As a handful of Washington Redskins watched their season slowly slip away on a television set in teammate Rick Walker's Herndon restaurant last night, a fan called for one last round of "Hail to the Redskins."
They sang. The Redskins smiled. But they were moved by sentiment, not celebration.
There was no joy in Washington last night. For the first time in four seasons, the Redskins, just two years removed from the Super Bowl, did not qualify for the National Football League playoffs.
The San Francisco 49ers' come-from-behind 31-16 victory over the Dallas Cowboys yesterday officially ended a 10-6 season for the Redskins, who won five of their last six games but could not overcome a disappointing 1-3 start.
"I hated having to watch that," said Coach Joe Gibbs, who spent the afternoon at home, in front of his set. "It's just a feeling of bitter disappointment. It was a tough way to end the season."
The 49ers, the Cowboys, the New York Giants and the Redskins all finished with 10-6 records, but the Redskins became the odd-team-out because of poor head-to-head and conference records.
If the Cowboys had defeated or tied the 49ers, the Redskins would have earned a wild-card spot. Instead, the Giants will play host to the defending Super Bowl champion 49ers next Sunday.
All of this put the Redskins -- and a city of fans -- in a most difficult position.
They had to cheer for Dallas.
Cheer for Dallas?
"I didn't like it," said defensive end Charles Mann, "but I did it."
Mann and 12 of his teammates met at Walker's Scoreboard restaurant and bar in Herndon, a couple miles from Redskin Park, to watch the game that would decide their fate.
When Dallas took a 13-0 lead, the players and the couple hundred people they drew by their presence, cheered wildly.
"New York!" yelled Mann. "New York, here we come!"
But when San Francisco surged back, taking the lead in the third quarter, they looked into their drinks and shook their heads.
"That's it," said running back George Rogers, one day removed from his team-record 206-yard rushing game in a 27-16 victory over the Cardinals in St. Louis. "It's over now."
"Eat and drink, man," Walker said to Rogers. "Eat and drink."
It was a made-for-TV event, with CBS televising live from the bar during the game.
Fans crowded in the doors and immediately shoved their way toward the camera.
When Dallas kicked a field goal to go up, 13-0, co-owner Gus Anthony screamed, "Get ready, everybody!"
Sure enough, the camera immediately flicked on and -- presto! -- there were two seconds of real live celebrating.
When the camera went off, everyone returned to normal.
Perhaps it was the appeal of a national television appearance without a helmet, or maybe it was the pleasing halftime score. Whatever, three Redskins were gathered at the beginning of the game -- Walker, Mann and Ken Coffey -- and 13 showed up in all, many leaving before their season officially ended at 7:15 p.m.
Rogers, moving slowly, saying he felt very sore, arrived in the second quarter.
"Hey, Keith," he said to running back Keith Griffin, sitting in front of the group, near the camera, "I saw you on TV, man."
Rogers said he really didn't show up to be on television, but to watch the game. Yet, that was practically impossible the way the hot TV lights were set up, blinding anyone who looked at a TV monitor.
As the game wore on, the sweet dreams of a playoff berth began to wear thin.
At 13-0, tight end Anthony Jones sliced through the merriment: "Hey, let's not get too happy. This is the 49ers."
When quarterback Joe Montana threw a 49-yard touchdown pass to Dwight Clark to cut the margin to 13-7, rookie Terry Orr, on injured reserve this season, said quietly, "It just started."
The 49ers finally went ahead, 17-16, in the third quarter.
"See what I mean?" Orr said.
"Where's Staubach?" Mann asked.
It was a tough day overall.
"How do you cheer for Dallas for one day?" a regular patron named Craig Slade asked at the bar.
Easy. There were moments to behold, undoubtedly firsts in Dallas-Washington lore.
When Cowboys tight end Doug Cosbie caught the first touchdown pass of the game, Walker clenched his fist and smiled.
"That's big-league right there, buddy," Walker yelled.
Later, he uttered the following: to quarterback Gary Hogeboom, as he scrambled, "Don't get hurt." And, later, "Go Bates."
If there's anyone the Redskins usually despise, it's Bill Bates.
With five minutes remaining, CBS flashed a sobering graphic: San Francisco-New York in the wild-card game next Sunday.
"They already got it up on the screen," Rogers said.
Orr started to get up and nudged Rogers.
There were similar feelings all over the area.
At Champion's in Georgetown, all but a few cranks were pulling for the Cowboys, but the crowd was subdued -- about the most that could be asked for under the circumstances.
"It's tough coming out," said Kevin Byrnes, sitting at the bar. "The first syllable is hardest: Da, Da, Da, Dallas."
Nearby, Paul Seiden agreed: "I won't root for them outwardly, but inwardly I want them to win."
Champion's owner Michael O'Harro explained that there was no contradiction in wanting Dallas to win yesterday, even for those like himself who desperately hate the team.
"I don't think anyone is rooting for Dallas to win, they're rooting for San Francisco to lose," O'Harro said. "That's not the same thing."
Tenuous logic, maybe, but for many Redskins fans, that perspective seemed to be the only way to keep sane.
"It's really strange," said Allen Reid. "You're rooting for the Cowboys, but you're not really rooting for them . . . It's tough to keep straight."
Reid was watching the game at the television section at the downtown Hecht's store. Although many in the crowd had returned to Christmas shopping by halftime, a large group had gathered around the department store's wall of televisions, according to an employe.
"During the first half, this whole room was filled with people cheering for the Cowboys," said the employe, who, because of store policy, asked not to be named. "Everybody from Pennsylvania Avenue executives to street people were in here jumping up and down."