WASHINGTON – For 52 years, the fortunes of the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins have swung back and forth, their success or failure, especially against each other, defined by a few large figures. You can feel the power shifts in real time because the central characters are usually great quarterbacks or coaches. When they arrive – or leave – the ground shifts.
When the Cowboys were born, my childhood buddies knew we could laugh at expansion Dallas. Why, they had Eddie LeBaron, discarded by Washington, as their quarterback. In 1960 and ’61, the Cowboys’ first seasons, the Redskins were 2-21-3, but 2-0-1 versus Dallas. We sure didn’t laugh long.
For the last half-century, most of the seismic events – until this season – have usually favored the Cowboys, who lead the series by a whopping 61-41-3. Don Meredith (who followed LeBaron at quarterback), Tom Landry, Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman were all ill omens in Washington. Before Joe Gibbs’ 1982 team, Dallas finished ahead of the Redskins in 17 of 19 years. That domination, especially in national acclaim, was so large that D.C. built an outright loathing for Dallas; several fine Redskins teams got little credit in the shadow of America’s Team. Cowboys condescension fed the fires, too.
But the pain’s been shared – well, some. After Gibbs got the upper hand, the ’Skins finished ahead of the Cowboys in 9 of 10 years. That’s always the pattern. Parity never lasts long. Somebody’s got the whip and knows it.
Right now, the ground is shaking again. Sure feels like it’s D.C.’s turn.
Ever since the Redskins built a 28-3 halftime lead on Thanksgiving Day in Dallas, then won 38-31, all warning flags have been flying for the ’Boys. Tonight, the teams meet with the NFC East title at stake. It’s the favored ’Skins who have the six-game winning streak and home-field edge, too.
Most of all the Redskins have Robert Griffin III, a native Texan who threw four scoring passes in his Dallas debut. This may be just as bad news for Dallas as the arrivals of Staubach and Aikman were for Washington.
In a one-game sample, any factor may be decisive. Sooner or later, the Redskins’ plus-14 turnover differential may dwindle, and the Cowboys (minus-10) may reverse their profligate ways. That alone might ignite a Dallas win.
The Redskins lead the NFL in rushing, love play action and bootlegs, plus read options out of the pistol formation. So weather shouldn’t bother them much. The Cowboys, historically lousy in games with temperatures below 40, may face a sub-freezing kickoff.
Whatever tonight brings, though, there’s a larger context. The talents and limits of their quarterbacks have defined the Cowboys. Texas isn’t football patient. At 32, Tony Romo is in his ninth year as a Cowboy, seventh as a starter. He has a 55-37 career record, and is 1-3 in the playoffs. He’s a known inconsistent commodity.
Like Meredith, Craig Morton and Danny White, who won one title in 16 years combined as Cowboys starting quarterbacks, Romo has reached that point where Dallas signal-callers either own the town because they’re winners or are put on the city’s tasting menu because they’re the problem.
Romo, excellent except when he’s awful, has started 11 times against the Redskins and won six, and averaged only 18 points in those games. Why is he going to get better? And is that going to get it done against RGIII?
A case can be made that there’s more pressure tonight on Griffin because it’s his biggest NFL game so far. The opposite case is at least as strong: Griffin has little to lose as the outperform-expectations 22-year-old, while Romo is looking at back-to-back loses to a rookie as well as a third season out of his last four as a healthy starter with no trip to the playoffs.
This past week has already brought Griffin two more distinctions. He’s now the second quarterback to pass for 3,000 yards and rush for 750 (Randall Cunningham did it in 1998) and only the second rookie ever to make the Pro Bowl. The other: oh, just Dan Marino.
The big-picture dynamics in play are that Griffin is ascending as Romo has reached a plateau.
To those who’ve watched the whole inter-team saga and seen all of this several times before, the plot is familiar and haunting. You know the theme, but you don’t know the timing. When does mostly losing turn to mostly winning? Does it happen in one game or over a couple of years?
Also, these teams love to thwart each other.
The Cowboys can’t do anything about the arrival of Griffin or Alfred Morris, who needs 87 yards for 1,500 for the season, or the pistol any more than the Redskins could when Aikman arrived or Staubach ran the shotgun. The next chapter of the Cowboys-Redskins novel has already been roughed out. The details? Will the Redskins merely be good with RGIII or, eventually, exceptional? Was Thanksgiving in Texas Stadium foreshadowing for tonight or a red herring to throw us off the trail?
All this has happened before. History may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme a lot. One team’s story arc ages, another’s tale suddenly gets a rewrite. Once the transition is complete, fans and franchises sometimes feel like it takes an eternity before the next script flip. The Cowboys once had things their way for almost 20 years, the Redskins ruled for as much as a decade.
That’s the longer-term story that hangs over this one dramatic game. The Redskins love their future and can’t wait to see the next chapter. More than likely, all the Cowboys can do is read it and weep.