Cowboys Show Redskins Nothing's Perfect, 24-21
By Richard Justice
After a furious fourth-quarter rally fell short, the previously unbeaten Redskins said they'd never expected to go 16-0, and that their larger goals -- winning the National Football Conference's Eastern Division and getting home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs -- were still attainable.
"We had a great start," middle linebacker Matt Millen said, "but it's not how you start that people remember. It's how you finish."
At 11-1, the Redskins lead the NFC East by four games over three 7-5 teams -- the Cowboys, Eagles and Giants. And with three of their final four games on the road, they still lead the Bears and Saints (both 9-3) by two games in the race for home-field advantage.
"I said from the beginning that a perfect season was a dream, but just a dream," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "No matter what your profession is, you dream of the biggest reward. Reality says it can't be done. What you really want is over a 16-game schedule to be the team that wins your division and plays two playoff games at home. That's still out there for us."
Still, this one stung. Winning at RFK for the third time in four years, bedeviling the Redskins yet again, the Cowboys played like a team that had nothing to lose. The triumph may be the biggest accomplishment of Jimmy Johnson's three-year pro coaching career since all a victory did was keep his team in the thick of a fight for a wild-card playoff spot.
The Cowboys did it with a game plan of both style and substance, with an offense that lost quarterback Troy Aikman to a third-quarter knee injury yet controlled the ball for almost 39 minutes. They also did it with a defense that held the Redskins to 50 rushing yards and two offensive touchdowns, both in the fourth quarter.
But it was more than that. The Cowboys converted a pair of improbable fourth downs. They tried, and recovered, an onside kick. They hit a 34-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass at the end of the first half. They ran the ball successfully and they took advantage of the Redskins cornerbacks, especially Darrell Green, who may have had one of the worst days of his career, chasing wide receiver Michael Irvin all over the field.
When the Redskins rallied to within 21-14 with 8:21 left in the game and seemed on the verge of becoming the fourth 12-0 team in history, the Cowboys took the ball and stuffed it down their throats. Backup quarterback Steve Beuerlein and running back Emmitt Smith led a seven-minute drive that ended with a game-clinching 42-yard field goal by Ken Willis with 1:14 remaining.
"If you have a big gorilla, you don't hit him lightly," Johnson said. "We felt to have any chance, we'd have to play aggressive. We'd have to onside kick, go for it on fourth down, the whole thing. We knew we weren't going to beat 'em unless we played that way."
Aikman and Beuerlein passed for 313 yards, the high against the Redskins this season. Smith rushed for 132 on 34 carries, also a season-high against the Redskins. Irvin caught nine passes for 130 yards as offensive coordinator Norv Turner did what every other opponent had been afraid to do -- throw at Green.
"If you throw away from Green, you throw into double coverage," Johnson said. "Sometimes, you have to attack the strength."
Green took the blame, saying, "This may have been my worse day in three years. Give them credit."
But told of the Cowboys' strategy, Gibbs said: "We've been doing it that way for 10 years. We live with Darrell Green over there. We may have lost this one, but I like that formula. If something needs adjusting, we're not above that either."
What the Redskins will be eager to see in today's film session is what happened to the running game. It began the day averaging 140 yards a game, but was stopped for a third straight week. The Falcons and Steelers had paid for emphasizing run defense by getting shredded in the secondary. The Cowboys didn't.
While their front seven controlled the run, their secondary played a soft zone that kept the Redskins from hitting anything longer than 29 yards.
"It was one of those days where we were off a little," Redskins quarterback Mark Rypien said. "They played very physical and we just couldn't get anything going. I don't know why we weren't sharper."
The Redskins had just 107 total yards until Rypien led a 92-yard drive at the end, and Earnest Byner was benched for Ricky Ervins after carrying eight times for 22 yards. Byner insists his right knee is fine, but a week ago against Pittsburgh, he gained five yards on nine carries.
"They took away the run, and I kept waiting for the passing game to get hooked up," Gibbs said. "We were all out of sync."
Cornerback Martin Mayhew's 31-yard interception return for a touchdown gave the Redskins a 7-0 lead with 4:53 left in the first quarter. The Cowboys tied it on their first possession of the second quarter by driving 75 yards, with Smith getting the final 32 on a third-and-15 draw play.
That wasn't the first gutty call. On fourth and five from the Washington 33, Johnson passed up a field goal and Aikman hit Irvin for six yards. After the touchdown, Johnson gambled again. Willis's onside kick bounced to Andre Collins, who fumbled it into the hands of Darrick Brownlow.
The Cowboys didn't get any points from that chance, but they had established a tone. They took another as the half was about to end, after Aikman had driven the Cowboys from his 34 to the Washington 34.
On fourth and seven with 13 seconds left, Johnson passed up the field goal and Aikman lobbed a prayer into the end zone.
Players from both teams were in the area of the ball on the right side of the end zone, but it was Harper, the rookie from Tennessee and defending Southeastern Conference high-jump champion, who got it. Defensive backs A.J. Johnson and Brad Edwards were both nearby, but when Harper leaped he was uncontested, and the Cowboys led 14-7 at the half.
Tackle Jumpy Geathers and end Charles Mann sandwiched Aikman on the sixth play of the second half. He went down with a sprained left knee, and doctors suspect he may have cartilage damage. When he got hurt last season, the Cowboys were forced to turn to former Redskin Babe Laufenberg. But this was the day Johnson's summer acquisition of Beuerlein paid off. He came in and completed seven of 12 for 109 yards and one touchdown.
Rypien completed 17 of 33 for 212 yards, one touchdown and one interception, but he wasn't sharp until the end. A week ago, he'd chopped up a Pittsburgh zone, but the first three possessions of the second half ended with two incompletions and an interception.
Meanwhile, Beuerlein got warmed up by his third possession. The Cowboys drove 81 yards in six plays, and Beuerlein ended it with a 23-yard touchdown pass to Irvin. They didn't have a third-down play the entire drive, with Beuerlein completing four straight passes, two of them over Green.
On second and seven from the Washington 23, the Redskins blitzed him, and Green got inside position. But Beuerlein threw the ball behind Irvin, he caught it and bobbled it, caught it again and ran to the outside and easily into the end zone for a 21-7 lead with 13:32 left.
Gibbs put Ervins (29 yards on five carries) in for Byner. He went to a no-huddle offense. And the Redskins got going.
They almost doubled their offense for the day by driving 92 yards, with Gerald Riggs scoring on a one-yard run to make it 21-14 with 8:21 left. But the Cowboys crushed any hope of a Redskins comeback by keeping the ball for seven minutes.
Johnson didn't go conservative either, with Beuerlein throwing to Harper for 16 on the second play. Smith then picked up gains of seven, two, four and four before linebacker Wilber Marshall dropped him for a loss of three with 4:04 left.
Then came perhaps the biggest play of the day, Irvin sliding in front of Green for a 13-yard slant and a first down at the Washington 30. From there, it was almost a matter of time. Smith carried it five more times, and with 1:14 left, Willis sealed it with a field goal.
Rypien hit Ricky Sanders for a 29-yard touchdown with 18 seconds left. Sanders was called for taunting when he spiked the ball at cornerback Issiac Holt, but the penalty would have hurt the Redskins only if they'd recovered the following onside kick. Fullback Daryl Johnston did the honors for Dallas.
"We had a champion's heart and came roaring back," Gibbs said. "Our heart was in the right place. We just had too much to make up."