Cowboys Don't Let Redskins Get Started, 23-10
By Richard Justice
IRVING, TEX., SEPT. 7 -- The Washington Redskins could have played a month last season without putting together this kind of lowlight film. Without seeing so many mistakes by the special teams and breakdowns in pass protection. Without seeing a string of costly and sometimes silly mistakes. Without seeing three Pro Bowlers -- quarterback Mark Rypien, cornerback Darrell Green and tackle Jim Lachey -- look so bad.
The Redskins played 12 weeks last season before leaving the field with a loss. Tonight, the Dallas Cowboys outplayed them from beginning to end and won the regular season opener, 23-10, before 63,538 at Texas Stadium.
It was a game that left both teams physically and mentally exhausted, partly because it was played with the intensity of a playoff contest and partly because it began with the temperature close to 90 degrees on the artificial turf. It was also a game the Cowboys won in every way imaginable and it may look worse after the Redskins return to work Tuesday and find out the severity of knee injuries suffered by right tackle Joe Jacoby and defensive tackle Bobby Wilson.
The Redskins didn't spend a day out of first place last season, but they enter Sunday's game against Atlanta at RFK Stadium a game behind Philadelphia and Dallas in the NFC East.
"I think you have to say it was a heck of a job on their part," Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs said. "I think they did a great job all the way across the board. That's all there is to it. You just have to brag on them. We knew it was going to be a very emotional game. It was that way last year. We were down early and got turned around. Tonight we couldn't."
The Redskins lost because their first drive ended with Cowboys cornerback Issiac Holt rushing around Johnny Thomas to block a Kelly Goodburn punt for a safety. They lost because wide receiver Alvin Harper beat Green for a 26-yard touchdown pass with 1:02 left in the first half. They lost because Kelvin Martin broke the game open with a 79-yard punt return for a touchdown midway through the third quarter. They lost because Lachey and others had trouble slowing down new Cowboys sackmaster Charles Haley, who bedeviled Rypien the entire night.
They lost because seven of their 11 possessions began inside their 21. And the Redskins lost because Emmitt Smith became the first runner ever to have four straight 100-yard games against a Gibbs team. He got 139 yards on 26 carries, including a five-yard run that made it 9-0 in the first quarter.
Quarterback Troy Aikman did the rest, completing 18 of 31 passes for 216 yards and one touchdowns.
"Remember, this is only one game," Redskins center Jeff Bostic said. "We made so many mental mistakes. We just didn't perform well. We could never get into sync. The crowd was part of that."
The Redskins opened in a no-huddle offense that caused more confusion for them than for the Cowboys. They finished the first quarter with minus two yards offense and had only 264 for the game. The Cowboys rolled over the Washington defense for 390 yards and 23 first downs and controlled the ball for 33 minutes. The Redskins had 80 yards worth of penalties, including three personal fouls.
Rypien completed just 20 of 38 passes for 189 yards and a touchdown, but he was hit harder and more often than at any point last season. He was sacked only twice -- only five fewer than all of last season -- but was knocked down at least another dozen times.
And all along the Cowboys looked a little like Coach Jimmy Johnson's Miami Hurricanes. They pranced after big plays, they talked to the Redskins and they talked like a team that expects to be in Super Bowl XXVII.
"Our worry is getting this game behind us," Johnson said. He then said words that Gibbs surely will clip and save. "I told a couple of the coaches we'd win this one, but it's the Giants game next week that worries me. We've got to put this one behind us. Our guys did lay it on the line tonight. In order to beat this team, you have to play well in all phases. Our fans did a great job. It sounded like a domed stadium out there."
The first quarter ended with the Cowboys having gained 112 yards, the Redskins having lost two. The miracle of the evening was that the Redskins went to the locker room trailing only 16-7 at the half. It had been 9-7 before Aikman engineered a two-minute drive that ended with Harper's 26-yard touchdown reception over Green.
It certainly looked as if it would be worse after the Redskins' first possession. They opened in the no-huddle, and with the crowd so loud linebacker Vinson Smith swarmed Rypien for an 11-yard loss on the first play. Defensive tackle Jimmie Johnson dropped running back Earnest Byner for a three-yard loss on the second. Rypien, with pressure from Haley, missed Byner on third and 24.
One more mistake followed. Center John Brandes gave Goodburn a high snap in the end zone, and if that wasn't enough trouble, Holt sprinted around Thomas to block the punt. It rolled out of the end zone for a safety, and 3:15 into the game, the Cowboys had a 2-0 lead.
It got worse. The Cowboys took over on their own 16 and ground out an 84-yard, 13-play drive that ate up 7:39. Smith carried seven times for 31 yards and finished the drive with his seventh touchdown in five games against the Redskins.
His score made it 9-0 and it stayed that way because Cowboys rookie kicker Lin Elliott missed a 32-yard field goal and because Aikman threw the first of two interceptions when cornerback Martin Mayhew swept in front of Harper and picked a ball off the ground.
He returned it 25 yards to the Cowboys 42, and for the first time, the Redskins started a drive past their own 20. Replays showed the ball bounced off Mayhew's chest and hit the turf before he came up with it.
The Redskins finally got some offense. Byner picked up gains of 11 and 17 yards, and from the 30, wide receiver Gary Clark got behind safety James Washington and caught a 30-yard touchdown pass to make it 9-7 with 4:48 left in the half.
The Cowboys couldn't move, but Mike Saxon's 54-yard punt rolled out of bounds at the 1. The Redskins moved seven yards and punted back to the Cowboys, who got it at their 33 with 1:37 left in the half.
That was more than enough for Aikman, who needed 35 seconds to get the score. He hit Smith for 11, wide receiver Michael Irvin for 13 and 17, and on third and 10, lofted a 26-yard touchdown pass for Harper, who had beaten Green. He got this one with 1:02 left in the half and put the Redskins in a nine-point hole.
"I think we had a chance if maybe we could have stopped them on that last drive before the half and only been down a couple of points," Gibbs said. "But they got down the field. Although I think they had the upper hand most of the day."
The Redskins had chances to get back in the game early in the second half . They drove to the Dallas 47 and were forced to punt after getting the second-half kickoff, and the Cowboys stuffed it right back down their throats, driving from their 11 to the Washington 27.
But Aikman made another mistake, throwing for wide receiver Martin on the left sideline. Safety Brad Edwards stepped in front at the 9-yard line, intercepted the pass and returned it 28 yards to the Redskins 37.
It ended on third and five when Haley ran around Lachey and knocked the ball from Rypien's hands. Rypien recovered, but Goodburn was again forced to punt. Brandes bounced the snap to him and that set the tone for the game-breaking play. Martin fielded the ball at the 21, cut to his left, where he avoided Stephen Hobbs's hand. Martin sailed through three clearing blocks for a 79-yard punt return.
"We had a return left and what we try to do is having everyone get on somebody," Martin said. "Not even knock them down, just mirror them down the field. I just saw the punter coming at me, and you don't ever want to let them bring you down. You'll hear it from the guys all week."
Martin gave the Cowboys a 23-7 lead with 6:42 left in the third quarter. His was the first punt returned for a touchdown against the Redskins since San Francisco's John Taylor got one in 1988.
The Redskins had five more possessions and had drives of 8, 27, minus 3, 51 and 62 yards. Rypien was knocked down at least twice on each and twice was slow in getting back up. Chip Lohmiller's 49-yard field goal was their only score in the five possessions.
"The assessment is simple," Redskins defensive tackle Tim Johnson said. "We got beat by the better team. There's not a lot of excuses we can make."