The Dallas Cowboys gambled on youth at safety when they released veteran Will Allen last month. They hoped that their rookie, J.J. Wilcox, was ready to be the Cowboys’ strong safety of right now rather than the future.
We should not pass judgment on either the Cowboys’ estimation of Wilcox’s ability or the validity of whether Wilcox is “the guy” on the strong side. But there’s no questioning he had the play of the game in the Cowboys’ 17-3 win over the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Cowboys were up 10-0 when quarterback Tony Romo threw his second interception of the game, an ill-advised toss over the middle that was intended for either Phillip Tanner or Cole Beasley, depending on how optimistic you are. Philadelphia's DeMeco Ryans picked off the pass and returned it to the Cowboys’ 30-yard line.
"J.J. always seems to make plays around the football," head coach Jason Garrett said.
The next play should have turned the game on its ear. Eagles quarterback Nick Foles dropped back and finally had the read he wanted. Eagles speedster DeSean Jackson was coming across the field on a deep slant. As the TV camera followed Foles’ pass toward the end zone, it was clear Jackson was finally wide open on a day in which the Cowboys’ secondary had him otherwise accounted for.
But it wasn’t to be. Wilcox came in from the other side of the field and, at the absolute late second, tipped the ball away from Jackson.
Think it wasn’t big? That touchdown would have made it a 10-7 game late in the third quarter. Instead, the Cowboys defense stalled the drive at their own 13, forcing the Eagles to take a field goal.
The Cowboys must have felt they dodged a bullet. On the next drive, Romo went the Cowboys the length of the field, threw a touchdown pass to rookie receiver Terrance Williams and gave the Cowboys a 17-3 lead.
Now the Eagles, who had a challenging day on offense for the first time all season, needed two touchdowns just to tie. That wasn’t happening on a day when the Cowboys became the first team to hold Eagles head coach Chip Kelly and his newfangled offense under 300 total yards.
So, yeah, it was a big play.
“J.J. has done a nice job for us, and he’s getting better,” head coach Jason Garrett said. “He plays with the right demeanor, and he always seems to make plays around the football. That was an important play in the game, no question.”
Wilcox nearly had an interception, but it was overturned by instant replay. Coverage wasn’t supposed to be Wilcox’s strength when the Cowboys made him their second third-round pick (after Terrance Williams, by the way).
Wilcox was known as a hard hitter, and that’s proven to be quite accurate. But he only played one season of college at safety, and he did so at Georgia Southern, which is an FCS powerhouse, but is still a division below the big boys in college football.
The perception was that Wilcox would need time to develop the coverage skills needed to play on the strong side. Allen had those coverage skills, and that was the main rationale in making Allen the opening-day starter.
But somewhere the worm turned. The Cowboys gave Wilcox a start against St. Louis in week three, and he didn’t give back the job. He had an interception in that game until a Jason Hatcher penalty reversed it. He’s had at least five tackles in each of his last three games.
Sunday’s tip represented his first career defended pass. It couldn’t have come at a better time.
You have to assume there will be hiccups along the way for Wilcox. But if the rookie develops at the rate of his fellow third-round pick, Williams, then he’ll not only validate the Cowboys’ decision to start him so soon, but he’ll also make the Cowboys’ secondary one of the most complete in the NFL.