Cowboys Boot Redskins From Playoffs, 24-17
By Tom Friend
Quarterback Doug Williams' fluttering, fourth-down lob to tight end Don Warren seemed as catchable as a fluff pillow yesterday until Michael Downs' fingertips intervened. The ball hit the ground, 10 delirious Dallas Cowboys hit Downs and the Washington Redskins hit cold pavement. The defending Super Bowl champions have no more playoff mathematics after a 24-17 loss at RFK Stadium.
Losers for 2 1/2 months (10 straight games, in all), Dallas vanquished the Redskins yesterday with a twisted turn of events. The Cowboys injured Williams; they injured cornerback Darrell Green, aiming at Green's replacement, Dennis Woodberry. They threw three touchdown passes to a previously butter-fingered rookie, Michael Irvin. They held the Redskins to 24 yards rushing. They intercepted Williams' replacement, Mark Rypien, to go ahead by seven with 4:50 to go. And, finally, they withstood Williams' last-minute comeback attempt.
In retrospect, Coach Joe Gibbs took the blame for a third-and-one decision to have Williams ground the ball with 28 seconds remaining. This, of course, set up the fourth-and-one, end zone incompletion to Warren with 22 seconds left. Gibbs had one timeout at the time and said he would have ordered a third-down "dodge" pass route to Art Monk if he had it to do over again. Second-guessing ran rampant on the play, because Williams probably could have thrown the ball harder to Warren, or Warren could have come back harder for the ball.
Said the quarterback: "What we have to do is give Downs some credit. The ground he covered, a normal safety wouldn't have covered."
In victory, meanwhile, the 3-12 Cowboys poured soda pop on each other because champagne was unavailable. They also lauded their venerable coach, Tom Landry, with a tear-jerker of a postgame ceremony. Veteran center Tom Rafferty stood tall in the dressing room and clamored, "This is for the guy who stood by us and took a lot of abuse." Then they handed Landry a dirt-caked game ball.
Now 7-8, the Redskins sounded a similar refrain, still not having learned to take care of the ball. Derrick Shepard fumbled the opening kickoff, and though a teammate recovered, Coach Joe Gibbs banished him the rest of the day to the bench.
Then, Williams, who jogged out for the game's first huddle only to realize he'd forgotten his helmet, threw two first-half interceptions. Though the Cowboys got no points as a result, they did open a 3-0 lead after recovering a misconnected reverse handoff from running back Jamie Morris to Monk.
On the other hand, the Redskins stayed close because kicker Roger Ruzek misfired on field goals of 47 and 36 yards, the last one at the end of the half after Gibbs had called a timeout with 19 seconds remaining only to witness an ensuing interception of Williams by Manny Hendrix.
Later, after Williams was hunched over with a lingering bruised shoulder courtesy of Danny Noonan's takedown, Rypien underthrew an all-alone Gary Clark with the score tied at 17-17 with just under five minutes to go. Robert Williams picked it off.
This was turnover No. 4, though Rypien -- who earlier tossed a 55-yard score to H-back Terry Orr -- had jammed his throwing thumb and admitted later he had only a slight grip on that errant throw. Another turnover resulted when returner Anthony Allen -- in for Shepard -- tried to corral a bouncing punt with one hand and failed.
In all, Washington's turnover differential had dipped to an NFL-low minus-22, and that about explains the season. That Williams brought them to the brink of overtime was somewhat remarkable.
Dallas' 17-3 lead with 11:30 left in the third quarter (Irvin over Woodberry for 61 yards) evaporated quickly, starting with Williams' 40-yard scoring toss to Ricky Sanders. Gusting winds had forced Sanders to retool his pattern; he initially looked for the ball on his left, but caught the floater on his right.
At the time, 8:45 remained, and after Herschel Walker (98 yards on 27 carries) was stuffed on a third and one, the Redskins took over. On the first play, from his own 24, Williams extended his arm to throw and was pounded back into the ground by Noonan. His prone arm was jarred.
"Something had to give, and I'm sure my shoulder was the one," Williams said.
Though he squirmed on the frozen ground for a solid five minutes, Williams said he could have returned immediately. Rypien, meanwhile, completed his initial pass to Gary Clark for 12 yards. His second pass, on a third-and-one play-action, went to Orr for a 55-yard touchdown. With 1:01 left in the third quarter, Gibbs had a man-sized quandary. Who plays quarterback?
When defensive tackle Darryl Grant caused a fumble by Walker -- Dave Butz recovered with 11:50 left in the final quarter -- Gibbs chose Rypien. But Sanders dropped a third-and-10 pass, forcing a punt. Later, Landry shunned a 51-yard field goal to punt, and his punter, Mike Saxon, made it land at the Washington 4. Rypien's ensuing third-and-10 pass was directed toward a wide-open Clark, but it was underthrown and intercepted.
"No excuses," Rypien said. "If you can't throw the ball 30 yards, that's ridiculous."
Dallas sailed ahead when Irvin snared his third touchdown over Woodberry, a 12-yard lob from quarterback Steve Pelluer (21 of 36 for 333 yards). Starting cornerback Green had left earlier with a fractured left hand suffered when he tackled wide receiver Kelvin Martin on a reverse. The struggling Woodberry replaced him initially, though he was later demoted to nickel coverages. He declined comment afterward.
"When a guy like Green goes out," said Irvin, who dropped the first three balls thrown his way yesterday, "it makes your eyes light up."
With the Redskins trailing by seven points with five minutes to play, Gibbs turned to Williams. Williams recalled him asking, "How do you feel?" and Williams answered, "Great."
"If I'd just said 'Good,' " Williams said, "he wouldn't have put me in."
Gibbs maintained it wasn't a move made because of the Rypien interception, but because Williams usually gets hot with two or so minutes remaining. He completed passes of 17 yards (to Clark), 14 yards (to Sanders) and 41 yards (to Monk).
Suddenly at the 13, he was long on an end zone toss to Clark, high on an end zone toss to Mike Oliphant and perfect on a crossing pass to Clark; the wide receiver just dropped it. On fourth down, with just more than two minutes to go, Oliphant was held up going for a final pass, though there was no penalty. It landed inches from his hands.
Still, Washington retrieved the ball again by stuffing Dallas on three straight plays, and Williams started on the Dallas 42 with 1:28 remaining after Saxon's short punt. Clark dropped a key pass, but a toss to Warren brought up the third and one at the Dallas 20 with 28 seconds left. Gibbs signaled for the grounded pass.
So, it all came down to a fourth and one and Gibbs called the identical play that worked on fourth and one in Philadelphia last weekend -- a "dodge" pass. Monk comes off the line and is supposed to turn left or right or just turn around, depending on the coverage.Warren, meanwhile, is supposed to clear out deep. This time, Monk ran straight and turned around. Because he was covered, Williams looked elsewhere and Warren danced in front of his eyes in the rear of the end zone.
Asked if he thought it was overtime, Warren said, "Sure did."