It’s arguably the most memorable finish to a Thanksgiving Day game in the NFL’s history. And Thursday afternoon the infamous “Leon Lett, do-over field goal for the Dolphins game” celebrates its 25th anniversary.
Even though the final scoreboard read 16 – 14 Miami, it’s not the what, but the how, that made it so memorable.
First, to set the stage – the Cowboys were the defending Superbowl Champs. However, star running back Emmitt Smith had held out at the beginning of the season for a new contract and Dallas started of the year 0 – 2. Smith got that new contract from quickly from owner Jerry Jones after the winless start.
The Dolphins had adversity of their own as legendary future Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino had torn his Achilles in October and was out for the remainder of the season. There had also been an iconic moment a couple of weeks earlier, when backup quarterback, and now Eagles head coach, Doug Peterson led Miami to a win in Philadelphia. That victory gave Don Shula the most wins in NFL coaching history. That’s a record that still stands to this day.
To further add to the memories and the drama, a snow storm hit the Dallas area on Thanksgiving Eve and morning. And, the field at Texas stadium was covered with the white stuff.
The Cowboys quarterback and their future Hall of Famer, Troy Aikman, had led them to a 14 to 7 lead at the half. Meanwhile, veteran quarterback Steve Deberg piloted the Dolphins that “Turkey Day” 1993, and led them to two second-half field goals to pull within 14 – 13.
Miami moved into scoring range in the final seconds, but it was far from a given that kicker Pete Stoyanovich was going to make a 41-yard field goal on the snowy field.
And that set the stage for one of the all-time NFL gaffes, that everyone still remembers 25 years later:
On the heels of having slowed down to celebrate a fumble return TD in the Superbowl back in January, and having Don Beebe of Buffalo knock the ball out of his hand and the end zone for a touchback, Lett once again put himself in Cowboys-lore for the wrong reasons.
Even though NBC television cameras did not capture Lett live touching the ball, replays clearly showed that that’s exactly what he ran down and did trying to recover the deflected field goal. And, when Lett did that, he enabled Miami to recover with a brand new set of downs at the Dallas 2-yard line. And only :03 remained in the game.
A couple of more important points: at this point in the NFL had done away with instant replay in 1990. So there was no way to help the officiating crew determine exactly had happened. To their credit, they saw that Lett touched the ball and got the call right that Miami deserved a redo on the field goal.
By the way, shout out to referee Ed Hochuli, who actually had a great detailed explanation of what had happened, without the benefit of looking at an instant replay.
The Dolphins obviously made the most of the second chance redo and Stoyanovich made the field goal from 19 yards out on the final play to give Miami the crazy win.
Interestingly, Miami did not gain momentum from the dramatic crazy win, as they went on to lose five games in a row and missed the playoffs despite having been 9 and 2.
On the complete flip side, the Cowboys never lost again winning their five remaining regular-season games. And then, they eventually beat the Bills in a Super Bowl rematch for back-to-back titles.
To this day, that play is synonymous with all-time blunders, especially on Thanksgiving. Leon Lett, however can take consolation in the fact that he did help the Cowboys win two Super Bowls including that same season.
And the Dolphins and legendary coach Don Shula will forever be known, as the team that benefited from Leon Lett “giving” them a Thanksgiving Day win.
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