Anthony Spencer admits now that he did have doubts. Who wouldn’t? The Dallas Cowboys defensive end went more than a year between games, undergoing microfracture surgery in between.
But he also kept his faith.
“Going through it, I had my doubts,” Spencer said. “But at the same time, I knew I’d get back to where I was. Otherwise, I would have just stayed home. I knew at some point I’d get back to where I needed to be and just consistent work would get me there.”
It took awhile.
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Spencer played only 34 snaps last season, with his one and only game coming against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sept. 15, 2013. He had microfracture surgery on his left knee Oct. 1, 2013.
Spencer returned to the practice field Sept. 17, 2014, and played his first game of this season Sept. 28 against the New Orleans Saints.
But it wasn’t until more recently that Spencer returned to being Spencer.
“The last three or four weeks, I feel like I’ve been getting back into the groove of things, just instinctual and reacting to plays and what not,” Spencer said.
Against the Detroit Lions last week, Spencer played his best game since the 2012 season when he had a career-high 11 sacks and earned Pro Bowl honors. Spencer had a tackle, a sack, a forced fumble and six quarterback pressures in the Cowboys’ 24-20 victory over Detroit.
Spencer, who had only half a sack in the regular season, stripped Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford on a sack with 2 minutes remaining. It should have iced the game, but rookie defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence fumbled the fumble recovery, and the Lions recovered.
“Before the injury, he was such a complete player,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said of Spencer. “I do think he’s coming back. One thing that definitely showed up in the game was his ability to defend the run in addition to rushing the passer, so I think we’re starting to see a lot of that from him.
“But he’s just a hell of a guy to have on your football team. He’s such a pro. He’s so well-respected by his coaches and by his teammates, and he’s done a really good job for us, and he’s really shown up and was really productive in the game.”
Spencer played a season-high 40 snaps last week and was on the field for all but 27 defensive snaps. For the first time, he had an impact.
“I think it’s probably a combination of everything,” defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. “He’s getting more work practicing, and he’s just kind of getting in a rhythm right now. He’s a heck of a pass rusher and it’s the right time right now. He’s a leader for us. He’s always had a knack to make a play when it really matters, and he showed that last week.”
The Cowboys had only 28 sacks this season, but nine came in the last three regular-season games. They followed that with three against Stafford, including two in the waning minutes. Spencer and Lawrence have made a difference of late.
“My instincts and things like that are coming back more quickly for me right now,” Spencer said. “That’s probably the biggest thing. Just my instincts. Reacting to the pass when it’s happening. Just the techniques that you work on throughout camp that I didn’t really have the chance to do, and just being able to do it consistently right now is paying off.”
Spencer is playing on a one-year deal for the third consecutive year, meaning he’s scheduled to become a free agent. Again. The Cowboys used the franchise tag on him in 2012 and ’13. He signed a one-year deal worth up to $3.5 million this season.
“That’s what this league is all about,” said Spencer, who turns 31 later this month. “It’s all about, ‘what you’ve done for me lately,’ and that’s just the way it’s always going to be. You won’t get any type of recognition if you’re not doing things on a consistent basis.”