FRISCO, Texas — Morris Claiborne triggered a wild celebration on the Dallas sideline with a game-clinching tackle against San Francisco.
Earlier in the fourth quarter of the 24-17 victory last week, the cornerback had his first interception in more than two years.
Finally healthy and now driven by the desire to show that the Cowboys did the right thing with a bold move up the draft board in 2012, Claiborne is making the most of what might be a last chance to prove he wasn’t a top-10 bust.
“I felt like I owed it to my teammates, the organization, to go out and put together some good years for them and just go have some good games,” Claiborne said. “From where they picked me at, it was a lot of high expectations for me. I know I haven’t reached those high expectations. But I’m still on it. I’m still going.”
Two years ago, Claiborne wondered if he should keep going. Burdened by a shoulder injury affecting his performance and the conflicting emotions of his father’s death about the same time as his child’s birth, the former LSU star left the team facility one day after learning he had lost his starting job.
Claiborne returned that night to talk to coach Jason Garrett, and apologized to his teammates the next day.
Five days later after the brief disappearance, Claiborne ruptured the patellar tendon in his left knee against New Orleans, ending his season. That was his fifth injury in a span of two seasons, combined with mostly ineffective play before he was benched.
“Injury after injury. Having surgery after surgery,” Claiborne said. “You think, ‘Could this be for me?’ I just tried to stay as positive as I can at those times even though it was hard, trying to stay positive with what you’re going through.”
The Cowboys chose not to give their former No. 6 overall pick the fifth year on his rookie contract after trading up eight spots to get him. Instead, he got about $8 million less with a one-year, $3 million deal.
But Claiborne wanted to come back, and so did the Cowboys because they thought he had a strong 2015 season even though he didn’t have an interception.
In the minds of most, the biggest difference in the 26-year-old Claiborne is simple: health. He had a full offseason and training camp for the first time. He looked good in camp as well, frequently winning battles with 2014 All-Pro receiver Dez Bryant.
“Confidence comes through practice and preparation,” defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. “Lack of confidence is when you are not doing enough. You don’t feel comfortable. When you go out and get that many reps against Dez, there is a reality to your confidence.”
Brandon Carr came to the Cowboys as a high-priced free agent the same year Claiborne was drafted, and both have been criticized over a pass defense that hasn’t matched the club’s investment.
They’ve shared the struggles, as well as the emotions. Carr lost his mom to breast cancer less than two months before Claiborne’s lowest moment with the Cowboys.
And Carr sees one other difference: five years. That will soon be how long Claiborne has been in the NFL.
“I think just the good part of those five years, I told him we have the opportunity to in so many words, right our wrongs or create our own ending to this story,” said Carr, who is in his ninth season. “It’s just mental is definitely what’s been keeping him afloat these last five years.”
Claiborne knows he has to do more than stay afloat because of where the Cowboys drafted him and what they gave up to get him.
While Claiborne has been among the best in the NFL statistically in coverage this season, he still doesn’t have more than one interception in a season. He has plenty of time to change that — and change the synopsis of his career.
“I want to be the best. Sometimes it takes longer,” Claiborne said. “When I got to middle school, I wanted to be the best in middle schools. It took steps. High school, same thing. College. And the pros, too. I’m not going to stop trying to take those steps no matter what happens.”
Claiborne believes he’s still in Dallas in part because coach Jason Garrett respects players who persevere. And Garrett was asked about Claiborne’s fourth quarter after the win over the 49ers.
“Great illustration of what he’s all about,” Garrett said. “Mo’s overcome a lot throughout his career. He’s playing the best football of his career.”
And showing the Cowboys he was worth the investment.
Follow Schuyler Dixon on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apschuyler