FRISCO, Texas -- The past 18 days have been unlike any the Dallas Cowboys have experienced.
The path to Tuesday's game at the Baltimore Ravens (8:05 p.m. ET, Fox) took dramatic turns going back to Nov. 21. The team was euphoric after their most complete win of the season at the Minnesota Vikings on Nov. 22. The mood turned to devastation with the death of Cowboys strength and conditioning coordinator Markus Paul three days later.
The Cowboys always knew this part of their schedule would be the trickiest because they were supposed to play three games in 12 days.
Instead, it turned into the most difficult because of the loss of Paul. Then came the postponement of what was supposed to be their Thursday night game last week against the Ravens.
The Cowboys needed the break mentally and emotionally, perhaps more than physically, as coach Mike McCarthy noted: "The time off will definitely benefit our football team."
On Nov. 21, McCarthy was looking for a way to catch his team's attention during their Saturday night meeting. In a ballroom at the InterContinental at Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, the coach brought out a sledgehammer and watermelons to emphasize how he wanted his team to play. The next day, Dallas beat Minnesota 31-28.
With a 3-7 record and a favorable schedule, the Cowboys took a "why not us?" look at winning the NFC East with how poorly the New York Giants, Washington Football Team and Philadelphia Eagles had been playing.
A win on Thanksgiving against Washington would give the Cowboys the division lead, at least temporarily.
Two days later, none of the team's on-field concerns seemed to matter. Paul, 54, suffered what the team called a medical emergency at the facility. The team's medical staff tended to him, and emergency medical technicians arrived within minutes. He was rushed to a local hospital, and the Cowboys canceled practice.
McCarthy sent everybody home.
"If you're going to tell everybody that you put family first, and that is important to do in my belief, that was what we did," Cowboys defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said.
The next day, the Cowboys had a light practice. Five days after McCarthy had used props to deliver a message, the tone of the meeting on Nov. 25 was much different after the team announced Paul's death. Player after player spoke about Paul's influence. Tears flowed. As did some laughs.
The Cowboys had a collective feeling of winning for Paul, but a four-point deficit to Washington in the fourth quarter quickly ballooned into a 41-16 loss.
"We didn't accomplish the mission," Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith said, "so it's tough."
From dealing with tragedy to going to work
As the Cowboys grieved Paul's death, the NFL was dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak within the Ravens' program. Baltimore's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers was postponed three times before being moved to this past Thursday. The NFL then shifted the Ravens-Cowboys game, originally scheduled for last Thursday, to Tuesday, setting up a unique practice schedule for Dallas.
Instead of watching practice film to prepare for the Ravens, the Cowboys instead separated by position groups inside The Star and watched the Baltimore-Pittsburgh game live.
"It was kind of like watching a game with your boys," Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott said. "It's probably kind of like we were at the crib, watching the game."
The next day, the Paul family held a memorial service at the North Colony Church of Christ in The Colony, Texas. Paul's former Syracuse teammates, including ex-Cowboy Super Bowl champ Daryl Johnston, spoke. The current Cowboys watched virtually from inside the Ford Center.
"I don't want to make a private matter public, but I think for the most part, everyone said the same thing about Coach Markus, whether it be his college roommate, teammate, people he met in the church, his family, all the tributes his family and friends made for him, it all resonated with us because they knew the same Coach Markus," Cowboys cornerback Chidobe Awuzie said. "That's a man we're going to look up to and try to lead by the example that he set."
Not long after, the Cowboys were on the practice field for another light workout.
"Don't get me wrong, it's hard dealing with the tragedy and also having to put those blinders on and go to work," Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence said. "Once you do something repetitive over time, it gets locked into your psyche so you can do it without even thinking about it. That's how you're supposed to be able to play this game of football."
After Thursday's practice, Cowboys tight end Dalton Schultz was sitting at home when he wanted to watch football.
"I had to remind myself that it was Thursday, and then I remembered, 'Oh, it's Thursday. There's 'Thursday Night Football' on. Who plays tonight? Oh, we had a game on Thursday,'" Schultz said. "My days are all out of whack. I think the rest was much needed. It kind of gave us an extra little mini-bye week, and I think we're ready to go coming into this week."
Finally, it's game day
And on Friday came the first sighting of Dak Prescott at a Cowboys practice since the quarterback's injury. Out for the season after suffering a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle, Prescott has been at The Star for rehab and has attended some sessions inside Ford Center, but on this crisp day, he was sporting a crutch under his left arm.
"He's doing great, looks good, has a great attitude, as always," McCarthy said. "It was great for everyone to see him out there."
The tenor of the Cowboys' season changed when Prescott was hurt on Oct. 11 against the Giants. Dallas is the only team to start four different quarterbacks, and the Cowboys have gone through 14 different line combinations -- and they could see a 15th against the Ravens.
And yet they enter Tuesday's game with a chance to win the NFC East, even though they have done little to inspire confidence in that goal.
"Everything is still out in front of us. For us, we have to worry about what we can control, and it is these last five games," Cowboys quarterback Andy Dalton said. "If we handle our business, we will see how this whole thing shakes out. There is still a lot of football to be played."
And what stands out beyond the Cowboys' Week 13 game marking the first time the franchise has played on a Tuesday is that the past 18 days have been a blur.
"It will be great for us to get out there and play and compete," McCarthy said. "Anytime you go through personal tragedy like this, it's important to keep stepping forward as a team and as individuals. We're fortunate, especially during these trying times and on top of it a pandemic, that we get to go out and compete in a National Football League game."