washingtonpost.com
From Daydreaming Tight Ends to Sleepy-headed Receivers, It's a Cowboys Nightmare

By Les Carpenter
Monday, November 6, 2006

With the electricity of a big catch still tingling in his arms, Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten stood on the line of scrimmage chattering with glee as his teammate Mike Vanderjagt prepared to kick the field goal that would win yesterday's game. He was still laughing about safety Adam Archuleta, the unfortunate Redskin who had been too late covering him on the play before. Oh, how foolish he had made that Archuleta look. How funny it all was.

"He was just talking, sharing his thoughts about Adam," recalled Washington's Troy Vincent, who had been standing across the line, just inches away. "He was still talking about the catch. He was happy. They had won. All they had to do was kick it."

Yes, indeed, Witten must have been having a ball as he fell into his stance. So good a time, in fact, he probably never saw the white blur that sped past him the moment the ball was snapped.

"I know one thing," Vincent said, "I was full speed ahead."

Later, after Vincent blocked Vanderjagt's kick, setting in motion an unimaginable chain of events that led to Washington's 22-19 victory, the Cowboys slumped in their tiny locker room, weary and disoriented. How could something so clear as the win they knew was theirs have dissolved before them? Vanderjagt stood by his locker and shrugged.

"If they block it at the line of scrimmage you can point the finger at me," he said. "But he was two feet in front of me. I don't know how [Vincent] got where he got. We'll have to look at the tape and see."

Clearly, today the ugly finger of blame will land on the chest of Witten, who must still be wondering how he went from making the catch that all but sealed victory to the fool of the season. The difference between 5-3 and 4-4 is never a good thing to be in Dallas. But to blame just Witten would be an injustice, forgetting much of the rest of the Cowboys team.

This was a loss with many more fingerprints.

The Redskins practically carried their young and once-anonymous kicker out of the stadium when the game was over. Brandon Lloyd stood on the wall that rings the field, pumping his fists, howling into the night. Yet they would be naive not to realize this was a gift of Dallas missteps. The Washington season was saved -- for a week, at least -- by the grace of the blue star.

And no one, from Coach Bill Parcells to the team's star wide receiver Terrell Owens escapes blame for the defeat.

After all, it was Parcells who made the curious decision early in the game not to review the team's first offensive play when running back Julius Jones was tackled around the goal line for a safety. Replays later showed that the play was at least worth making the officials study. Just as it was Parcells who chose to go for a two-point conversion rather than kick an extra point when the Cowboys scored their first touchdown.

The conversion failed, while an extra point might not have left the teams tied late in the fourth quarter and would have negated Dallas's need for a field goal at game's end. That means Witten wouldn't have needed to make his big catch, wouldn't have had to laugh about Archuleta and might have noticed Vincent lurking potentially unblocked.

And if only Owens had held onto a pass midway through the third quarter that would have been a certain touchdown, Washington would never have been in the game at all in the fourth quarter.

"I owe this one to the team," Owens said. "I let the team down. I felt I had it and it dropped."

Parcells would not play along. The coach had already blundered, undoubtedly stirring the Redskins with comments that appeared in the New York Times last week suggesting Washington tackle Jon Jansen wasn't the player of two years ago and new associate head coach-offense Al Saunders simply looked to score points with no regard for the pressure it placed on his defense.

Yesterday, he looked less like the genius of the New York Giants and New England Patriots years and more like a coach finishing out his last season. He said he didn't request a replay because his assistant coaches in the booth thought Jones's knee was down before the ball was out of the end zone. When asked about the two-point conversion, he said the chart that many coaches use to determine which situation dictates a one-point or two-point conversion insisted he go for two.

At his postgame news conference, someone suggested that maybe, perhaps with the game still early in the second quarter, Parcells might have wanted to get the sure one-point conversion.

The coach did not agree, snapping, "I go by the chart."

So many problems, so many places to look. Dallas owner Jerry Jones stood just outside the door of the locker room, glanced at the final statistics sheet and scrunched his face. "What did we have? 150 yards in penalties?" he said.

Actually it was 153 on 11 infractions -- everything from Anthony Fasano's false start on the 1-yard line that might well have led to the safety to the unsportsmanlike conduct Owens drew in the third quarter when he used the ball as a pillow and pretended to take a nap in celebration of his touchdown.

And, of course, there was the face-mask penalty called on the Cowboys' Kyle Kosier that gave Washington one last field goal try.

"At the end of the day, penalties did us in," Parcells said.

But that would be forgetting Owens's other dropped pass on the sideline or Fasano falling on the sideline on the Cowboys' last drive with nothing but green field and end zone in front of him or safety Roy Williams having a sure interception slip through his hands and bounce off his helmet.

"It's a heartbreaker," Parcells said.

Later, Jones lamented the team's 4-4 record. It could easily be 6-2. He has never been known to be patient when his team stumbles. This time, he frowned. It was a frown that said nothing and so much at the same time.

And you had to wonder if the Cowboys, in their carelessness, had lost more than just a football game yesterday.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company