The agonizing moments when Tony Romo was hit from behind by Cliff Avril, crumbled into the fetal position and clutched his lower back.
For a few days, it seemed as if only a shiver had been sent through America's Team, but on Saturday, it became clear the broken bone in Romo's back was a rupture to the Cowboys' season. There is no certainty of when Romo will return -- the hope is for around the start of the second half of the season, although coach Jason Garrett has refused to rule anything out -- and whether he will be able to make it the rest of the way. It's a terrible déjà vu experience for the Cowboys, as Romo's two collarbone breaks last season caused him to miss 12 games and sent the franchise's 2015 into a tailspin.
Now, the Cowboys, who learned all too well last year the risks of having incompetent backups and little to support them, cast their lot with rookie backup Dak Prescott. The fourth-round pick has played impressively in the preseason (39 for 50, 454 yards, five touchdowns, zero interceptions; seven rushes, 53 yards, two touchdowns), but he is now thrust into a job the Cowboys hoped he'd never have to assume this year. It is all a reminder of how fragile high hopes at this time of the year are -- in Dallas and everywhere else.
The Cowboys already have gotten a look at the worst a football season can offer. Here is some of the good and bad from the rest of the league as the preseason winds down and kickoff approaches.
REASON TO BELIEVE
» Zeke looks like a freak. It's not as bleak for the Cowboys as it was last year. They can at least have some hope that their entire offense will not collapse while Romo is out, after watching rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott roll up 48 yards on seven carries against Seattle's first-team defense. He showed speed to the outside, good vision and the fortitude to engage defenders like the hard-hitting Kam Chancellor. He now becomes Prescott's coziest security blanket. Prescott has a big arm, and his ability to go deep might keep defenses from crowding the box to stop Elliott, but a workload that was expected to be big with Romo now becomes season-making (or breaking) without him.
» Foster flashes for Miami. Adam Gase went into the Dolphins' third preseason game hoping only that there would be a seam for Arian Foster, who hadn't had much work until then to prove that he was fully back from an Achilles injury. It wasn't a big one, but against Atlanta, Foster had a 2-yard touchdown run on which he looked smooth and comfortable making cuts. He also had a drive-extending catch on fourth down.
» Franchise QBs doing franchise QB things.Tom Brady, coming off the bench in Week 3 for his first preseason action -- let that sink in for a second -- and dropping from the heavens a perfect fade to Chris Hogan at the pylon was a reminder not only of why questions about Jimmy Garoppolo's chances to unseat him are absurd, but that we probably don't need to worry about Brady being rusty after his suspension. Another sight to see: Jameis Winston, a little slimmer and scrambling with confidence, throwing on the move repeatedly, foreshadowing the aggressive offense Dirk Koetter wants from him. And lastly, Ben Roethlisberger connecting with Antonio Brown in midseason rhythm.
» Cruz's return = silver lining for the Giants' offense. In an otherwise somnolent preseason for the Giants' first-string offense (nearly four complete quarters with Eli Manning have netted 88 yards), the sliver of good news came when the G-Men took the field in Game 3 against the Jets and Victor Cruz was in the huddle. After missing most of the last two seasons with injuries -- he was last on the field Oct. 12, 2014 -- and then being slowed in camp by a groin ailment, Cruz's return marked perhaps the only positive takeaway from a sloppy offensive performance that ignited fresh concern about the Giants' offensive line. Cruz caught just one pass, on a 4-yard out. But when Cruz got a step on Jets corner Buster Skrine earlier in the game as they raced down the left sideline, it was the first sign that even if Cruz is never again the salsa-dancing phenom he was when he was first hurt, he might still be a nice complementary part in a passing game that now features Odell Beckham Jr. and rookie Sterling Shepard. It has been just one game for Cruz so far, but the 29 snaps he played -- almost all out of the slot -- is something to build on. "It's a big step, big step," coach Ben McAdoo said. "He looked comfortable and confident."
