The timeouts already spent, the clock running down with the ball sitting at his opponent's 21-yard line, Coach Joe Gibbs was about to experience the profound pain of trotting across the field to shake the hand of Bill Parcells, an NFC East nemesis.
Gibbs's comeback from a 12-year layoff is only three games old, but it is already clear: The bandwagon should have come equipped with airbags.
Fourteen years after Gibbs last faced Parcells, the Washington Redskins lost to the Dallas Cowboys, 21-18, in a riveting "Monday Night Football" thriller before 90,367, the largest home crowd in team history.
On a night when two dormant National Football League rivalries awakened in front of a national television audience, Gibbs vs. Bill Parcells and the Redskins vs. Cowboys took a back seat to a team that has lost two of three games in sinking to the bottom of the division.
Gibbs's team was essentially worn down by a 40-year-old quarterback. Vinny Testaverde was just good enough, completing 14 of 29 passes for 214 yards and one touchdown, and the Cowboys ended the nostalgia kick, running enough time off the clock in the game's final four minutes to leave the Redskins with only 13 seconds with which to work on their final possession.
Mark Brunell's 47-yard pass to Rod Gardner at the 21-yard line had the masses screaming, but they filed out meekly moments later when they realized Gardner's feet were inbounds and the clock would run out because the Redskins had squandered all their timeouts. The Redskins hurt themselves by burning one when they were unsure of an offensive formation and another when Gibbs challenged a touchdown by Dallas that was upheld by the officials.
Brunell, ineffective until late, nearly outdueled Testaverde. He finished 25 of 43 for 325 yards and two touchdowns, though he was sacked five times. He hooked up with Gardner on two of the most breathtaking plays of the night. First, he delivered a high-arching bomb that Gardner ran under, a 49-yard completion that put Washington at the Dallas 15, trailing 21-10. On the next play, he sidestepped Cowboys defensive end Kenyon Coleman and rifled a strike as Gardner crossed through the back of the end zone. He found Taylor Jacobs for the two-point conversion to cut the lead to 21-18 with 4:30 remaining.
But Testaverde connected with Dan Campbell on a key third-down play that ran time off the clock and essentially ruined Gibbs's chance of getting back at Parcells, who is now 12-6 against Gibbs.
"I'm proud of 'em," Gibbs said of his players. "We got a lot of work to do. I think everybody knows that. We certainly do. . . . But we've been further down than 1-2. There are a lot of good 1-2 teams in this league right now."
Gibbs and Parcells, who have won a combined five Super Bowls and whose rivalry was responsible for some of the NFC East's great theater, had not played field general against each other in 14 years.
That fact alone gave the game cachet, amounting to the most-anticipated Redskins regular season home date in eight years. Not since Washington was 6-1 in 1996 and about to shut down the Indianapolis Colts at RFK Stadium had such a fuss been made over a non-playoff game.
The first big play came with more than four minutes left in the first quarter when cornerback Walt Harris was called for pass interference against Dallas wide receiver Terry Glenn on a long pass to fly pattern in the end zone. The 40-yard penalty moved the ball to the 1-yard line, where Eddie George punched it across for the game's first touchdown. The penalty was among a bevy of controversial and contested calls in the first eight minutes, which featured Gibbs challenging an official's decision for the first time. (Instant-replay challenges did not exist when he coached 12 years ago.)
Brunell maddened his team for much of the first half, especially with three minutes left in the second quarter when he was sacked for the second straight time, dropped behind his own 20-yard line. He seemed puzzled where the rush was coming from and had neither the legs nor the instincts to know when to tuck the ball and run.
In many ways, the Redskins and Cowboys had not played a meaningful game since late in the 2000 season when Washington was still in playoff contention. Playing on the league's marquee night did not hurt when it came to hyperbole.
Washington beat the New York Jets in the league's kickoff game last year on a Thursday on ABC, which was pawned off as "Monday Night Football."
But the Redskins' last official Monday night appearance came more than two years ago in a blowout loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.
The game's theme music going on 34 years -- "Dun-dundundundun!" -- blared from the stadium's sound system continuously prior to kickoff, until the noise reached a fortissimo in the stadium. The way the masses stood, the music was almost an identity referendum, as if their team had made it back to prime time.
If it was not quite a return to glory, a Monday night date at least meant a return to the national consciousness for the Redskins. And much of that perceived marketability and the renewal of a rivalry was due in part to the two Hall of Fame coaches and the men who hired them. Jerry Jones, the Dallas owner, shook hands with Redskins owner Daniel Snyder before the game, and they soon left the field, leaving it to the relatively new faces of their respective franchises.
Gibbs and Parcells engaged in some of the most draining trench-warfare battles in NFL history in the 1980s, and while Parcells held an 11-6 advantage in head-to-head matchups he always said Gibbs was his most respected nemesis. It was Parcells who dealt Gibbs his only shutout, a 17-0 loss in the 1987 NFC championship game at Giants Stadium, and without the two men on opposite sidelines the game simply would not have had the same allure.
Hours before kickoff, the parking lot smelled of charcoal, beer and barbeque sauce. To beat Beltway traffic, many tailgaters appeared to have either left work at noon or taken the day off. Ribs slathered in hickory smoke and sweet tomato sauce sizzled on grills, next to homemade German potato salad. Fathers and sons tossed footballs in some lots; in others, inebriated men stumbled as their friends asked them to "go long."
Indeed, it wasn't all a G-rated atmosphere. The hand-made placards ranged from "HONK IF YOU HATE DALLAS" to teen-agers who conveyed their affection for the Cowboys with four-letter expletives on their T-shirts.
Two Dallas fans, one wearing a replica jersey of Cowboy safety Roy Williams, withstood the verbal abuse walking toward the stadium.
"You poor souls," a woman of maybe 40 said, as her chili bubbled on a Coleman stove. "You look so lost."