EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The last player out of the shower in the visitors’ locker room was Greg Hardy, red-eyed and indignant a good 45 minutes after the Cowboys’ 27-20 loss to the Giants.
Still dripping wet in front of his locker, the combustible defensive end turned to face a group of reporters and proceeded to cut off every question with the same sharp, dismissive response: “No comment. Next question.” There was a brief pause after six such exchanges, and that was his cue to end the interview with the most insincere of salutations.
“Thank you guys for coming,” Hardy said. “I appreciate you all very much.”
This is the player who moments earlier had been described by owner Jerry Jones as “one of the real leaders on the team,” which hardly makes any sense. Is a real leader someone who misses the first four games, having been suspended by the NFL for a domestic violence incident in which he assaulted his ex-girlfriend and threw her on a futon covered with semi-automatic rifles? Is a real leader someone who inserts himself into the special-teams huddle on the field, yelling and pushing around coaches and teammates after the Giants score a 100-yard touchdown on a kickoff?
“That’s the kind of thing that inspires a football team,” Jones said of Hardy’s outburst, though it never had that effect. Hardy’s antics continued on the sideline, where he got into a heated exchange with injured receiver Dez Bryant. A few minutes later, the special-teams unit committed another miscue, muffing a punt that sealed the win for the Giants. Jones later admitted that he hadn’t actually seen Hardy’s fit.
This sequence of events pretty much sums up where the 2015 Cowboys are at after seven weeks: They’ve lost control of their season, and with two of their biggest leaders sidelined by injuries, no one seems to have any answers.
Consider how quickly things turned for the Cowboys:
• Jan. 11: The Cowboys, 12-4 in the regular season, are one Dez Bryant no-catch away from playing in the NFC Championship Game.
• Sept. 13: A thrilling win against the Giants to open the season is dampened by Bryant’s breaking his foot. He needs surgery; the team says he’ll be out four to six weeks, which seems optimistic.
• Sept. 20: The Cowboys are 2-0 after winning at Philadelphia, but quarterback Tony Romo fractures his clavicle midway through the game. Afterward, Jones declares himself to be “as low as a crippled cricket’s ass.”
• Oct. 25: Starting their third different quarterback this season, the Cowboys drop their fourth straight game. At 2-4, they’re in last place in the NFC East. “The challenge is daunting,” Jones concedes after the Giants game.
Romo, placed on the injured reserve/designated to return list, isn’t eligible to play until Week 11 against Miami. Bryant, who has been out six weeks, had no setbacks during a workout before Sunday’s game and could return as soon as this week. But his presence won’t change the fact that the Cowboys don’t have a viable stopgap at quarterback.
Dallas lost three games with Brandon Weeden before trying Matt Cassel, who was acquired in a trade with Buffalo after Romo’s injury. Jones said they’ll stick with Cassel moving forward, but in the next breath he blamed the veteran’s three second-half interceptions in a span of five pass attempts as the reason for Sunday’s loss.
“If you’re asking me if I’m confident that Cassel can help us win several of the next ballgames,” Jones said. “I don’t know that.”
Cassel’s first interception, a pick-six by Giants cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, was more on receiver Terrance Williams, who didn’t break hard enough to the sideline on the out-route. But the next two picks were ill-advised decisions by Cassel—one the dreaded hanging lob deep into coverage, and the other a forced throw to a covered receiver.
To his credit, Cassel rallied the Cowboys, leading a fourth-quarter touchdown drive to tie the score at 20. He had two consecutive impeccably placed throws to receivers toe-tapping on the sideline, one to Terrance Williams on a third-and-9 and the other to Devin Street in the end zone for a catch that was nearly identical to Santonio Holmes’ game-winner in Super Bowl XLIII. But then Dwayne Harris, the ex-Cowboy, returned the ensuing kickoff 100 yards for the game-winning score without ever being touched.
Make no mistake, there were flashes on Sunday of the elements that could put the Cowboys back in the NFC East race: A run game that averaged 5.7 yards per carry, led by a bulldozing offensive line and Darren McFadden (152 yards on 29 carries). And their defense allowed the Giants to score only one offensive touchdown. The defense did everything it could to mitigate the damage from Cassel’s interceptions, holding the Giants to a field goal after one and forcing a punt after another.
“It’s not good enough,” linebacker Sean Lee countered. “We need to cause turnovers. Until we get those turnovers…”
He trailed off, but his point was clear: They won’t be able to win, at least not with a formula that doesn’t include Tony Romo, the team’s true leader.
The players are feeling the pressure at this juncture, which is perhaps why the entire locker room was trying to convince outsiders that Hardy’s outburst wasn’t a distraction or emblematic of a larger problem. Head coach Jason Garrett called it “enthusiasm for the game—period.” (On Monday Garrett said Hardy wouldn’t face any discipline.) Wideout Devin Street, one of the players Hardy pushed on his way out of the special-teams huddle, called it “fire and emotion.” Then there was Jerry Jones, who might feel lower than a crippled cricket but was still chirping away in support of his excellent, if troubled, pass rusher.
Given his history of violence, and his arrogance for appearing in a recent rap video with strippers and talking about having “guns blazing” in his return to the football field, Hardy has no reservoir of goodwill. One video of Sunday’s on-field scuffle appears to show Hardy aggressively slapping at the clipboard in special-teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia’s hand, prompting the coach to push back and a scuffle to ensue.
Hardy got in the coach’s face, and then had to be steered to the sideline by teammates. Acceptable behavior? The makeup of a leader?
Safety Danny McCray, who was in the special-teams huddle, hesitated before answering.
“Uh, I guess we’ll have to figure that out on Wednesday,” he said. “See what Coach Rich says about it.”
Trying to hold their season together, the Cowboys can’t bear any more questions.