GREEN BAY, Wis. – In a Dallas Cowboys locker room that was as much stunned as saddened, Dez Bryant refused to take off his uniform. He was working the rows of lockers, conversing with teammates, trying to explain and receive an explanation, just reliving what had gone down, an ambulatory stages-of-grief session in full swing.
"The tip of the ball wasn't moving," Bryant said to defensive end Jeremy Mincey.
"You don't have to say anything to me," Mincey said back.
With 4:42 left in Green Bay's 26-21 divisional-round victory, Bryant had leapt and snatched a fourth-and-2 Tony Romo pass over the head of the Packers' Sam Shields. He landed one foot, then a second, then took a step toward the goal line and dove, extending the ball toward the end zone. When the ball hit the ground at the 1-yard-line, it moved.
The play was called a reception on the field, one of the most dramatic, clutch, brilliant catches you'll ever see. Dallas began to set up for first-and-goal, just inches away from a touchdown.
Then Packers coach Mike McCarthy challenged the call, and soon enough it was waved off. Bryant hadn't controlled the ball throughout.
It was Packers ball. It was the Packers' game. It was the Packers who advanced and will play Seattle next Sunday (3:05 p.m. ET) for the NFC championship.
"I've never seen anything like it," Bryant lamented.
"I've never seen anything like it, either," Mincey said.
The NFL, backed by various rules experts, said it was the proper call.
"Bryant [was] going to the ground," NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino said. "By rule he must hold onto it throughout entire process of contacting the ground. He didn't, so it is incomplete."
This is to say it was the proper implementation of an absurd, if longstanding, rule. The "Calvin Johnson Rule" it's often called because it has repeatedly dinged the Detroit Lions receiver, most famously in 2010. "I remember that," Bryant said, recalling one incident with Johnson. "He was getting up."
And it was somehow incomplete.
This wasn't much better. Forget what the rule says, this was a catch. Once Bryant brought the ball in after planting two feet on the ground, he should have the right of full possession. When he put a third foot on the ground he was now running after a reception.
When he dove and reached for the end zone he was making a so-called "football move," unless somehow trying to score a playoff-winning touchdown in the final minutes at Lambeau Field could be construed as something other than a football move.
"I don't understand how it wasn't a football play?" Bryant said. "I guarantee if it happened in the middle of the field it would've been legal …
"Come on, man," he continued. "I'm just saying, I think it was a catch. They took it away. …All I know is I had possession and I had possession coming down. That's possession, right? That's possession.
"I tried to stretch. Come on, man. I wasn't off balance. I was trying to stretch for the end zone."
It didn't matter. The call was made and the game was lost and all Dallas could do is wonder how it slipped away, how a storybook play turned into a tragedy, how a season with unexpected championship hopes, ended with such a familiar empty feeling.
"I was shocked and disappointed," team owner Jerry Jones said. "I believe Dez caught the ball and I didn't believe the ground helped him catch the ball and I think it was a catch. Frankly, it didn't occur to me they were reviewing for a catch. I thought they were trying to spot the ball for a little while."
"It looked to me like he had three feet down," coach Jason Garrett said.
"I was really surprised," said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who watched the game with Jones. "I thought he took three steps and reached out for the goal line, which is what you're supposed to do. It's a football move. I don't quite get it."
The debate over the call overshadows a brilliant performance by Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who was unable to run or move effectively because of a calf injury. He threw for 316 yards and three touchdowns anyway. Meanwhile running back Eddie Lacy went for 101 yards as Green Bay overcame an eight-point, second-half deficit.
Back in the Cowboys' locker room, there was respect for what the Packers did, but bitterness at the feeling this was stripped away. When asked if the better team won, Bryant shook his head.
"No," he said.
Others were more diplomatic, but no less disappointed.
"It just hurts," tight end Jason Witten said.
"I mean, we fought this whole season and we've done everything we needed to do to get here and compete and play and get a fair chance," Mincey said. "But things like that happen."
They happened just a week prior, of course, in a victory over the Lions when a critical pass interference flag was picked up in favor of the Cowboys.
"Sometimes they go for you," Jones said. "Sometimes they don't."
As reality set in and others began moving on, Bryant kept working the locker room. He checked his phone and found what he claimed was 539 text messages. He walked over as three teammates were fixing hot tea to take on the bus to the airport and explained himself again. He went by as Jones was speaking to the media and imitated his catch-and-pull-the-ball-in movements. He apologized to another teammate for trying for the end zone, if he'd just made less of a football move he could have tucked the ball in and been fine.
"It's instinct, I know," Bryant said. "But … "
He tried to lift the spirits of running back DeMarco Murray, who had 123 yards and a touchdown but a tough fumble.
"DeMo," Bryant shouted, "we're still the [expletive] truth. Don't ever forget that."
Bryant then brought up other times during the season when he felt a similar play occurred and it was a catch. A TD against Tennessee. An out-at-the-1 reception against the New York Giants.
Why this time?
If anything, it should renew a focus to rewrite the rule. The Cowboys didn't get done in by the refs, and it should be noted Rodgers would've had four-plus minutes to drive to tie or win the game. This is the game of football.
They did, however, get caught up in the rulebook the refs must consult.
If regular-season calls against Johnson on some run-of-the-mill Lions teams weren't enough to get this reworked, then maybe one call that played a significant role in a Cowboys playoff loss will.
"I'm just begging," Bryant said. "Please, please take that out. Take that rule out. Take that out. Take that out."
The locker room was almost empty by then. Almost every other Cowboys player was already on the bus. Bryant was still in his uniform and still in need of a shower. He was running out of people to lament it all with.
Long flight home to come. Long winter ahead of what-ifs. The grief counseling has just begun.