The clock was ticking steadily toward zeroes. The Cowboys were on the move, trailing by three points under the command of a backup quarterback making his very first NFL start. A field goal might only prolong play into overtime, extending a road game in which Dallas hadn’t led for a second to that point; a touchdown might let Dallas sneak out of Minneapolis with an improbable win no one expected under the circumstances.
And the team’s leading wide receiver was down on the sideline turf, wriggling around on a softball.
“I tweaked my hamstring, and that was so frustrating, as you can imagine on a drive like that,” Amari Cooper told reporters after the Week 8 game had gone final. “I can’t say I knew I was going back in because I was trying to do everything possible to alleviate it a little bit.”
And while there was another Cowboys receiver waiting in the wings- and even lobbying to play the hero- Cooper desperately wanted to come up big in crunch time.
The offense’s final drive had indeed already seen its share of drama. On a 2nd-and-10 from their own 25, Cooper made a crazy juggling reception for a 33-yard pickup down the side stripe.
Cooper Rush’s throw first made contact with Vikings defender Bashaud Breeland, slicing through Cooper’s open arms and hitting the cornerback square in the chest. Breeland’s hands went up instinctually. His right hand knocked the ball upward, then the left tipped it out into midair. That’s where Cooper got in on the act, tapping the ball once himself- and even having it hit his facemask- before hauling it in for the circus grab.
Sure, Amari Cooper????????? pic.twitter.com/ZN2cK7dI0z
— Rob Lopez (@r0bato) November 1, 2021
“The bobbled catch just wasn’t really a great route by me, but I wanted- I needed– to catch the ball,” Cooper recalled later. “So I fought, scratched, clawed, concentrated, and I was able to come up with the catch.”
The play took the Cowboys offense across midfield. An 18-yard catch by Cooper on the next snap advanced the ball to the Minnesota 24. An incomplete pass to tight end Dalton Schultz followed, and the next time TV cameras showed Cooper, he was using a massage gun on his right hamstring. Rolling over the back of his leg for a few minutes with a softball came next as he tried to loosen the muscle flare-up.
He first tweaked the hamstring in Week 4 against Carolina but played through it as he has several other injuries already this season, including a cracked rib in Week 1 versus Tampa Bay. But now hampered once again with the Week 8 game on the line, Cooper was determined to make it back onto the field.
“Once I got up, the clock was moving fast,” Cooper explained. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’ve got to go back in. They need me.’ Once I got up and started running a little bit, I was like, ‘This is all I need to do, be able to run a little bit. I’ll take care of the rest.’”
When he re-entered the game, though, his hamstring was enough of a hindrance that the four-time Pro Bowler had to dig into his bag of tricks just to run an effective route on the short fade rout that ultimately sealed the 20-16 win.
“As far as the fade,” Cooper recalled, “that was after I kind of had my hamstring. Couldn’t really give him the release I really wanted to; I think I could have killed him on the release and made the catch a bit easier. But didn’t really want to risk hurting it even more, so I just said to myself that if he throws it to me, I’m just going to have to go up and get it. And that’s what I did.”
COOPER TO COOPER.
Cowboys take the lead! #DallasCowboys
— NFL (@NFL) November 1, 2021
But the game-winning catch might have gone to CeeDee Lamb if the second-year phenom had gotten his way on the 1st-and-5 play call.
In the huddle, Rush gave the offensive alignment as “double-left,” which puts Cooper on the left, in better one-on-one coverage.
But Lamb, according to Cooper,”wanted the ball really bad.”
So the younger receiver angled with his quarterback to make himself the better option once the play unfolded. He confirmed “double-right,” as if that had been the proper call all along.
“And Coop was like, ‘Nah, it’s double-left, bro,’” Cooper revealed with a grin to media members.
But Lamb wasn’t done lobbying, playing on Cooper’s aggravated hamstring with the man himself.
“And then he was like, ‘Coop, you want to let me get it?’ I said, ‘Hell no!’” Cooper laughed. “That’s how much pride I take in wanting the ball in those pivotal moments, because I know I can go up and make the play.”
As it turned out, both receivers ended the night with very similar stat lines. Cooper had eight receptions for 122 yards and that game-winning score; Lamb recorded six catches for 112 yards. Both rank within the league’s top 25 in terms of receiving yardage after eight weeks of play. The two top pass-catching threats on the Dallas roster, Cooper and Lamb have a combined nine receiving touchdowns, the same number as the rest of the team has collectively.
“He tried to steal my touchdown,” Cooper joked of his teammate before continuing, admitting that it’s a good problem for the Cowboys to have.
“That says a lot about us, the confidence that we have, that we want the ball in those important situations because we know we can win the game for the team.”