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Remembering the ‘Sleet Bowl’ between Cowboys-Dolphins 30 years later

Sleet, Thanksgiving, and Leon Lett

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Thanksgiving is about being grateful, and for making memories with family and friends as another year draws to a close.

Of course, it has also come to be associated with football.

Some of our mroe cherished memories put the two together, whether it is the annual high school Thanksgiving Day game, or the “Turkey Bowl” on Thanksgiving morning with your oldest friends, or gathering around the television on Thanksgiving Day to watch NFL games.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of one of the most memorable moments of Thanksgiving Day NFL action.

The Sleet Bowl.

It was 1993, and Week 13 saw a pair of games on Thanksgiving Day. In the early matchup, the Chicago Bears scored 10 points in the second quarter to top the Detroit Lions by a final score of 10-6. The win moved the Bears to 6-5 on the season while dropping Detroit to 7-4, tightening up the standings in the NFC Central.

Then in the late game, the Dallas Cowboys hosted the Miami Dolphins, in what was one of the biggest games of the season. The Cowboys entered Week 13 with a 7-3 record, which had them tied atop the NFC East with the New York Giants. Miami entered this holiday clash with an 8-2 record, which had them tied with the Buffalo Bills in the AFC East.

This was a critical non-conference game for both teams.

Adding to the intrigue was this fact: Dan Marino, who got off to a fantastic start for the Dolphins, was out for the season with a torn Achilles. That meant 39-year-old veteran Steve DeBerg, playing for his sixth NFL team, would be under center for Miami.

So you have two of the NFL’s best teams meeting on a holiday in a critical game. What could possibly make this better?

How about a freak weather event.

That week saw a “Blue Norther” system make its way into Texas. According to the National Weather Service, a “Blue Norther” — also known as a “Texas Norther” — is a “cold front that occurs during the winter season which brings dark black and blue skies, cold temperatures, and a strong north to northwest wind to the southern Plains.”

How much sleet? The system brought almost a half inch of sleet to the region, resulting in difficult playing conditions. Both teams struggled to get any consistent offense going, and most of the scoring camee via big plays. The Dolphins took an early lead in the first quarter, thanks to a 77-yard touchdown run from Keith Byard. Dallas tied the game early in the second quarter on a four-yard touchdown pass from Troy Aikman to Kevin Williams, and then Williams delivered his second big play of the game, on this 64-yard punt return:

That gave the Cowboys a 14-7 lead with under a minute left in the first half.

It would also be the final touchdown of the game.

Miami scored the only points of the third quarter, on a 20-yard field goal from Pete Stoyanovich to cut the Cowboys’ lead to 14-10. Then in the fourth quarter, the Dolphins made it a one-point game when Stoyanovich converted from 31 yards out.

Later in the fourth quarter, Dallas thought they had made the critical play to seal a win. Safety James Washington delivered a huge hit on rookie running back Terry Kirby, which popped the ball loose. The Cowboys recovered in Miami territory, already in field goal range. But kicker Eddie Murray missed his ensuing attempt, which kept the game at 14-13.

Miami would have another chance, and DeBerg put the Dolphins on the verge of victory. Miami drove deep into Dallas territory, and with just 15 seconds left Stoyanovich came into the game to attempt a game-winner from 41 yards out.

It was blocked.

Cowboys defensive tackle Jimmie Jones got his hands on the kick, and sent the football careening off course harmlessly away from the goalposts, and down towards the goal line. Dallas had somehow won.

Or so Cowboys fans thought.

Because defensive tackle Leon Lett had other ideas.

Lett had become a household name months early, in the second half of Super Bowl XXVII. With the Cowboys blowing out the Bills 52-17 Buffalo backup quarterback Frank Reich was in the game during the fourth quarter. The Bills faced a 4th-and-6 situation, and Dallas pass rusher Jim Jeffcoat got to Reich for a sack, knocking the ball loose. Lett scooped up the loose football, and was on his way for a 64-yard touchdown return.

Just a few steps short of the end zone, and the eyes of the world upon him, he started to celebrate.

That’s when Buffalo wide receiver Don Beebe caught up to him:

Beebe knocked the ball loose short of the end zone, denying Lett his moment in the sun.

Fast forward to Thanksgiving.

As the ball fluttered harmlessly to the turf, Lett chased after it. He had never played on special teams before, but in the days leading up to the game, the Dallas coaching staff thought the weather might create opportunities for blocked kicks.

They were right, but it backfired. Because Lett, thinking it was a loose football that needed to be recovered, tried to corral the slippery football. But when he touched it, it made it a live ball, and the Dolphins managed to recover:

Miami ended up recovering the loose football, and Stoyanovich converted from 19 yards out for the eventual 16-14 win.

In many ways, it was an example of the Dallas coaches outsmarting themselves.

Looking back years later Jimmy Johnson, who was the Cowboys coach at the time, recalled why Lett was in the game to begin with:

“It was crazy,” Johnson told USA Today last year. “How many times does it snow like that in Dallas on Thanksgiving? So, [special teams coach] Joe Avezzano 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.”

However, the Cowboys were able to shake off the stunning loss, as it would be the last game Dallas lost all season. They ran the table, all the way to Super Bowl XXVIII, where they again beat the Bills, this time by a final score of 30-13.

As for Miami, it would be the last game they won all year. The Dolphins finished with five-straight losses, missing out on a playoff berth.

Our friends at Secret Base thought that angle — and more — was worth a Rewind:

For Johnson, it was also the last game he would ever lose, as he stepped down following the season citing differences with 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 last year. “You know me: I’m going to put a positive spin on it. I won every game after that.”

So should you find yourself in Lett’s shoes during your Turkey Bowl game this week remember, get away from the loose ball.

Don’t give your opponents a chance to pull off their own Thanksgiving miracle.