How walk-through at Cowboys’ hotel produced the play that ‘changed the game’

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The Dallas Cowboys’ first touchdown of the game against the New York Giants on Sunday night was actually scored hours before the game, about seven miles east of MetLife Stadium. During the team’s game day walk-through at EnVue Hotel, Cowboys special teams ace C.J. Goodwin spoke his wisdom to Juanyeh Thomas.

Thomas, the second-year safety who made his NFL debut against the Giants, lines up just inside of Goodwin on the field goal block unit. Goodwin is the end line player on the left side and Thomas starts out next to him. Goodwin, who has played nearly 100 games in the NFL, including 69 over the last five seasons in Dallas, noticed a tendency from the Giants’ field goal unit that was waiting to be exploited. But based on how the Cowboys line up, Goodwin couldn’t be the one to make the play; he could only facilitate.

“We play these guys every year, twice a year,” Goodwin said. “It’s hard to get it from the outside. Your timing has to be right and their timing has to be slow. But the inside guy, as long as I do my job outside, the inside guy, especially with (special teams coordinator John Fassel) teaching what to do, I knew that second step, jump, fourth step, jump, (Thomas) has an opportunity — better opportunity than I do to block it. He did exactly what we told him to do, man.

“I’m trying to draw the wing off to me. The inside guy (for the Giants) that’s supposed to be blocking him, if he doesn’t do a good job putting an arm out or Juanyeh can put his arm down, then that frees him up. Two steps, jump and then two steps, jump. It worked out perfectly.”

Meanwhile, cornerback Noah Igbinoghene’s job was clear: If Thomas gets the block, anticipate where the ball will go and be in position to scoop it up and score. At the outset, Igbinoghene is lined up at the end of the line on the far right side, opposite Goodwin and Thomas. Igbinoghene isn’t trying to speed rush off the edge and block the kick; instead, he slowly gets off the line of scrimmage and begins to set up shop in the backfield on his side of the field.

“I saw the ball, I picked it up and started running,” Igbinoghene said. “While I was running, I actually couldn’t believe it was happening in that time. God is good. When you put yourself in the right situation and do what your coaches tell you to do, stuff like that happens.”

In a game that overflowed with standout plays from the Cowboys, it was Thomas’ block and Igbinoghene’s return that — considering the moment and result — was arguably the play of the game.

After the Giants got the ball to begin the game, they ran the ball right through the Cowboys’ defense and marched inside the Dallas 10-yard line. In fact, the first New York rush attempt that was finally stymied came on the Dallas 16 on the eighth play of the drive, when Thomas stuffed Saquon Barkley for no gain.

“He’s a great player,” Goodwin said of Thomas, who had a key pass breakup on the ensuing drive following the blocked kick. “You’re starting to see flashes now but when he’s going to put it together, he’s going to be a really, really big player in this league. He did it and it worked. It changed the game, really.”

As much as Goodwin tried to direct credit toward Thomas, the young safety wouldn’t have it.

“First of all, before I even talk, I want to give a shoutout,” Thomas said. “C.J. Goodwin, is the reason I got it. We were going through that in walk-through a couple of hours before the game and he told me, ‘It’s going to be open!’ He was just, teaching me, ‘once you jump, get over, blah blah blah.’ I listened to my vets and that’s how it happened. So, thank you to him for telling me that stuff.”

That play embodied several messages head coach Mike McCarthy and his staff preach to the players on a routine basis. On a micro level, it was an example of unselfish play and each player doing their job. Any player would love to be the hero and block the kick or score the touchdown — Goodwin joked how Igbinoghene scored on his first snap in Dallas while Goodwin has been waiting five years and counting — but that’s not the formula for consistent success.

On this play, Goodwin’s job was to speed rush wide off the left edge to bring the blocker out to him and create the best lane possible for Thomas. Goodwin did exactly that. Thomas’ job was pounce on that lane and be technically sound and efficient, which was also something Goodwin taught him precisely at the walk-through.

“Outside foot up, just because he’s right-handed,” Goodwin said. “Left foot is your power foot. Jump up, then right foot, left foot because you land on your right foot and jump again with your left. That’s really the only way to get through.”

After Thomas executed that to perfection, he turned to his athleticism and attacked the ball to block the kick. Once he did that part of his job, Thomas wasn’t compelled to chase the ball and try to recover it. That wasn’t part of his job.

“I saw Noah so I was just trying to block the next man,” Thomas said. “I’m proud of Noah, too. Noah has been through a lot. To come in and score his first touchdown, it’s huge.”

That next block was on Giants kicker Graham Gano, who was the final threat to Igbinoghene. Once Thomas took out Gano, it was a clear path to the end zone for Igbinoghene and a 6-0 Cowboys lead that turned into a 40-0 dismantling of the Giants.


Cowboys play like a championship defense with dominating 40-0 win over Giants

The two players were the story of roster cutdown day two weeks ago were the stars of the show: Thomas (undrafted) for making the 53-man for the first time despite lack of draft pedigree and Igbinoghene (30th overall in 2020) for being involved in a one-for-one trade just minutes before the deadline after being deemed a disappointment for his draft pedigree. Goodwin, whose sole purpose for being on the roster is his special teams prowess, served as the orchestrator.

At a macro level, the play delivered was the manifestation of one of the oldest cliches in the book. All three phases. Complementary football. Every coach says it but Sunday night was the proof of its value.

“I feel like it’s very important,” Igbinoghene said. “It doesn’t get talked about like offense and defense but that’s a part of the team. Like we made plays today, it can shift the entire game. You never really know what happens. It’s really the small things that really matter. Special teams plays an important role on the overall score of the game. As many people would like to say, it’s not just offense and defense, today happened. Special teams can make plays any single day. It happened today.”

The Cowboys have one of the most respected special teams coaches in the NFL in Fassel and a true leader for that phase of the way in Goodwin, who was the special teams captain Sunday after being elevated to the active roster. But just as importantly, the Cowboys have players like Thomas and Igbinoghene, whose primary positions come elsewhere but still take pride in their roles on the “other” phase.

“Special teams changed the game today, honestly,” Goodwin said. “The momentum changed.”

(Photo: Vincent Carchietta / USA Today)

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