November 25, 2009

1993: Dolphins Top Cowboys Thanks to Leon Lett’s Miscue

The weather was hardly conducive to football on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1993 as the Dallas Cowboys (7-3) hosted the Miami Dolphins (8-2) at Texas Stadium. The temperature was below freezing (well below when factoring in the wind chill) and a wintery mix of precipitation caused the field to be covered with a layer of snow. Needless to say, footing was unsure at best.

The Dolphins scored first on a 77-yard run by FB Keith Byars to take a 7-0 lead. Rookie WR Kevin Williams responded for the Cowboys with two second quarter touchdowns, first on a four-yard pass from QB Troy Aikman to culminate a 12-play, 74-yard possession and then with a 64-yard punt return just before halftime.

Dolphins placekicker Pete Stoyanovich narrowed the Dallas lead to 14-13 with a pair of field goals in the second half. Cowboys safety James Washington forced a fumble by Miami RB Terry Kirby on his own 30 yard line with just over four minutes to play, but Dallas was unable to capitalize when a field goal that would have provided a four-point cushion was missed.

However, when Dallas DE Jimmie Jones blocked a 41-yard field goal attempt by Stoyanovich in the final seconds of the game, it appeared that the Cowboys would prevail. But as the ball skidded down the field, Dallas DT Leon Lett attempted to recover it at the seven yard line and failed; Dolphins C Jeff Dellenbach fell on it at the one. Miami had possession; had Lett not touched the ball, it would have gone over to the Cowboys. The Dolphins made the most of the reprieve and Stoyanovich kicked a 19-yard field goal on the next play to give Miami a 16-14 win.

Byars was the star on offense for Miami, gaining 77 yards on six rushes and catching 7 passes for 80 yards. Kirby also caught 7 passes, for 76 yards, while WR Mark Ingram had the most receiving yards for the victors with 85 on three receptions. QB Steve DeBerg completed 24 of 41 passes for 287 yards; while two of them were intercepted, his performance under the conditions was solid.

On a day that was difficult for the passing game, Troy Aikman completed 28 of 43 passes for Dallas, accumulating 181 yards with a TD and an interception. RB Emmitt Smith was slowed by a thigh injury and gained just 51 yards on 16 carries; he split time with Lincoln Coleman, who led the team with 57 yards on 10 rushes. FB Darryl Johnston was the top receiver with 11 catches for 75 yards; Smith caught another 9 out of the backfield for 46 yards.

Afterward Dallas Head Coach Jimmy Johnson said “This was a very disappointing loss. In fact, I don't know whether I've ever had a loss that hurts like this one right now…The play by Lett, it was a mistake and we all make 'em and it's part of the game. There were hundreds of mistakes made in the ball game before that. It just so happens that that came at the end and it will be remembered as the one that cost us the ball game."

Lett’s miscue may have provided the Dolphins with a fortuitous win and the Cowboys a jarring loss, but the fortunes of the teams diverged from there. While the loss was the second in a row for Dallas, the Cowboys didn’t lose again as they finished atop the NFC East with a 12-4 record and went on to defeat Buffalo in the Super Bowl for the second consecutive year. Miami came out of the game with the league’s best record at 9-2, but lost the remaining five games to finish at 9-7, in second place in the AFC East and out of the playoffs.

As for Leon Lett himself, the error against the Dolphins, combined with his return of a fumble recovery for an apparent touchdown in the previous year’s Super Bowl, only to slow up, prematurely begin his celebration, and as a result have Bills WR Don Beebe knock the ball out of his hand for a touchback, made him the subject of a great deal of ridicule. However, he remained with the Cowboys for another seven seasons and was selected to the Pro Bowl twice, certainly making up for the early mistakes.