ARLINGTON, Texas -- Sunday night was an example of why Jason Garrett’s message works for his Dallas Cowboys.
Just keep playing. Just keep fighting. Just keep working.
If you think it’s a cliché with no meaning, just ask rookie defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence. He kept playing and fighting during Dallas' 24-20 victory over the Detroit Lions in the NFC wild-card game at AT&T Stadium on Sunday.
Especially after his "Leon Lett moment."
With the Lions trailing by four in the fourth quarter, Lawrence recovered what was supposed to be a game-clinching fumble recovery. He tried to scoop and score, a technique taught by the Cowboys' coaches, yet Lawrence fumbled it back to the Lions with two minutes to play in the game.
It gave the visiting team hope as the clock on its season was slipping away. Lawrence’s teammates pleaded with him to forget about it and keep playing.
“I can’t let my teammates down,” Lawrence said. “Coach Leon Lett gave me another chance to go out there and capitalize on the opportunity, and it happened.”
The Lions, faced with a fourth-and-the-season at the Dallas 42, couldn’t stop Lawrence. He used those long arms defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli raves about to push past left tackle Riley Reiff and reach quarterback Matthew Stafford. Lawrence said Reiff was probably looking for a bull rush and he used a double-swipe to get free.
Lawrence, a second-round pick from Boise State, reached Stafford, who was looking to convert at least three more yards to keep a season from ending in the state he grew up in.
Lawrence brought Stafford down on the first sack of his young career, and the ball came loose. Instead of scooping it and trying to score he reached out with those arms and brought the ball to his body to secure the game with 54 seconds to play.
The emotional moment brought Lawrence to remember Lett, a Cowboys assistant defensive line coach, who in the early 1990s was stripped of the ball while running into the end zone during Super Bowl XXVII and in the following season cost the Cowboys a game when he tried to recover a blocked field goal against the Miami Dolphins on Thanksgiving Day.
“I grew up a Cowboys fan,” Lawrence said. “I remember that play. It’s just me as a rookie. It’s just a big lesson learned. Two minutes on the clock and you have to stay down.”
But the Cowboys won this game and will advance to face the Green Bay Packers in the NFC divisional round next weekend.
Lawrence missed the early portion of the season with a broken foot. When he recovered, he tried to find his way, which is never easy for a rookie with lofty expectations.
When the Cowboys drafted Lawrence, he was supposed to morph into the team's next great pass-rusher with DeMarcus Ware gone. Lawrence improved as the season progressed, recording four quarterback pressures in the final two games of the regular season.
The Cowboys' defense has been the weakest unit of this team.
Sunday night, with the season hanging in the balance, it became something more. It moved into a game-saving, never-quit group and that was more evident in what Lawrence did.
“Rod Marinelli just told me there wasn’t any way he was coming out of there without making amends,” team owner Jerry Jones said. “We had some pups grow up in there today and he is certainly leading the way.”