Every Tuesday this season, SI senior writer Austin Murphy will choose a single significant play from the previous weekend, then take an in-depth look at that snap, talking to players and coaches about what it meant, and why it mattered.
"I knew that one was coming," replied Danny Trevathan, who then laughed with gusto over the phone, to a reporter's relief.
The Broncos second-year Will (weakside) linebacker was referring to a question about his first takeaway of the season -- the pick before the pick that drove a shiv deep into the heart of Texas. If it felt as if you'd heard Trevathan's name before his diving interception of Tony Romo snuffed the Cowboys' hopes in their 51-48 loss to Denver, it's probably because of his blooper against Baltimore in Week 1. That's right, Trevathan is the guy who picked off Joe Flacco in the first game of this NFL season, then lost track of where he was on the field during the return, casually dropping the ball around the two-yard-line before commencing a celebration that has him cringing still. Baltimore got the ball back on a touchback.
What seemed to bother some fans as much as that brain cramp was the way Trevathan reacted when defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio chewed him out. Frustrated and embarrassed, the 23-year-old yelled back at his DC. I thought I was in the end zone! While Trevathan readily admits fault ("I gotta learn to handle it a little bit better"), he hopes people might empathize with the reflexive desire "to try to defend yourself just a little bit. But I've got to learn to keep that inside, and just play ball."
He harnessed that embarrassment, made it work for him, made it fuel. He'd done the same thing during his junior year at Kentucky, when he led the SEC in tackles through nine games -- he had 111 -- but was left off the list of Butkus Award semifinalists. Two springs later, he was projected as a fourth-round talent in the draft but slipped to the sixth -- in part because of questions about (irony alert) his ability to drop into pass coverage. He was disappointed on both occasions, "but as I've told people close to me," he says, "I use all that stuff as motivation."
Trevathan did a better job accepting and digesting the constructive criticism from his coaches early in the fourth quarter against Dallas, after giving up a 26-yard pass up the seam to tight end Jason Witten. The Cowboys perennial Pro Bowler had split out wide to Trevathan's left. He allowed Witten an inside release -- a no-no -- then found himself a spectator as Romo hit No. 82 in stride for a sizeable chunk down to the Denver 10.
"Tony Romo is just striping the football," effused Phil Simms, calling the game for CBS, "one perfect on-target spiral after another."
Two plays later, Witten caught the touchdown that put Dallas on top, 41-38, a lead it promptly relinquished, then reclaimed when Romo hooked up with All-Cosmos wideout Dez Bryant on a 79-yard pass to set up the touchdown that gave the Cowboys a 48-41 lead.
This being the fourth-highest scoring game in NFL history, a contest featuring 1,039 total yards, two displeased, dyspeptic defensive coordinators and one Manning, Denver roared back, of course. It took Peyton nine snaps to lead his offense 73 yards for the game-tying score. In so doing he handed Romo a chance to cap his historic day -- he'd already thrown for a Cowboys' franchise-record 506 yards and five touchdowns -- with a game-winning drive.
We now know that possession ended badly for the 'Boys. Remember, also, that it began poorly for Romo, who was sacked on first down by Shaun Phillips (who finished with 2½ sacks and forced fumble), leading to a second-and-16 at Denver's 14.
In such an obvious passing down, Del Rio put six defensive backs on the field and just one linebacker. Normally, that would be Wesley Woodyard, but he was out with a neck injury. Into the breach stepped Trevathan, who was fortunate to be on the field, himself. During "blitz period" the previous Wednesday, he'd planted his right foot awkwardly while trying to make a move on Knowshon Moreno, and "heard something pop" in his knee. Trevathan collapsed, scared witless, and was carted off the field. But the MRI was negative, so he strapped it on for the Cowboys game.
Trevathan had recovered from that midweek scare, but was still feeling scalded by Witten's 26-yard gain earlier in the quarter. "It was a big play for them," he recalls, "and I just had a feeling Romo would come back to it."
On 2nd-and16, he did. As Trevathan edged outside, this time to cover Witten's understudy, the gifted rookie Gavin Escobar, the linebacker prepared to do a bit of playacting. "I knew I had to jam him, but I wanted to get Romo to look at him a little bit." Despite getting his backside burned for 26 yards on the second play of the fourth quarter, Trevathan was now baiting the Cowboys quarterback. I wanted [Escobar] to look a little open, but not too open."
Romo's working conditions weren't optimal. With the pocket collapsing to his left, he moved up -- and into more pressure, Derek Wolfe having slipped past center Travis Frederick with a nifty swim move. While it was considerate of left guard Ronald Leary to move right and wipe out Wolfe, he further crowded his quarterback, who most definitely did not "stripe" this throw.
From an ungainly, flatfooted stance, failing to see (or ignoring) a wide-open DeMarco Murray five yards in front of him, Romo threw in the direction of Escobar -- as Trevathan dearly hoped he would. His terrific, diving interception set up Matt Prater's game-winning, chip-shot field goal, and unleashed a torrent of knee-jerk criticism directed at Romo, much of it unwarranted. Yes, Romo's first interception of the game (and second of the season) was ill-timed. Yes, he should've checked down to Murray. But the guy had just played, as owner Jerry Jones correctly pointed out, the best game of his life, while his defensive teammates were giving up 51 points. Romo isn't the problem in Dallas.
And how about a little love for Trevathan, who made a sensational play? At the apex of his flight, his legs and torso were four or so feet off the ground.
"Like Superman," a reporter suggests.
"I like Superman," says Trevathan, "but Cam's got that locked down. You can call me, I don't know, how 'bout SuperGoon?"
He is at once proud, confident and self-deprecating; resigned to making mistakes and determined not to repeat them. As of Sunday afternoon, he is also redeemed.