Cowboys believe Leon Lett has at least one good season left

Wednesday, July 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WICHITA FALLS – At every step on the way to training camp, Cowboys coach Dave Campo delivered a message to defensive tackle Leon Lett.

"This is your year,'' Campo would tell Lett.

The message can be read several ways.

It could be Lett's year in that time is running out for him. Lett's contract expires after the season, and he needs to give the Cowboys reason to keep him.

It could be Lett's year in that he has not lasted a full season lately. Because of suspensions resulting from violations of the NFL substance abuse policy, Lett has played only one full season since 1994.

It could be Lett's year in that it is time for him to play like his former self. Lett has made only one Pro Bowl appearance in the last five years, and his play has declined after each of his three suspensions. Lett's reputation of being a superior lineman is increasingly more myth than reality.

"I just feel like this is a year that he's going to get back to the Leon Lett of old,'' Campo said. "It's just a feeling that I have.''

Lett refused to be interviewed. He has been nearly as quiet on the field.

Lett roared back from a four-game in-season suspension in 1995. He had 22 tackles and two sacks in the final four regular-season games and stifled Green Bay's offense in the NFC title game.

Compare that to what Lett did upon his return last season: In eight regular-season games, he had only 22 tackles and 11/2 sacks. In the playoffs, Minnesota toyed with the Cowboys' defensive front in a wild-card win.

Campo said the Cowboys do not believe Lett, 31, is on the downside of his career. This is a now-or-never season for Lett in that everything is aligned for his benefit.

If Lett does not play well this season, he may never again reach past heights.

For only the second time in the last four years, Lett went through the full off-season workout program with the Cowboys. His suspensions prohibited him from working out with the team before the 1997 and '99 seasons.

He will be part of a three-tackle rotation that includes Chad Hennings and Alonzo Spellman. The Cowboys hope the rotation makes blockers uncomfortable because of style differences and keeps Lett fresh.

Like most large players, Lett struggles to stay low when tired. That makes his 6-6 frame an easy target for blockers.

The Cowboys have a new defensive line coach, Andre Patterson, with a proven ability to get the most from players. In the last two seasons at Minnesota, Patterson helped John Randle come out of a slump and helped Chris Doleman coax another season out of an aging body.

"I'm trying to make [Lett] better than he's been,'' Patterson said. "That's been my objective since day one.''

Patterson knew Lett before they ever met. Patterson used video of Lett at his best as a teaching tool for other tall players. Patterson has offered suggestions on technique changes that could keep Lett from getting tied up by blockers.

Lett accepted the suggestions and has had a good camp, Patterson said. Lett flashed his old form during Tuesday morning's practice, stuffing the ball carrier on two consecutive plays during a "middle'' drill.

"There's no question he can be a Pro Bowler again,'' Patterson said. "He is very happy and stronger than he's ever been. He feels good about everything.''

Teammates are trying to coax Lett into a revival. Spellman keeps up a running commentary along the lines of "Let's go, Big Cat'' during practice.

"Everything that he's doing now shows that he's more than ready to have the kind of year he's had before,'' Spellman said.

It's Leon Lett's year to do something.

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