So what happened?
That was the question from referee Walt Coleman to another official on an open mic following what appeared to be a game-turning interception off Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo early in the fourth quarter Sunday at AT&T Stadium.
The interception was overturned on replay because the ball hit the ground.
But the question would prove prescient following what was arguably the team’s worst loss in the last 20 years and potentially the most devastating since owner Jerry Jones bought the Cowboys in 1989.
Up 26-3 at halftime and seemingly dominating the game in every way possible, the Cowboys watched the Green Bay Packers rally for a 37-36 victory in what was undoubtedly the worst second half in team history.
The Cowboys blew a 24-point second-half lead to the Detroit Lions in 2011, but it doesn’t resonate like Sunday’s shocker before 91,054 because of how it happened, to whom it happened and what was on the line.
“This is one of the hardest losses that I’ve experienced. I don’t know,” Jones said outside the solemn postgame locker room. “To be playing as well as we were playing and then to turn around and lose the ballgame, I haven’t experienced that. That’s a shame that we lost that ballgame.”
So what happened?
Romo happened. The star-crossed quarterback with a reputation for playing his worst in the biggest moments tossed two interceptions in the final 2 minutes, 46 seconds of the game.
The first one came with the Cowboys still up 36-31 and trying to milk the clock. But instead of running out the clock, he checked out of a run call to a pass play and then reverted to his gunslinger mode with an ill-advised pass to receiver Miles Austin.
Cornerback Sam Shields picked it off, setting up the Packers’ go-ahead touchdown, a 1-yard run by Eddie Lacy with 1:31 left.
Romo’s second interception killed the Cowboys’ comeback hopes with 1:24 to play. A miscommunication between Romo and receiver Cole Beasley resulted in an interception by Tramon Williams that was legitimized by replay after initially being ruled incomplete on the field.
Romo, who completed 29 of 48 passes for 358 yards and two touchdowns, now has an 11-17 record in December since taking over as Cowboys quarterback in 2006.
“It was an important game to win,” Romo said. “We didn’t do the things we needed to well to win the game. No one cares how the game went. They just care did you win or lose. We lost. And I threw an interception at the end. That’s what it is. No one cares how it happened. That’s the ultimate thing that it comes down to. No one feels sorry for you. For us, we got to get back. We got to be better. I got to be better.”
While the Cowboys offense totaled 36 points and 466 yards, they ultimately didn’t do enough because they had to settle for five field goals and neglected the running game in the second half even with a big lead. DeMarco Murray rushed 18 times for 134 yards but he only received seven carries in the second half.
Romo said the Cowboys tried to say aggressive with the pass because of the team’s continued woes on defense.
So what happened?
An injured-riddled Cowboys defense happened. A unit that came into the game ranked last in the league and already on its way to record-setting futility allowed Packers backup quarterback Matt Flynn to pass for 299 yards and throw four second-half touchdown passes en route to matching the biggest comeback in franchise history.
The Cowboys played the second half with rookie DeVonte Holloman at middle linebacker after Justin Durant and Ernie Sims were both lost to injury. Starter Sean Lee was already out with a possible season-ending neck injury.
“I mean yeah, it was surprising,” defensive end DeMarcus Ware said. “We were up 23 points and within 30 minutes they were able to score and get ahead.”
Said cornerback Brandon Carr: “Any time you have a meltdown like that in the second half you are always asking what happened. It’s time to get this thing figured out.”
The Cowboys already have set team records for most yards allowed in a season and most passing yards allowed in a season.
So what happened?
The Cowboys happened.
Instead of taking advantage of a loss by the Philadelphia Eagles (8-6) and moving back into a tie atop the NFC East, the Cowboys (7-7) lost to remain one game back with two games to go.
The Cowboys still control their destiny for the playoffs and the division title with games at Washington on Sunday before a possible winner-take-all battle against the Eagles in the season finale Dec. 29 at AT&T Stadium.
The Cowboys, who have a 1-6 record this season against teams with winning records, have a chance to avoid missing the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. Right now, they are what they have been in the past 17 years of mediocrity: a .500 team coming off back to back 8-8 seasons with a 135-135 record since 1997.
Receiver Dez Bryant, who caught 11 passes for 153 yards and a touchdown, walked off the field and into the locker room by himself following Romo’s last interception.
Bryant tweeted after the game, "I walked back to the locker room because I was emotional ... it had nothing to do with my teammates. We had it ... We fought and didn't finish."
Bryant wasn’t alone with his anger and frustration.
“It was a disappointing loss,” coach Jason Garrett said. “We had a great opportunity to win this game. We didn’t get it done in the second half. That’s on everybody. None of us got the job done. We have to live with that reality. But we are in the exact same situation. We have to go win a ballgame this week and see what happens.”
Romo agreed, saying next week is all that matters though he couldn’t deny the hurt and devastation of what happened on Sunday.
“It always feels like the loss is always going to be the loss that hurts the most,” Romo said. “But we still have the opportunity ahead of us. Obviously if Philadelphia would have won today this one would have been even worse if that’s possible. But if we go out and win the next two games ultimately this game will be a little easier to swallow. Right now it’s not and it won't be for a while.”
Jones has already guaranteed Garrett’s return in 2014 no matter how the season ended despite his mediocre 28-26 record since taking over in 2010. Jones said his focus is on the next two games and not Garrett’s future.
“I feel good that we have a chance to beat the Redskins, and if we do that, we’ll get a chance to play Philadelphia with an opportunity to get in the playoffs,” Jones said. “Again, let me be real clear, my refusal to comment one way or the other is not in any way a change from anything that I’ve said earlier about Jason’s future as our coach. Let me be real clear, and that’s all I’m going to say about it.”