The author of *America's Team: The Official History of the Dallas Cowboys, Sullivan also writes a new column in each issue of Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine. For subscription information, please click here.*
There was a real chance Anthony Spencer was never playing football again. He thought so and for a stretch, the Cowboys were pretty sure as well. This time a year ago, all he could do was lie on the couch and watch television with his pregnant wife.
As for Bruce Carter, well, the Cowboys weren't in a huge rush to see him play football, benching him time and again the last two seasons for veteran castoffs, rookies and more or less anyone they could find.
And that's what makes football, sports and life itself such an adventure. A continuous grind where on the majority of days we can just show up and do our job. Then there are those days we overcome, we persevere, we improve. We are our resilient best.
This past Sunday afternoon in Arlington, Spencer (three tackles, one sack, one forced fumble) and Carter (five tackles and three passes defensed) anchored a gutsy defensive effort that in many ways has been grossly overlooked because an NFL official may have missed a call. Yes, the utter shock of it all.
Thing is, Spencer and Carter have been playing at a ridiculously high level over the last month or so, seemingly improving by the week. Both will be free agents, too, at season's end, and the Cowboys would be well served to explore bringing both back.
Spencer, who turns 31 later this month, was expected to start the year on the PUP list following microfracture surgery on his left knee in October 2013. But after rehabbing throughout training camp, he was added to the 53-man roster and was able to make his season debut in Week 4 vs. New Orleans. After just seven QB hurries and three QB hits through his first 10 games, Spencer has eight hurries and four hits his last three. And he's showing that explosion off the ball reminiscent of 2009-2012, when he was among the league's top-tier outside linebackers.
"I feel good, I didn't really have a training camp, so I was kind of working myself back in earlier in the season. But yeah, I'm feeling pretty good right now," Spencer said after the Detroit win. "This (playoff) win is something we've been working toward for five years now. This is huge for the organization. We know where we want to be at and we know what we're working toward, so the win is sweet, but we also know it's time to get back to work."
As for his miraculous comeback, and his motivation to dedicate himself to a tireless and painful rehab process with Cowboys' associate athletic trainer/director of rehabilitation Britt Brown, Spencer says there were ups and downs, days he felt sorry for himself, days he never envisioned himself on a football field again. There was always the motivation, though, of returning to a team he felt was ready for the next step.
"This was definitely something I thought about when I was laying there on the couch. Winning a playoff game was why I put in all that work to come back, and having the opportunity to do so is an incredible blessing," Spencer said. "I spent an entire year off, so I kind of felt like a rookie all over again. This has been special for me."
After dedicating himself like never before this offseason, Carter started the first four games, with mixed results, before missing three with a strained quad. Following the bye week, he came off the bench for five games before starting in Week 17 at Washington and intercepting two passes, which gave him a team-high five for the season. He also added 11 tackles.
"Yeah, we definitely feel vindication, redemption," Carter said. "The thing about us, our defense, is that we have a lot of fight. The guys that we have, we don't have a lot of superstars per se, but as a unit, we play really well together. No one is out there trying to be selfish or take the credit.
"I definitely feel good about how I've been playing. I think I do a great job preparing during the week with (linebackers) Coach (Matt) Eberflus and our entire group. I think that comes from him being a great teacher. He helps us slow the game down and that's really what it's all about. How you prepare during the week."
Carter almost collected his first postseason interception, but a Matthew Stafford laser-like throw went through his outreached hands.
"That thing was coming hot. I saw it coming in and got my hands up and was like, 'Wow,'" Carter said. "I'm not sure people know how much arm he has. And he throws over-the-top, and from the side. He's athletic, too. That was a great challenge for us and we have another one coming up."
For the Cowboys to beat Green Bay this Sunday, Spencer and Carter will need to continue their inspired play.
A few other quick hits on the memorable Lions-Cowboys game that was:
- Am pretty sure Dez Bryant would have caught the game-winning touchdown pass from Romo if Terrence Williams wasn't a few feet in front of him. Strange they would be that close, but think each broke off their initial route as Romo bought himself some extra time and just so happened both headed toward the middle/back of the end zone.
- Also, while on the subject of Dez, I love the guy. Think we all do, fans, teammates, coaches, media. He's charismatic, passionate, playful, engaging. However, he needs to control himself better than being on the field screaming at officials late in the fourth quarter of a playoff game. Or any game. That's not leadership. That's not being in control of one's emotions and it could've, honestly should've, cost the Cowboys.
- Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was the best player on the field. He may be the league's villain, but he's a heck of a pass rusher. The focus of the Cowboys' blocking scheme, as he is with every opponent, Suh still finished with two QB hurries and 2.0 sacks. The four elite interior defensive linemen the last 15 years are Haloti Ngata, Vince Wilfork, Richard Seymour and Suh.
- For a team that receives more media and fan attention than the Kardashians, not to mention the majority of heads of state, it's inexplicable how underappreciated Jeremy Mincey has been this season. Played 41 snaps against Detroit and recorded a sack and knocked down another pass at the line of scrimmage.
- Barry Church played much better on film than in person. Well, outside of that first touchdown by Golden Tate, who is actually a heck of a football player.
- That would be seven straight games of absolute dominance from left tackle Tyron Smith. Was a block of granite against a whole bunch of wet plaster.
- Watched the hit on Cole Beasley and have no idea how he jumped back up. Or caught the ball. Amazing to think he walked out of camp his rookie season and that could have been it for his football career. Love that Jason Garrett said he looks like the paperboy. Love that his nickname is "The Flying Squirrel." Love that he said to no one particular entering the locker room after the game, "We aren't here for just one win, let's go." Most of all, love that he's listed at 5 feet, 8 inches. If he spiked his hair Don King style, he still wouldn't be that height.
- Noticed that Bryant was standing next to Garrett during the national anthem Sunday. Not sure if this has been ongoing. Reminded me of Lawrence Taylor always standing next to Bill Parcells during the anthem. Even if the two weren't talking, "LT" always wanted everyone to know that he had Parcells' back.
- Jerry Jones told me this spring, and this is verbatim, "We can win 11 or 12 games this season, we really can. And we can win a few playoff games. I know no one believes that, but we might just surprise some folks."
- Surprise they have. Win three more games and shock the world.