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  Redskins Get Drilled in Last Two Minutes

By Richard Justice
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 17, 1997; Page D1

IRVING, Tex., Nov. 16 — The Washington Redskins had their biggest victory in five years within their grasp. They could see it and they could feel it. And then they couldn't finish it.

Pushed right to the edge, the Dallas Cowboys scored 11 points in the final two minutes to defeat the Redskins, 17-14, in front of 64,559 this afternoon at Texas Stadium.

Kicker Richie Cunningham's 42-yard field goal with four seconds remaining finished what Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman and wide receiver Michael Irvin had started by making play after play against a defense that finally ran out of steam.

"You had it right in the palm of your hand," Redskins quarterback Gus Frerotte said, "and all of a sudden, it's gone."

The Redskins paid a hard price for another afternoon of offensive mistakes and find themselves tied with the Cowboys for second place in the NFC East at 6-5. The New York Giants (7-4), whom the Redskins play Sunday, lead both teams by one game as the season enters a five-game stretch run to the playoffs.

"We might look back and say this is the one that got us jump-started and back on track," Aikman said. "We had to win to crawl back into the race."

As if the defeat didn't make the afternoon bitter enough, the Redskins probably lost wide receivers Leslie Shepherd and Alvin Harper for at least a few weeks and perhaps for the remainder of the season. Shepherd dislocated his left elbow in the first half and probably won't play again this season. Harper departed a play later with a strained Achilles' tendon that will be reevaluated Monday.

A defeat would just about have eliminated the Cowboys from playoff consideration, and that defeat seemed certain after Henry Ellard's acrobatic 24-yard touchdown catch gave the Redskins a 14-6 lead with 13 minutes 37 seconds remaining in the game.

Finally, backed up to their own 3-yard line with just 5:48 remaining, the Cowboys came alive. That's when they again looked like a championship team. Aikman led a brilliant 97-yard drive that included a fourth-down conversion and ended with a six-yard touchdown pass to Irvin with 1:55 remaining.

Irvin's touchdown got the Cowboys within two points, 14-12, and Aikman tied it with a lob to running back Emmitt Smith for the two-point conversion.

The Redskins ran three plays and punted after a peculiar third-down call by Coach Norv Turner. Turner apparently made the call because he had no confidence that his quarterback, Gus Frerotte, could complete a third-and-seven throw.

What Turner didn't know is that punter Matt Turk would interrupt a great season with a 28-yard punt that sailed out of bounds at the Dallas 47-yard line with 1:29 remaining.

"I think he's the best punter in the league," Turner said. "He had a bad one."

Seven plays later, Aikman got the Cowboys in position to win, and their kicker hit the game-winner.

The Redskins said all the predictable things after the game about how they would put the defeat past them and move on to preparing for next Sunday's game against the Giants. But the Redskins also know that all defeats aren't equal.

This is the kind of defeat that can drain a team of emotion and resurface again and again in the weeks ahead. The Redskins certainly learned that lesson last season when they blew a big lead against Arizona and never recovered, losing four of their next six to miss the playoffs.

"The good teams get ready to play no matter what," Turner said. "We're a good team. We'll get ready. A lot of teams come in here and get beat. I'm not going to put my head down. I'm excited about playing next week. You just have to make plays when you have opportunities."

The Redskins didn't make plays for most of the afternoon. They managed just three first downs in a first half when Frerotte was unable to complete a single pass to a wide receiver. He also didn't have a lot of help. Harper and Shepherd dropped third-down passes to stop drives, a third-down pass to Michael Westbrook was nullified when tackle Joe Patton was penalized for being downfield and the Redskins also failed to convert a third-and-short play to end another drive.

"In the first half, we didn't take advantage of the opportunities we had," Turner said. "And it came back to haunt us."

Other things haunted the Redskins. After Shepherd and Harper departed, Chris Thomas was forced into the role of third wide receiver. Problem is, Thomas is a special teams player who never takes snaps with the first-team offense, and he didn't always know where to line up.

"That happens when you put a special teams player at wide receiver," Turner said.

In the second half, Frerotte had to use crucial timeouts to get his teammates lined up. If Harper and Shepherd are out next week, rookie wide receivers Albert Connell and James Thrash probably will be active. But with only Ellard and Michael Westbrook healthy for the second half today, Turner was forced to throw Thomas into unfamiliar situations.

Turner and Frerotte twice exchanged angry words on the sidelines after the timeouts, but for all he did wrong, Thomas also caught a couple of important passes on the first touchdown drive.

"You never know when you're going to get your shot," Frerotte said. "When you're in meetings, you have to pay attention."

While Turner may have regretted the timeouts, he made some odd calls himself. After the Cowboys tied the game at 14, the Redskins got the ball back on their own 20-yard line. Running back Terry Allen caught a three-yard pass on first down. Fullback Marc Logan, subbing for the injured Larry Bowie, dropped a pass on second down.

Then on third and seven, Turner apparently had no confidence Frerotte could complete a pass because he called an inside handoff to Brian Mitchell. It went for two yards, and when Turk's bad punt followed, the Cowboys only had to drive 28 yards in the final 89 seconds to get in position for the win.

"We had confidence in it," Turner said of the Mitchell run. "If you make it, you keep going."

Frerotte called it "a trick 'em play," adding: " I just run the play that's called."

The Redskins, who had four dropped passes, stayed in it as long as they did because their defense was tremendous, holding the Cowboys to just a pair of field goals by Cunningham until the fourth quarter. Even when Dallas safety Brock Marion returned the second-half kickoff 46 yards, the Redskins didn't break.

But they still trailed 6-0 until midway through the third quarter, when their offense finally got going, driving 67 yards in nine plays. Allen scored on a four-yard run with 2:31 remaining in the quarter.

The Cowboys again went nowhere, and the Redskins made it 14-6 with a drive that started with Mitchell's 18-yard punt return to the Dallas 45. Frerotte completed an eight-yard throw to Ellard on second and seven, then Sanders was called for an 11-yard pass interference penalty against Westbrook.

Allen lost one yard on first down, but then Frerotte and Ellard hooked up on a nice 24-yard touchdown play. Ellard appeared to get away with a shove of cornerback Kevin Smith, but he still adjusted nicely and went over Smith to make the catch that gave the Redskins an eight-point lead.

Once more, the Redskins made a defensive stand, but the offense did nothing with the opportunity, holding the ball for less than five minutes. The Cowboys got the ball back, and Aikman and Irvin began to click.

Irvin worked over cornerback Cris Dishman, who had sprained an ankle, catching four passes for 64 yards. He got the touchdown, but he had also grabbed a 31-yarder on a fourth-and-two play that could have ended the drive.

By the time he got unwrapped from Dishman to catch the touchdown pass, the momentum had swung toward the Cowboys. The Redskins were unable to get it back.

"That's a heck of a football team," Turner said of the Cowboys. "They've got a bunch of guys who know how to play and know how to win. Nothing was given to them. Those teams were fighting and going after it. Now, we have to move on and get ready for next week."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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