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One Big Breakdown

Testaverde's TD Pass With 30 Seconds Left Beats Redskins

By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 27, 2004; Page D01

IRVING, Tex., Dec. 26 -- The Texas Stadium crowd was braced to deride Dallas quarterback Vinny Testaverde one final time Sunday as the desperation pass came off his fingertips, and the Washington Redskins were 37 seconds from celebrating their most profound victory of the season when the latest shocking chapter of this rivalry unfolded. There would be no comeback win for Washington, no hallmark moment in Joe Gibbs's first year back in coaching, only more scrutiny and dismay following a 13-10 loss to the Cowboys that crystallized on one play.

Redskins cornerback Shawn Springs was one-on-one with Cowboys wide receiver Patrick Crayton and jammed him a few yards off the line of scrimmage before letting him sprint down the right sideline, with rookie safety Sean Taylor assigned to cover him deep. Testaverde had other ideas, however, and as Taylor took a few steps inside toward slot receiver Keyshawn Johnson, the cagey 41-year-old Cowboys quarterback locked eyes with the eager 21-year-old defensive back, giving him every signal that the ball was coming Johnson's way.

Shawn Springs sacks Dallas quarterback Vinny Testaverde in the first quarter. (Donna McWilliam - AP)

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"I saw No. 36 [Taylor] cheating inside," Testaverde said. "And I gave him an extra long look."

By the time Taylor, who later declined to comment, spun back toward the sideline, it was too late. Crayton was running free to catch the ball at the 7 and reach the end zone for the game-winning score before Taylor arrived. "The safety [Taylor] didn't pay attention to me," Crayton said.

The Redskins (5-10) managed to get across midfield on their final possession, but kicker Jeff Chandler did not have enough leg to convert a 57-yard field goal, and the team's playoff hopes expired while Dallas's hex over Washington will live on into the New Year.

The Redskins were swept by the Cowboys (6-9) for the sixth time in the last seven seasons, have lost 14 of the last 15 games against Dallas and have not won at Texas Stadium since 1995, but had every reason to believe they would buck all of those trends until Testaverde's 39-yard touchdown prayer was answered.

"That's the Cowboys versus Redskins," said Washington defensive end Brandon Noble, a former Cowboy. "For the last few years, that's the way this game has gone, for whatever reason. I've been on both sides of it, and I couldn't even tell you why. That's just the way this series is going. Tonight, we were so close to getting over the hump, but it just didn't work. . . . It's baffling right now, it really is. It's hard to take. It's hard to stomach."

Prior to the Cowboys' final drive, the team was listless. Washington's second-ranked defense was assaulting Testaverde, protecting a 10-6 lead, after failing to mount much of a pass rush all day. Dallas ran 11 plays in the fourth quarter before its last possession and suffered three sacks while gaining a total of 14 yards. Even when the Redskins' Antonio Brown fumbled a punt return at the 42 with 2 minutes 20 second remaining, the Cowboys could not get a first down.

The Redskins remained in their base defense with the game on the line, opting out of a prevent style with extra defensive backs after losing corners Fred Smoot (sprained back) and Ade Jimoh (sprained ankle) to injury. The scheme was stifling until Testaverde found Crayton over the middle for 15 yards on fourth and 10 from the Dallas 25 with 69 seconds to play; five plays later Crayton, a seventh-round pick out of Northwestern Oklahoma State, was in the end zone for his first NFL touchdown.

"Our defense has been so good all year," said Gibbs, who never won fewer than seven games as Washington's coach from 1981 to 1992 and is ensured of his worst season ever. "I wouldn't second-guess anything they ever do."

Had Washington's offense been able to gain even a single first down on two of its final drives in the final six minutes, it likely could have run out the clock and preserved the win. Redskins tailback Clinton Portis, who was ineffective with 10 carries for 32 yards, left the game in the third quarter with a strained joint between his chest and shoulder. His replacement, Ladell Betts, ran hard but could not pick up the necessary yards to keep Dallas off the field. Quarterback Patrick Ramsey (19 for 29 for 158 yards with two interceptions and one touchdown) struggled as well for most of the game, and the offense continued its season-long swoon. It has scored two touchdowns in the last two games.

"We had some miscommunications that we've got to take care of," Ramsey said.

Ramsey opened the game going 7 for 7, but H-back Brian Kozlowski let the next throw bounce off his hands and Cowboys safety Lynn Scott dove to intercept the ball before it reached the ground on the Dallas 3. Ramsey completed just four of his next 13 throws before going 7 for 7 on the team's only touchdown drive.

The Redskins trailed 6-3 entering the fourth quarter, then marched 80 yards in 13 plays. Ramsey, whose habit of holding the ball too long resulted in several sacks, found Taylor Jacobs alone down the left sideline for 27 yards to get within field goal range. He then rolled right to hit tight end Robert Royal in the end zone from five yards out with about 6:44 to play. But in between Washington's first drive and its touchdown drive the team amassed just 47 yards over two-and-a-half quarters.

Testaverde (23 for 39 for 234 yards), meantime, was booed by the crowd from early on, with many fans eager for one of his younger understudies to take over. The abuse reached a crescendo late in the third quarter when his weak lob attempt was easily intercepted by Springs in the end zone, keeping the score 6-3. But while the Cowboys were not scoring points they were still draining the Redskins' defense.

Dallas held the ball for 11:30 of the second quarter and 10:48 of the third quarter, with Testaverde finding Johnson on critical third and fourth downs often at Smoot's expense. Washington kept going three-and-out on offense, gaining one offensive first down in the entire second and third quarters.

"That was the key," offensive lineman Ray Brown said. "We've got to keep our defense fresh and win time of possession." By the time Dallas scored its touchdown, the injuries and fatigue had taken hold.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company