Nearly 30 years later, Jimmy Johnson still gets a bit frosty when reflecting on the epic blunder during a Thanksgiving ice storm that cost the Dallas Cowboys the game.
Yes, that was Cowboys defensive lineman Leon Lett sliding on an icy field at Texas Stadium in an attempt to recover a blocked field goal in the final seconds against the Miami Dolphins.
No, the 6-foot, 6-inch Lett had no business trying to recover the football after a 41-yard attempt was blocked by his teammate, Jimmie Jones, which effectively sealed a 14-13 victory for the Cowboys.
After Lett turned and raced more than 20 yards to mess up the play by making contact with the football, the Dolphins recovered at the 1-yard line to allow Pete Stoyanovich a second-chance, chip-shot field goal that lifted Miami to a 16-14 victory on Nov. 25, 1993.
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Talk about a wild finish.
“It was crazy,” Johnson reflected this week for USA TODAY Sports. “How many times does it snow like that in Dallas on Thanksgiving? So, Joe Avezzano (special teams coach) came up to me because it snowed and we had an icy field and said, ‘What do you think about this idea: What if we take one of our big guys and put him in the middle? We might be able to block a low kick in the ice and snow.’
“Well, Leon had never worked on special teams before. We put him in the lineup for the first time to block field goals. In some ways, I blame ourselves, the coaching, for putting him on that unit because he hadn’t done it before. I don’t blame Leon. I blame us as coaches. I outsmarted myself on that one.”
It all worked out. As Johnson was sure to point out, the Turkey Day setback was the last time that he lost a game as Cowboys coach. Dallas ran the table after Thanksgiving and claimed a repeat Super Bowl crown. The next spring, he bolted amid an epic split with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
“As devastated as I was after that Thanksgiving loss, losing the way we did, it’s a great memory because that’s the last time I ever lost in Dallas,” Johnson said. “You know me: I’m going to put a positive spin on it. I won every game after that.”
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Johnson reflects on the Thanksgiving Day loss and so many other moments from his illustrious career in his recently released memoir, “Swagger,” written with Dave Hyde, the award-winning columnist for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. He delves into his tenure with the Cowboys and his other NFL job coaching the Miami Dolphins, details his journey in the collegiate ranks that included the crowning achievements of winning a national championship at the University of Miami.
And he opens up about personal challenges that include a failed marriage and his son Chad’s battle against substance abuse.
“I was reluctant to do the book initially,” said Johnson, who for many years has served as a studio analyst for the Fox NFL Sunday pregame show. “My good friend and agent, Nick Christin, kept telling me, ‘You need to write a book and tell the real story.’ So, between Nick and Dave Hyde, they convinced me to do it. Once I got into it, I enjoyed it.
“Now some of the struggles and the problems, like with my family, that was a little difficult going over those stories, but that’s all in the book as well.”
Johnson, 79, was the first coach to win a college national championship and a Super Bowl (a distinction since shared by Barry Switzer and Pete Carroll). And he’s enshrined in both the college and pro football Halls of Fame … lending to much material.
“A lot of people in Dallas turn to the Jerry Jones chapter,” he said. “Survivor fans want to go the Survivor pages. (University of Miami) people go to the UM stuff. And football people – coaches and GMs – want to go to the part about evaluating talent. There’s a little bit for everybody.”
There’s also a chapter where Johnson waxes on today’s NFL. Which prompts us: Given the physically demanding practices that were part of Johnson’s style – his full-padded practices, even late in the season, included the grueling “Middle Drill” – how would he fare as an NFL coach in an era where contact practices have been significantly reduced in the name of player safety?
“Obviously, it would be very frustrating for me, because we had very physical teams and very physical practices,” Johnson said. “I’d have to adjust. But I think as long as a coach has credibility and respect from his players, and he’s working as hard, if not harder as they’re working, then they’d understand that he’s doing his best to make them a better player and get them a better contract.”
Of course, with two Super Bowl rings and a national champion ring, Johnson figures he’d get the attention of his players.
“When you throw out those rings,” he said, “that gives you credibility.”