By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 29, 2008
IRVING, Tex., Sept. 28 -- For one final Sunday afternoon, a Washington Redskins team looked up at the clock dangling from the almost-domed roof of the doomed, old stadium and willed time to tick away. And for one final Sunday afternoon in Texas Stadium it went ever so slowly.
"It's painful to only have one second become another second and another second," Redskins Coach Jim Zorn would later say.
But when the seconds finally disappeared on what may be the last Redskins-Dallas Cowboys game in Texas Stadium, there erupted on one sideline a euphoria. They had survived, 26-24.
This is when they laughed and danced; when defensive end Rob Jackson held his helmet aloft and began to chant; when teammate Anthony Montgomery stood on the bench and waved at the crowd as he shouted "Bye-bye" at the faces that glared back from just five feet away. No other stadium in the NFL has the intimacy of this place that has come to haunt the Redskins for most of four decades. It has led to a tempestuous intersection of players and fans in a game that is annually one of the National Football League's fiercest.
Then suddenly, in the last regular season Redskins-Cowboys game before the gates are closed on Texas Stadium and the rivalry heads to a sparkling new home, the Redskins did something that seemed to surprise even them. They won.
This was remarkable because no one much expected it to happen. Dallas roared into Sunday undefeated, having scored the most points in the National Football Conference, while the Redskins had muddled their way to a 2-1 record with two straight victories that didn't seem very impressive in the light of the Cowboys' run.
So, yes, the Redskins acted a bit like children as they scampered off the field in jubilation. Off the ragged artificial turf they ran, sprinting past the blue plywood walls that separated fans from field, careful not to touch the cheap plastic stars affixed to the walls that always seemed to have the consistency of a child's toy fire helmet, and up the long, mildewed tunnel toward the smallest locker room left in the league.
A few stopped to gaze up at the huge roof that loomed over the field, with the odd, rectangular hole in the top that, according to the Cowboys legend, was put there so God could look in on his favorite team. One Redskin, center Casey Rabach, dropped to his knee in the end zone, right on top of the painting of a silver Cowboys helmet, and began to pray. Not that this is something he normally does. It's just that the emotion of the day was so different from the others.
"This was one of those wins you've got to thank God for," he said. "I think He had a hand in winning this one for us."
Not that anyone could be sure God noticed. The sunbeam that, during games, usually shines straight down on the field, had crawled far up on the opposite stands. Rabach's prayer might well have been trampled by his elated teammates thundering past.
If signals were crossed, Rabach would have understood. A few minutes later, he stood sweating even after a shower, in the steamy locker room, and surmised that he would not miss this stadium.
"Hell, no," he said. "It's a [dump]."
But the Redskins seemed strangely comfortable in the old dump. With an offense that seems to get better each week, they rumbled over the Cowboys for 381 yards. Quarterback Jason Campbell had 231 passing yards and running back Clinton Portis rushed for 121. Everything worked. Dallas's star receiver, Terrell Owens, was held to seven catches for just 71 yards.
Slowly, it seems Zorn's philosophies are taking hold. He has preached endlessly about such concepts as remaining poised and concentrating with a great intensity. After the game Sunday, he said he told his players, "If you have to grit your teeth to concentrate in difficult situations, then you must."
They must have, because even after the Redskins built a 17-7 lead just before halftime, Dallas came back to tie the game at 17-17 early in the second half. Then the Cowboys surged late, after Washington had kicked three field goals to hold a lead that seemed both strong and tenuous at the same time.
Each time, the Redskins held. Each time, they seemed the stronger team, at least in mind. Once again, Washington did not have a turnover. In fact it has only one the whole season -- the ultimate in concentration.
In contrast, Cowboys linebacker Zach Thomas stood at his locker on the other side of the stadium and pondered the two mistakes that ruined his team on Sunday: an interception that was turned into a field goal, and a penalty for having 12 men on the field that let the Redskins kick a field goal.
"That's what we have to learn," he said. "Discipline."
So far, Washington has it.
Now, with the season a quarter over, the Redskins sit in a tie for second place in the NFC East at 3-1 and appear to be a legitimate playoff contender -- something that was not predicted just a month before. Zorn, admittedly exhausted from watching the time on the scoreboard trickle slowly away, still couldn't resist a small swipe at those who didn't think much of his team.
"There was no way that anyone could say that we were going to come into Dallas and just rip them," he said before quickly adding: "Which we didn't."
Still, for the Redskins, who are 10-26 in games with the Cowboys here, a victory -- any victory -- even one of just two points, must qualify as a "rip."
Yet as they raced away from the dump one last time, the semantics of the win really didn't matter.
"I like it -- winning," said cornerback Shawn Springs, who grew up in the stadium as the son of former Cowboys player Ron Springs.
Springs laughed. And then, like his teammates, he walked out of the locker room. Happy indeed.