Leon Lett learned in the Super Bowl never to celebrate too soon. His blunder the following Thanksgiving night schooled the entire Dallas Cowboys in that same painful lesson.
Eleven months earlier, Lett’s showboating shy of the goal line after recovering a fumble allowed Don Beebe to catch him from behind and denied Dallas a sure touchdown. But that had come in the Cowboys’ 52-17 blowout of Buffalo.
This time, his gaffe cost the Cowboys a crucial victory over Miami and allowed the Dolphins to pull off a 16-14 win in one of the most bizarre endings in NFL history.
Lett, who now tutors defensive tackles for the Cowboys – who host the Dolphins again Sunday – was a Pro Bowl defensive lineman on the Cowboys’ three Super Bowl teams of the 1990s but he’s known as much for two blunders as his big plays.
He said he looks back on that Thanksgiving night in 1993 ”pretty much the same way. It was a cold-ass game and we were winning and we were up and I made a bone-head play.”
The Dallas sideline went crazy when Jimmie Jones blocked Pete Stoyanovich’s 41-yard field goal try with 15 seconds left and the Cowboys clinging to a 14-13 lead at the old Texas Stadium, where a rare thunder snowstorm had made the field both icy and dicey.
Everybody on the Cowboys sideline was hugging or high-fiving as the football spun like a top on the slush as the final seconds ticked away.
”I thought we had won the game,” Michael Irvin said afterward. ”I grabbed Troy Aikman and we were hugging.”
”My first thought was to look around for someone to shove into it,” Miami center Jeff Dellenbach said that night. ”But then that guy came charging into the damn thing.”
The roar of the crowd drowned out Lett’s teammates who were yelling, ”Fire! Fire!” – football code for ”Stay away!”
Lett came barreling in between three Dolphins surrounding the spinning ball and slid between them, his left foot scooting the ball toward the goal line.
Suddenly, the ball was live.
Dellenbach recovered the ball at the Dallas 1 with 3 seconds remaining, and Stoyanovich was good on his second chance, nailing the 19-yarder as time expired.
Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson called it the most disappointing defeat of his life and Miami coach Don Shula called it the weirdest win he’d ever experienced.
Lett hid out in the trainer’s room after the game.
”My teammates were great. They were my support group. They were doing interviews for me. Nate Newton was doing interviews for me. All my teammates had my back and Coach Johnson had my back,” Lett recalled. ”It was a tough time, but it was also great for me to have that support and those people behind me.”
Lett said winning the Super Bowl two months later was all the catharsis he needed.
”I would like to hope people would look at my career as a guy that contributed to three Super Bowl championship teams and (see) a good player that played on some great teams in some great games,” Lett said.
Here’s a look at what happened to the teams in the aftermath of that implausible finish:
Oddly, it turned out to be the last loss for Jimmy Johnson in Dallas. Jerry Jones fired him a few months later after Dallas had successfully defended its Super Bowl title.
The Cowboys fell to 7-4 with the loss but won their next eight, beating Buffalo again in the Super Bowl and giving Lett peace of mind.
”Winning that Super Bowl, holding that Super Bowl trophy … erased all of that and I moved forward,” Lett said.
So did the Cowboys, who won another Super Bowl under Barry Switzer two years later.
They’re 4-10 in the playoffs since then, including 2-3 under Jason Garrett, who was Aikman’s backup QB in 1993.
Behind Ezekiel Elliott, Dak Prescott and DeMarcus Lawrence, the Cowboys are 2-0 and believe they’re Super Bowl-capable like those 1990s teams.
The Dolphins improved to 9-2 with their bizarre win in Dallas but they wouldn’t win again, losing their last five without an injured Dan Marino and missing the playoffs.
Shula retired two years later, and Jimmy Johnson replaced him and led Miami to the playoffs three times in his four seasons with the Dolphins.
Miami has fallen on hard times with only two playoff berths in the past 17 seasons and no playoff wins since the 2000 season.
This year, they’ve been outscored 102-10.
-Jan. 16, 1972. The Cowboys defeat the Dolphins 24-3 in Super Bowl 6 at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans after losing to the Baltimore Colts the year before. It was the Dolphins’ only loss until Sept. 23, 1973, at Oakland, after they’d won Super Bowl 7 over Washington to cap the only perfect season in NFL history.
-Nov. 22, 1973. The Dolphins beat the Cowboys 14-7 in Dallas on their way to repeating as Super Bowl champs.
-Oct. 27, 1996. The Cowboys roll over the Dolphins 29-10 in Miami in a game that was most remarkable for who was on the sidelines: Dallas’ Barry Switzer and Miami’s Jimmy Johnson.
-Nov. 24, 2011. The Cowboys beat the Dolphins 20-19 on another Thanksgiving Day but this time the temperature was 59 degrees, not 32 with 100 percent humidity and wind chill of 19 as it had been in 1993.
Follow Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton
AP Pro Football Writer Schuyler Dixon contributed to this story.
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