The ball. The ball. The ball.
It’s a message the Dallas Cowboys preach ad nauseam.
And it’s one that took a while to sink in for rookie receiver Lucky Whitehead, who was given a $10,000 bonus to sign as an undrafted free agent and replace the departed Dwayne Harris as the team’s primary kick returner.
Speedy and dynamic in college at Florida Atlantic, Whitehead showed potential when he got to the Cowboys as well as a presence that the game wasn’t too big for him.
There was just one problem that he couldn’t shake early in training camp — taking care of the ball, the ball, the ball — resulting in daily, profanity-laced tongue lashings from special teams coach Rich Bisaccia.
So while Whitehead made the team, he was a bit player at the outset because he couldn’t be trusted with the ball.
Fast forward to Monday night’s 19-16 win against the Washington Redskins when Whitehead ripped off a 46-yard kickoff return in the final minute of the game. There was nothing but green grass and wide-open spaces in front of him and a host of family and friends from his hometown of nearby Manassas, Va., in the stands at FedEx Field cheering him on.
Whitehead describes himself as flashy and different. He has been longing for an opportunity to score to show off his end-zone celebration if not just take off his helmet on the sideline to display his red-tipped dreadlocks.
But he could only think of one thing.
The ball. The ball. The ball.
So he throttled his engine down and covered up to make sure he didn’t fumble away the Cowboys’ chance of winning the game.
“It was 44 seconds left,” Whithead said. “We can’t do nothing without it. The big play was made, now take care of it. I know the big emphasis for us is the ball. I try to protect it as much as possible now. They talk about the ball all the time, practice, meetings.
“All you hear about is the ball. I just know now when to get down and play a little smarter.”
Coach Jason Garrett said the situation was a perfect example of why they liked Whitehead from the outset.
No one is denying he had trouble taking care of the ball in training camp. Receiver Cole Beasely handled punts from the outset. Lance Dunbar, before he was injured, returned kickoffs. They could be trusted with the ball.
Whitehead had to earn his way back in the good graces of the coaches with his work in practice and small doses as a receiver on offense, primarily on short passes, jet sweeps or reverses.
He helped spark the offense with two runs for 35 yards against the Redskins before setting up the game-winning field goal with the big kickoff return.
“Some of those runs he had on offense were big plays for us,” Garrett said. “The return, obviously, was huge and the awareness he had in that situation was important.
“Sometimes, you can forget what’s most important. The ball is what’s most important. He did a good job securing the ball so we could maximize the opportunity.”
At Florida Atlantic, Whitehead led Conference USA with 76 catches for 706 yards and six touchdowns as a senior. He had 21 rushes for 210 yards and a score as well as a 73-yard punt return for a touchdown.
He impressed the Cowboys with his awareness and the ability to catch on to the pro game in minicamp despite the huge jump in competition.
“I just think players grow, young players in particular,” Garrett said. “Pro football is very different from college football. The guys that you’re most impressed by are the ones that come in and they’re not ready for it for a lot of different reasons. But they keep growing, they keep learning, they keep developing. And they don’t shy away from the opportunities.
“He’s one of those guys. And I think if you do that, and you have some ability, you’re going to improve. He’s certainly done that over the course of his time here.”
Whitehead said it was hard at first, not just learning the game but getting chewed out on a daily basis like never before. But he said he took Bisaccia’s tough coaching for what it was: coaching.
“I got a few butt-chewings before,” said Whitehead, who averages 35.7 yards on six kickoff returns and has 72 rushing yards on seven carries. “But nothing like when I got here.
“It was daily, especially in meetings in camp when I dropped a punt. He was hard, but he was just coaching.”
Safety Danny McCray, the team’s special teams enforcer, said being screamed at is typical for rookies.
“He is a rookie, you have to earn that trust anyway,” McCray said. “Then when you drop it, it’s already hard for a rookie and now you’re behind the eight ball. But he worked to get it back. He got the trust of Rich and the team and it’s paying off for us. He gives us some juice. Now he just has to take one to the house. He’s got the Lucky name. When he scores, he will be a household name.”
Whitehead is eager to get back in the open field.
“Once I get loose, it’s over,” he said with a smile. “Nobody is faster than me, and I’ve never been caught.”
And then the flashy, red-tipped end zone dance “is coming.”
When it happens, no one will be worrying about the ball.
Cowboys at Packers
3:25 p.m. Sunday, KDFW/4