“Hey, D, what was the difference between Boise State and here?” Crawford said, pushing back only like a best friend can. “You were a beast in Boise, so what’s different? What are you eating? What are you doing now?”
Lawrence was coming off a one-sack season in 2016. He had his second back surgery in as many offseasons and going into the final year of his contract, his career was at a crossroads.
Lawrence pondered Crawford’s question for a minute.
“S---, I only ate ramen noodles in Boise,” Lawrence remembered.
So Lawrence, a second-round pick in 2014, went back to his college days with the ramen noodles. Every week.
“I’d eat noodles with sausage, cheese, whatever,” Lawrence said. “I’m talking some fat-boy s---.”
Ramen might not be the best reason why Lawrence has succeeded the last two seasons. The better answer is health.
Lawrence missed the first eight games of his rookie season with a broken foot. In 2015, he dealt with a herniated disk. In 2016, he had his second back surgery for a disk issue.
When he hasn’t been injured, he has produced.
In 2014, he had sacks in the Cowboys’ two playoff games. In 2015, he had seven of his eight sacks in the second half of the season. He had just one sack in 2016, but he played most of the season with a numb right leg. To Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, that meant more than the production.
“Oftentimes players have a choice to make, ‘Should I get the surgery now or should I wait until after the season?’ whatever the injury may be. He was unequivocal in his response. ‘I’m playing. I’m playing. I’ll figure out how to play through this and we’ll get it done after the season,’” Garett said. “I thought that meant so much for him and the mental toughness he displayed and how that impacted the rest of our team. I think the guys knew what he was going through and was still laying it on the line. That was a big boost for him and his stature in our organization.”
In the last 20 games, no defender in the NFL has more sacks than Lawrence.
Lawrence has 20 sacks in his last 20 games, a number matched only by Chandler Jones of the Arizona Cardinals. Calais Campbell has 17.5 sacks for the Jacksonville Jaguars. The New Orleans Saints’ Cameron Jordan has 17. Khalil Mack, who was recently handed a $141 million extension after he was traded by the Oakland Raiders to the Chicago Bears with $60 million guaranteed at signing, has 15.5 sacks.
Yet when the NFL’s top pass-rushers are talked about, Lawrence’s name is not mentioned.
The Cowboys’ high profile and the number of prime-time games they play, such as Sunday’s against the Houston Texans, often leads to inflated narratives for players before it is validated with on-field production. With Lawrence, he somehow remains underrated despite wearing the star on the side of his helmet.
“I don’t know, man, but if you go and search up, ‘leading sacker in the NFL,’ you can’t miss his name. You’ve got to mention his name. If you look up top sack guys from last year, you can’t miss his name,” Crawford said. “So, I guess, put some respect on it, you know what I mean? The guy has been doing his thing and he’s been doing it well. You can’t miss a guy like that, and for whatever reason that he’s not mentioned with those guys, I mean, that’s on whoever is talking about him. But if you want to talk real, you want to take real life, that man is up there with the top rushers in the league for sure.”
Even on Sunday, Houston’s pass-rushers J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney will garner most of the attention. Watt is a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Clowney was the No. 1 overall pick in 2014 and has 22 career sacks in 50 games.
Lawrence was the 34th overall pick in 2014 and has 29 sacks in 52 career games.
“He may be underrated on some lists, but the Houston Texans opened up their offensive team meeting with DeMarcus Lawrence on a gigantic screen, ‘If we don’t stop him, we don’t win the game,’” said Lawrence’s agent, David Canter. “And every week, every general manager, every coach, every offensive line coach and every quarterback is alerting No. 90, so he’s not underrated on those lists. That’s what matters to us. He is the player you have to stop if you want to beat Dallas.”
For years, DeMarcus Ware was known leaguewide as an elite pass-rusher for the Cowboys. Since Ware was released after the 2013 season, the Cowboys have been searching for what Jerry Jones termed a “war daddy.” They traded up to get Lawrence in 2014 believing he could be the guy.
It took time, mostly because of health, but now they have their war daddy. The question now is for how long. Lawrence is playing this season on the franchise tag, earning $17.1 million, more than he made collectively in his first four seasons.
One reason why the Cowboys did not work out a long-term deal with Lawrence is they wanted to see him repeat his 2017 success, when he had 14.5 sacks and was named to the Pro Bowl.
Through four games, Lawrence leads the NFL with 5.5 sacks. He also leads the Cowboys with four tackles for loss and eight quarterback pressures.
“He’s backing everything up,” Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said. “And the way things are headed, it looks like we’ll sit down and have some heavy arm wrestling trying to figure out a long-term deal. He’s doing everything the right way. He’s turned into a leader of the group with his work ethic. His skill level and production level is certainly the best in the business if you look at it.
“That’s what you’re looking for, a pressure player who can make a difference. They're so hard to find.”