COVER YOUR EYES
» Quarterback "competitions" to forget. The quarterback battles in Denver and San Francisco were not for the squeamish -- not because of who prevailed (it will be Trevor Siemian and, presumably, Blaine Gabbert, respectively), but because nobody seems to have seized the job so much as waited it out while the other guy lost it. What does it say about Mark Sanchez and Gabbert that they could not put plenty of distance between themselves and their competition during the spring and summer, when they should have had a decided edge? In Sanchez's case, that was over Siemian, a seventh-round draft pick last year who has never thrown a regular-season pass. And in Gabbert's case, Colin Kaepernick, who had a dead arm at one point in preseason, has seen limited work while recovering from multiple surgeries and clearly has taken several steps backward from when he was a Super Bowl quarterback. Siemian seems to have prevailed not because he was significantly better than Sanchez, but because he is younger and, thus, has more potential upside. Gabbert hasn't excelled in the preseason, but he has been better than Kaepernick. It's hard to imagine that either of these derby winners will be long for the job. (In Denver, first-round pick Paxton Lynch is already being groomed for the starting gig.) This is all very good news for one team, though: The Carolina Panthers, who face the Broncos and 49ers to open the season.
» Rookie kicker in the crosshairs.Tampa Bay Buccaneers newbie Roberto Aguayo is under even more scrutiny than usual for a kicker. Aguayo did not miss a single extra point and converted 69 of his 78 field goal attempts at Florida State. Yet, in his first two preseason games, the second-round pick missed two field goals and an extra point. Then he missed three of six field-goal attempts in a joint practice against the Browns, eliciting boos from Bucs fans. Aguayo is already seeing a mental coach, and Adam Vinatieri -- who struggled early in his rookie season -- has offered to talk. There was a huge sigh of relief when Aguayo nailed a 48-yarder in the third preseason game, part of a night in which he made all six kicks he tried (three field goals and three extra points). Moving up in the second round to pick Aguayo was a decision that baffled many in the NFL, and the knots in stomachs at the Bucs offices will surely tighten again if this wasn't the end of Aguayo's struggles.
» Bosa v. Bolts ends ... but what's the fallout? Now that the San Diego Chargers have signed Joey Bosa, here come the questions about whether all the hard-lining and missed camp set the No. 3 overall pick so significantly back that his ability to contribute in Year 1 has been compromised. Bosa has a lot of cramming to do to get up to speed, physically and mentally, with the opener less than two weeks away. However Bosa fares, this standoff benefited nobody, least of all the Chargers, who are in a battle for the hearts and minds of local fans before they go to the polls to vote on a measure regarding funding for a new stadium.
» The curious case of Ladarius Green. The absence of the Steelers tight end is shrouded in some mystery, with Green officially on the physically unable to perform list with an ankle injury, while NFL Media's Aditi Kinkhabwala has reported he is suffering from headaches. Worse, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Green did not tell the Steelers of the headaches before he signed a four-year contract that included a $4.75 million signing bonus. Green is supposed to bring the pass-catching tight end dimension to the Steelers' already-explosive offense, something that'd be particularly important this season, with receiver Martavis Bryant suspended for the year. (UPDATE: The Steelers announced Tuesday that Green will be on the PUP list to start the season.)
» Take cover, Andrew Luck. To understand how big an issue the Indianapolis Colts' offensive line has been, you need only look at their draft: They used four of their eight picks on O-linemen. The extreme makeover was urgently needed after the beating Andrew Luck took last year when he was knocked out for nine games. Watching the first-team offense against the Philadelphia Eagles last Saturday, though, the offensive line doesn't look much better. Luck was under siege throughout the first half, getting hit or sacked on nine of 21 dropbacks. The running game struggled, too, and while left guard Jack Mewhortapparently avoided a season-ending knee injury, the offensive line still needs plenty of work -- otherwise, there will soon be reason to worry about Luck's health again.