EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The play of Tony Romo and the out-of-nowhere effort of wide receiver Kevin Ogletree defined the Dallas Cowboys' season-opening victory Wednesday against the New York Giants.
This game was about mental toughness, a quality the Cowboys have been short on in recent years. That toughness is the reason the New York Giants have two titles in the past five years and Dallas has been just talking about rings. That toughness allowed the Cowboys to overcome numerous challenges in a 24-17 victory against the defending Super Bowl champs.
It allowed Dallas to overcome a first-and-30 situation created by the relentless string of flags the Cowboys drew (13 for 86 yards, including seven before the ball was even snapped). It allowed tight end Jason Witten to play with a lacerated spleen (his presence helped open things up for Ogletree). It allowed them to overcome a potential game-changing interception in the first half and yet another injury along the offensive line, this one to starting center Phil Costa (back).
This was the kind of toughness that can propel a team to greatness and it started with Ogletree, who has spent three years struggling to get playing time. During the day leading up to the game, the soft-spoken and serious Ogletree spent time with one of the toughest people you can imagine, his older brother Calvin. In January, just after Dallas' season ended in disappointment, Calvin Ogletree, 26, was shot in the head outside the rental car business he owns in Queens, N.Y., where the brothers were born and raised.
"He's still doing rehab and therapy," Ogletree said.
When you consider that type of suffering, Ogletree's wait to make any meaningful contribution doesn't compare. On Wednesday, that wait came to an end when he caught eight passes for 114 yards and two touchdowns. Aside from the two scores, Ogletree's next biggest catch was a critical first-down reception that cemented the game with about two minutes to go.
"That's what you keep working for," said Ogletree, a former undrafted free agent from Virginia who had 25 catches for 294 yards and zero scores in three seasons. To put it another way, Ogletree came into this game averaging 8.3 catches and 98 yards per season.
"Even when there's not anything going well, you have to keep working and working on your game, working on the things you don't do well so you can get a chance," Ogletree said.
He got that chance in training camp when injuries sidelined Miles Austin and Dez Bryant for extended periods. Ogletree took rep after rep in practice. While some people thought he was still struggling to produce in exhibition games, Romo saw promise. "I know sometimes journalists and writers can go off the games and see the stuff that's happening, but for me I'm going off the guy in practice every day," said Romo, who completed 22-of-29 for 307 yards, three TD passes and the one pick. "You see the guy getting away from press coverage every day, working hard to get open. The reason Kevin got that job was he was doing [his job] day in and day out and it showed tonight the commitment it took."
Romo knows that commitment so well from his own experience as an undrafted free agent who worked his way into a starting role. Day after day, Romo said he talked to Ogletree, reminding the young receiver who was pushed down the depth chart after Dallas drafted Bryant in 2010.
"You have to keep grinding and grinding, especially if you want to be a player on this team," Romo said.
Those are sage words from a guy who has kept grinding away despite year after year of disappointment. Romo is entering his seventh season as the starter and has only one victory in the playoffs. He's still a long way from breaking that curse, but he showed the poise and patience Wednesday that has teased Cowboys fans for nearly a decade.
There was a first-quarter sack that could have shaken Romo's confidence in his banged up offensive line and an interception that was nearly returned for a touchdown (left tackle Tyron Smith showed great hustle to chase down Michael Boley at the Dallas 2-yard line and the Cowboys held the Giants to a field goal).
Romo settled down after that miscue. With just over a minute left in the first half, he scrambled from pressure and found Ogletree for a 10-yard score. Ogletree made a nice adjustment on the run, finding open space behind the defense after the play broke down.
In the second half, Romo came right back to Ogtetree for a pretty 40-yard score as Ogletree got behind cornerback Corey Webster on a go route.
The game stayed tight until Romo pulled the next big play out of his brilliant night. Midway through the fourth quarter, Dallas drove to the New York 14, a polished, efficient drive. That was until back-to-back holding penalties pushed the Cowboys back to the 34, setting up a first-and-30.
In most situations like this, the goal is to get some of the yardage back and just get a field goal. As Romo came to the line, he saw the chance for a kill shot. Cornerback Justin Tryon was facing wide receiver Miles Austin, Tryon's back to Romo.
"When the cornerback is like that, he can't react to the ball," Romo said.
He signaled to Austin to run a different route and go deep. Romo then rolled to the right, avoided a sack and lofted the ball downfield for Austin, who grabbed it between two defenders before running the final 10 yards for the score.
The Giants responded with a score with 2:36 remaining, making this game seem eerily familiar to the comeback effort by New York last season in Dallas. The Giants rallied from 12 points down for a win that sent the Cowboys reeling.
But that's when Romo and Ogletree struck one last time.
After yet another holding penalty, the Cowboys faced third-and-12 from their own 26 with 2:11 left. If they didn't convert, the Giants would get the ball back with just under two minutes left. Convert and the game would be over.
Romo stepped back and found Ogletree on a slant pass for 13 years and a first down.
"That was probably my biggest play of the game," Ogletree said. Romo agreed.
Give them credit for understanding the big moments aren't always about scoring. They're sometimes about toughing it out.
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