ARLINGTON, Texas – Randy Gregory stood atop his locker, surveyed the crowded locker room around him and smiled.
He didn't have much to say. Gregory declined to speak with reporters after what was easily the best game of his NFL career. But then, with DeMarcus Lawrence singing his praises two feet away, he didn't really need to.
"Shout out Randy Gregory for attacking the quarterback all day long and staying after it," Lawrence said. "I'm just proud to see him growing up as a young man in America."
The phrase "growing up" feels awfully fitting for the 26-year-old defensive end. Of all of the 53 men who helped the Cowboys capture the NFC East this season, none of them was less likely to be here than Gregory, who spent much of the last two years serving NFL suspensions.
As if anyone needed evidence of that fact, look no further than Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones. Tasked with describing his team's division-clinching win, he hadn't spoken more than two sentences before he started talking about Gregory.
"I'm so proud of No. 94 and the game he had for us," Jones said. "It was arguably one of the best games he's had for us. He made a difference and just kept coming."
As proud as he was, Jones probably undersold it a bit. Gregory finished his day with two tackles, a sack and three hits on the quarterback. But it was his two hustle plays that absolutely swung the momentum of a 27-20 win.
The first one will be played on highlight shows across the league for the next week. Holding a 7-3 lead late in the first quarter, Gregory raced wide around Tampa Bay left tackle Donovan Smith, chased Jameis Winston up out of the pocket and sacked him from behind, with the resulting fumble bouncing fortuitously toward Jaylon Smith for a 69-yard touchdown.
"It goes to the relentless spirit – you keep playing, you keep playing," said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett. "They extended the play, he wasn't going to quit on the play. And again that was the signature play of the game."
Garrett's right that it was a signature play, but Gregory's next moment might have been more important. The Cowboys were sputtering on offense in the third quarter, having just settled for a field goal to take a 20-13 lead. The Buccaneers took the ball at their own 25-yard line with a chance to tie the game.
That was possible, at least – right up until Winston and Bobo Wilson botched the handoff on an end-around, and the resulting fumble bounced toward Gregory.
Gregory's recovery set the Cowboys up on the four-yard line, where they eventually took a 27-13 lead, although consulting the replay will show that he should have had a touchdown of his own.
"We scoop the ball every day in practice," said defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli after the fact.
And while Gregory can count on his coaches to give him pointers this week, he can absolutely to hear a little bit more from his teammates.
"I told him I'm not going to wait for him to scoop another fumble if he's not going to score it," Lawrence said. "So next time, to the world, I'm taking it from him."
All the good-natured ribbing in the world is a welcome change from the commentary that typically surrounds Gregory. He has had a maddening tendency to wind up on the wrong side of the referees this season, and that was the case again Sunday. Gregory was penalized for a crucial offside call on a 3rd-and-4 in the first quarter. Minutes later, he was flagged for his third roughing the passer penalty of the season on an eventual Tampa touchdown drive – although the legitimacy of the call was well in question.
"I disagree with the call on roughing the passer," Jones said. "I want him making that play every time. That's a big debate about rolling over the quarterback. But I thought, from an applying pressure standpoint, he really impacted that game."
All in all, it was a breakout moment that feels like it's been building for two months. After returning from a yearlong exile over the summer, Gregory worked his way back gradually. He logged his first sack on Oct. 14 against Jacksonville, and he now sits at six for the season.
Regardless of whatever hiccups have occurred along the way, it's remarkable to think that this time a year ago, there wasn't much optimism that Gregory would ever play football again.
"I can't tell you what it means to walk up to that young man," Jones said. "Everybody in that locker room is with him. It really means something to really understand what it means for him to work through these issues."
It wouldn't be fair to speak for Gregory on these matters, considering he didn't talk about them himself. But on his best day as a Cowboy, the words of his supporters spoke volumes – and his smile said just a little bit more.