Chicago Bears' Cooper relieved botched return didn't cost win
Marcus Cooper Sr.'s heart dropped, he said, though plummeted or crashed might have been a better verb.
The Bears cornerback had just guaranteed himself a spot on a sports-blooper reel.
"Your heart drops, of course," Cooper said. "But you have to get on to the next play."
When teammate Sherrick McManis blocked Pittsburgh kicker Chris Boswell's 35-yard field goal try in the closing seconds of the first half on Sunday, Cooper snatched the football and sprinted toward Soldier Field's south end zone. A comfy distance from any pursuer, Cooper was about to secure a spot on the Sunday-night highlights.
"I'm thinking touchdown the whole time," McManis said. "So I'm just running, and ready to celebrate."
Cooper reached the 20, still running hard, and was about to score an easy TD.
And then he slowed near the 10. When he reached the 5, his jog had nearly turned into a walk.
"I did see him start to let up," Bears coach John Fox said. "Which frightened me."
One stride before he reached the end zone, Cooper was caught from behind by a hustling Vance McDonald, who swiped at the ball with his right arm, forcing the ball loose from Cooper. The ball bounced into the end zone, where punter Jordan Berry dived and slapped it out of bounds.
"I thought I was in," Cooper said. "But obviously I wasn't."
Shades of Leon Lett in Super Bowl XXVII.
"We got to finish that," McManis said. "We got to run all the way through. Get it done."
Confusion set in. Did the ball break the plane of the end zone before Cooper fumbled? Was the first half over? Safety? Touchback? Any score at all?
The original call was that Cooper fumbled at the 1 and Berry batted the ball illegally. Since Pittsburgh committed the penalty, it was ruled that the half would not be extended.
The replay official changed the call, however.
"When we have a block and a return, what happens is (the offense and defense) flip-flop designations," referee Clete Blakeman explained. "So in this case, the return team (Chicago) becomes offense, and the kicking team is defense."
That meant Pittsburgh's penalty for an "illegal bat" in the end zone was enforced from the 1, moving the ball to the half-yard line and allowing for an untimed down since no time was left on the game clock.
Fox sent out his offense ... and then offensive tackle Charles Leno Jr. false-started, pushing the ball back to the 5.
Out trotted the Bears' field-goal team, and Connor Barth knocked the ball through the uprights from 24 yards out, extending the Bears' lead to 17-7.
"I was thankful our offense got 3 points out of that situation anyway," Cooper said. "There were guys that were backing me ... and the team as a whole. They stepped up and took care of business."
When Jordan Howard scored from 19 yards out in overtime to give the Bears a 23-17 win, Cooper could smile. He got the pick-me-up he so badly needed. The mental mistake by the fifth-year pro out of Rutgers hadn't cost his team a victory.
"He will learn from it," Fox said of Cooper. "Nobody feels worse than he does. It's a matter of focus and finishing. He understands that."
As a cornerback, Cooper understands "next-play mentality," having to let go of a negative play to make a positive one. In the third quarter, his holding penalty in the end zone led to Le'Veon Bell's 1-yard TD run on the next play, cutting Pittsburgh's deficit to 17-14.
But in the fourth quarter, Cooper broke up a pass in the end zone intended for Martavis Bryant on third down. The Steelers settled for Boswell's 32-yard field goal that tied the score at 17-17.
"It's a great feeling," Cooper said of the win, the Bears' first after starting the season 0-2. "Thankfully guys backed me up and we came out with the 'W.'"