After a 5-month-long buildup worthy of the Super Bowl itself, the game all of Washington and Dallas has anticipated for so long finally is ready to unfold tonight in RFK Stadium.
The Cowboys and the Redskins, the fiercest of all NFL rivals, will square off at 9 p.m. before a national television audience (WJLA-TV-7). Perhaps no other game in this long and sometimes bitter series has been punctuated with so many question marks -- and preceded by so much drama -- as this one.
Will Danny White be able to adequately replace the fabulous Roger Staubach as the Dallas quarterback?
Will the Redskins be able to overcome the unexpected loss of retired fullback John Riggins?
Will the Redskins be inspired enough by the heartbreaking 35-34 loss in Dallas at the end of last season to extend their home Monday night unbeaten string to nine? Or will the Cowboys win their 16th straight season opener?
Will Joe Theismann be a one-season sensation as Redskin quarterback, or is he ready to establish himself as one of the league's true stars?
Will the return of Too Tall Jones restore to the Dallas front four its former fierceness?
Will the game live up to its lofty billing, or are both teams so keyed up from the long weeks of anticipation that the contest itself will prove anticlimatic?
ABC television certainly isn't expecting a flop. Instead, the network would be surprised if the game didn't receive the best rating of any Monday night extravaganza.
Nor are the Redskins expecting anything but what linebacker Brad Dusek called "one of the most physical, hard hitting games you'll ever see. There is a lot to be won out there and both teams know that."
It may be only the first game of the season but both clubs would like to get a jump in the NFC East race. And there is nothiing better to boost spirits for the rest of the season than a victory over the team you despise the most.
Coach Tom Landry says his Cowboys are gong through a transition, searching for an identity. They could be a very good team, he says, but maybe they aren't ready quite yet since White is still uproven and injuries have ravaged their secondary.
The Redskins, on the other hand, had high hopes for this season until Riggins stunned them by walking out of training camp and never coming back. Now they hope new fulback Wilbur Jackson, obtained from San Francisco, will offset the loss of Riggins and allow them to focus again on their lofty expectations.
"You've always go to be positive going into a game like this," said Washington center Bob Kuziel. "But I feel we will win. I like what I've seen in training camp and I like how we have prepared this week for the game.
"Besides, we are playiing at home. That's a plus. I also think our offense can move the ball on anyone."
Although no one said it publicly, there seemed to be the feeling among the Redskins this week that they would win through experience on defense and precision on offense.
That defense, usng an experienced and deep secondary, will toss so many different looks and coverages at White that Washington hopes he will become as confused as he appeared to be in the second half of the final preseason game against Pittsburgh.
And that offense, which will use its running game for show and its passing game for control, will attempt, as Coach Jack Pardee said, "to nickel and dime them to death. We just have to keep the change flowing."
Theismann, of course, is the key to the success of the Redskin attack. Although rookie Art Monk could become a truly fine receiver, he still is not completely comfortable as a pro. So there will be plenty of short passes from Theismann and few risky attempts into a Dallas secondary that is missing retired Cliff Harris and has one gimpy cornerback (Benny Barnes) and one inexperienced corner (Aaron Mitchell). If the Cowboy defensive backs stumble, Landry could be in for a long evening.
But if you are looking for keys, there are plenty more to consider:
The Redskins must generate a better front four pass rush than they showed near the end of last season. Ends Coy Bacon and Karl Lorch are coming off fine preseasons, but the pivotal figure may be tackle Perry Brooks who has moved ahead of veteran Diron Talbert.
"Perry could put us over the top on defense," Pardee said. "He's got gifted ability and he's had a fine preseason. He could make a big difference." But the front line will miss pass rush specialist Joe Jones, who is out with a bad ankle.
The Cowboys must put constant pressure on Theismann in order to give their secondary some help.On talent alone, the Dallas front four is superior to the Redskin offensive line, but somehow, at home, guard Ron Saul manages to neutralize Randy White while Terry Hermeling against Harvey Martin and George Starke against Jones play like all-pros when they see Dallas uniforms.
"It was nice not having to see Sir Edward for a year," Starke said with a laugh. "I didn't refresh my memory about him on film until the end of the week. The Redskins fear the Cowboys ability to pull off big plays. "You can control them and then they can still kill you with long gainers," said Defensive Coordinator Doc Urich, who hasn't forgotten Staubach's heroics last December. "Danny White may not be Staubach but I respect him. He can scramble just as well, so we better watch our containment."
Halfback Tony Dorsett didn't play in that December game and he never has had a really standout game in RFK.This time, he will be watched by Rich Milot, making his first start at middle linebacker in place of injured Neal Olkewicz.
Dorsett will be helped by new fullback Rod Spings, who beat out Robert Newhouse. Springs is a receiving threat who is tough to catch in the secondary.
Washington must force turnovers. Its defense still isn't strong enough to neutralize Dallas at night without the help of some mistakes.Nor can the Redskins make many offensive errors, one reason they emphasize ball control so much.
The Redskins have a new punter, Mike Connell, and a new snapper, rookie Jeff Bostic, neither of whom have been exposed to Cowboy mania before. "This is a tough way for new people to have a baptism of fire," said one Redskin. "They've looked good in practice but this is a whole different ball game. They have to do well."
Toss in the Redskins' new running back tandem (halfback Buddy Hardeman and fullbacks Clarence Harmon and Hackson) and Dusek's gimpy leg Monte Coleman will play a lot in his place) and Washington has its fingers crossed at a lot of places.
Not that there isn't some stability to this game.Landry still is employing his flex defense and multiformations on offense. Pardee again will shuffle a considerable number of playerson almost every snap, searching for just the right matchups to offset Cowboy tactics. And the Redskin fans are sure to fill RFK Stadium with the kind of sound preserved solely for Dallas.
"We've talked and thought about this game for so long," said free safety Mark Murphy, who will share time with Mike Nelms, making his debut as the Redskin kick returner.
Redskin fans using Metro tonight need not worry about transportation after the game -- Metro will run extra trains to accomodate the crowd past their normal midnight closing time.