How Joe Looney went from comic relief to indispensable for Cowboys

FRISCO, Texas -- As a backup offensive lineman, Joe Looney is not used to much attention.

Last week, when the Dallas Cowboys learned Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick is suffering from Guillain-Barre syndrome, the media throng waited at Looney’s locker the way it would for Ezekiel Elliott or Dak Prescott, pressing for answers from the now-starting center.

In Sunday’s 27-3 preseason loss to the Arizona Cardinals, all eyes were on Looney after he hurt his hand after making a tackle on a second-quarter interception. The Cowboys’ medical staff looked at him briefly but everything checked out.

“I’m going to do anything I can to not let that guy score a touchdown,” Looney said. “I’m the last line of defense. I was the safety on that play.”

Considering the Cowboys do not have another experienced center on the roster, perhaps the coaches would have been OK if he did not put himself in harm’s way. After all, the Cowboys do not know when -- or if -- Frederick will return this season.

“Are these my orders?” Looney joked when it was mentioned he cannot get hurt. “OK, I hear you.”

Things change fast in the NFL.

At the start of training camp, Looney found himself in a potential fight to make the roster after the Cowboys signed Marcus Martin in free agency. In the first preseason game, Martin suffered a toe injury that landed him on injured reserve.

Frederick thought he was dealing with stingers until he was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre, an autoimmune disease that affects the nervous system, putting his availability for the season in question. He has received several treatments over the past week and attended Sunday’s game, serving as an extra set of eyes for Looney between series.

Looney said Frederick gave him tips on his technique and the opposing defense.

“They’re pretty detailed,” Looney said. “If you know Travis, they’re detailed, so it’s good for me to hear it when I’m out there. It helps me during the game and ultimately helps the team.”

The Cowboys signed Looney as a backup offensive lineman in 2016. He served as the reserve guard and center the past two years, starting three games, but only one on the offensive line. Two starts came when the Cowboys opened in their “jumbo” package, in which he served as an extra tight end.

A fourth-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers in 2012, Looney has played in 59 games with 13 starts.

Mostly, he is known for keeping things loose. Last year at training camp, he ran onto the field in an Elliott jersey, briefly confusing the fans in attendance who could not see his gut busting through the bottom of the jersey. On some Fridays, he would dance as the team stretched, pulling off a combination of tumbles and spins that drew applause from teammates.

“Football is a game and I’m going to come out here every day [keeping things light],” Looney said. “Sometimes it’s not going to be perfect, but at the end of the day, it’s a game and you’ve got to enjoy it.”

Looney’s offseason work was limited because of wrist surgery, but he said that has not bothered him. After struggling early with some shotgun snaps, he has been better during the second half of the summer. He has not had any problems with the snaps in preseason games. Back in 2016, he was able to get extensive work in with Prescott in practice before the quarterback became the starter following Tony Romo’s injury.

“Joe’s been in the league, I mean, shoot, this is his sixth or seventh year,” Pro Bowl right guard Zack Martin said. “He’s played a lot of football, been in our system for three years now, so we’re very, very comfortable and confident in what he brings to us.”

He won’t try to be another Frederick.

“I’ve been a backup and I prepare every week like I’m going to start,” Looney said. “So I just take that approach to it. You never want to see a guy get hurt, especially someone like Travis, but what I’m going to do is what I can to help the team.”