game the Cowboys probably would have lost before bonding over Brown’s death. It was the kind of game the Cowboys would pull close in at the end and find a way to lose.
For two weeks in a row now, the Cowboys have found a way to win.
“I really do think it brought us together,” defensive tackle Jason Hatcher said. “I think for once this year, and I’m not saying nothing bad, for once this year everybody got out on that field and didn’t play for themselves. You had to play for Jerry. And it helped us.”
The help has come at just the right time for the Cowboys, who are now tied for first in the NFC East. Having gone through real adversity, this has become more than a playoff push.
“When you’re playing for somebody else, there’s a difference. You forget about yourself, you become selfless. And you can do more,” Hatcher said. “Horrible situation, but great for us. God works in mysterious ways, that’s all I can say.”
The difference in the Cowboys was noticeable from the start Sunday. After a season of digging early deficits, especially at home, the Cowboys scored on their first drive of the game.
The next time they had the ball, they drove to the Steelers’ 7-yard line but DeMarco Murray committed a rare fumble.
But the next time they had the ball, a five-play drive produced another score and a 10-0 lead. It was just the Cowboys’ second double-digit lead at home all season.
It was also in the first half that television cameras picked out defensive lineman Josh Brent on the sideline in street clothes. Brent was at the wheel of the car that wrecked and killed Brown. He’s been charged with intoxication manslaughter.
Having Brent on the sideline may be a questionable move, but there’s no question the team is rallying around their teammate — the one that survived.
“[Jerry Brown’s] mother asked all of his teammates, she asked everybody, to have Josh’s back, to support him,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. “His teammates asked him to come and be down there with them.”
As they did in Cincinnati, the Cowboys played with Brown’s No. 53 jersey draped on their bench. They also had a 53 decal on their helmets.
As if the emotion and imagery of Brown’s death weren’t enough inspiration, the game-winning play was made by cornerback Brandon Carr.
Carr was a teammate of the Kansas City Chief’s Jovan Belcher before coming to the Cowboys this season. A week before Brown was killed, Belcher shot and killed his girlfriend and then killed himself.
Carr has been to more funerals in two weeks than any of us should attend in two years. Yet there he was making the key interception in overtime to set up the game-winning field goal.
“Jerry’s on our sideline each and every week now,” Carr said. “I talk to him on a regular basis before I go out on the field.”
At the same time we’re seeing a different Cowboys team on the field, the public has seen a different side of coach Jason Garrett these last two weeks. Garrett set aside the rote coachspeak after Brown’s death and spoke with emotion and heart in his addresses to the media.
If Garrett has had a similar transformation behind closed doors with the team, it’s easy to see why the Cowboys have started to play more inspired football.
“Guys are believing in what we have here,” Carr said. “We see that we can play together and play well through the adversity and tragedy that took place last week. We’re just trying to build momentum, keeping that in the back of our mind.”
The Cowboys are playing with more heart than ever this season, even if those hearts are heavy.