Dallas stunned the Redskins yesterday with some uncharacteristic blitzing tactics, then used a daring fourth-period run off a fake punt to end the Redskins' hopes of a fifth straight victory this season.
The Cowboy blitzes led to a staggering seven sacks of quarterback Joe Theismann, disrupting Washington's normally well-meshed offense. But when the Redskins recall this 24-10 defeat, their first of this season, they probably will remember more vividly Danny White's surprising decision not to punt from his 21 with seven minutes left.
The offense finally had the kinks worked out and the Redskins had closed to within 17-10. Their faithful followers had the place rocking just like in the old days between these teams. But White deflated all the emotions with his 20-yard run against a Redskin team trying to help Mike Nelms return the punt that never was.
"They've blitzed before, but certainly not this much, at least not against us," Redskin Coach Joe Gibbs said. "And who would have thought White would fake a punt at his own 21? We had it going, we had the crowd behind us, we were ready for a big return. It was a guts play on his part. It hurt."
This was the Cowboys' sixth straight victory over the Redskins and Tom Landry's 200th regular-season victory in 23 years as an NFL coach. The victory also ended a four-game Washington winning streak this season and a seven-game stretch over two years that had been the longest in the league.
Despite the loss, Washington remains atop the NFC standings, tied with the Cowboys and Green Bay at 4-1. That was little consolation yesterday for Redskin players who regarded the Dallas game as a measure of their credibility and improvement.
What they found was a Cowboy team with a little too much experience, depth and, for this day at least, a few more superior players, especially White, who completed 21 of 29 passes for 216 yards and a touchdown.
"We really can't stand Dallas," receiver Art Monk said. "Nothing against them personally--we just don't like them. We just really wanted to beat them and I think we can. We can't get down because there is a possibility we can meet them in the playoffs, so we don't want to lose any more."
The Redskins lost even though their defense accomplished its major goal by holding Tony Dorsett to 57 yards on 26 carries. Stop Dorsett, the Redskins are convinced, and you can beat Dallas. It didn't work out that way, because the Cowboys showed they had other strengths.
The Redskins trailed by 17 points late in the third quarter before desperately trying to rally. They got to 17-10 before White's run from punt formation helped end their comeback hopes. But those hopes probably were dashed much earlier, when Dallas found it could disrupt Washington's offense with its blitzing tactics.
"We knew we had to do something to control Theismann," said safety Benny Barnes. "He has the ability to buy extra seconds so his receivers can get open. We couldn't give him that time."
So the Cowboys sent all types of extra pass rushers at Theismann: linebackers, cornerbacks, safeties, in an assortment of combinations. It seemed every time the Redskins had a major gain in the first three quarters, it would be quickly nullified by the Dallas rush.
"The blitzing worked, so we kept it up," linebacker Bob Breunig said. "They keep only one back in the backfield and that isn't enough against everyone we were sending. We were overloading one side and they couldn't block it. After a while, they were guessing. We were in control because of the blitzes."
Gibbs: "We worked on blitzes and dogs all week, like we always do. It wasn't just a breakdown by our line; it was everything, teamwide. We have passes to counteract those tactics, but nothing was clicking. If you don't make them pay for coming, they'll keep it up."
Instead, Theismann paid. Besides those seven sacks, shared by eight Cowboys, he threw three interceptions. The constant pressure affected his timing. Even when he had time, many of his passes were just off target, just off receivers' fingertips.
"Our mistake was getting into a lot of long-yardage situations against them," said Theismann, who completed 19 of 29 for 234 yards. "That's suicide."
In the first half, the Redskins, also beset by ill-timed penalties, couldn't penetrate the Dallas 30. They were fortunate to be trailing by only 7-0 on an eight-yard pass from White to Ron Springs.
White took advantage of soft coverage by Redskin cornerbacks to bail out his team continually after the Redskins would stop Dorsett for short gains. White set up a third-period field goal by Rafael Septien with three completions. A 22-yard run on a reverse by receiver Tony Hill preceded Tim Newsome's 18-yard touchdown run for a 17-0 lead with 4:59 remaining in the third.
The Cowboys made just two major mistakes, both interceptions by rookie Vernon Dean.
"Dallas caught us when we had certain coverages where the corners were playing soft," free safety Mark Murphy said. "I've never seen Danny be that sharp before. He always seemed to complete something when they needed it."
Even when Moseley made his field goal -- his 11th straight of the season and 200th of his career -- 10 seconds into the fourth period, there was little reason to expect a Redskin rally, especially since the Cowboys had sacked Theismann twice during the scoring drive.
But during Washington's next possession, Theismann got better protection. A 24-yard pass to Virgil Seay and a seven-yarder to Joe Washington, who played extensively for the first time this season (32 rushing yards, three catches), had the Redskins at the Dallas 17. On first down, Theismann faked toward Brown, then passed to him. Brown shook off Dennis Thurman before outrunning two more Cowboys for the touchdown with 9:45 left. Brown has scored in every game and has six touchdown catches this season.
Suddenly, Dallas was ahead by just seven points and RFK was filled with noise.
"When they scored, the place felt wild, just like the old times," Dallas' Drew Pearson said. "It was a super football atmosphere."
The Redskins stopped Dallas with authority on the next series and White dropped back to punt on fourth and three at his 21. Washington had a punt return called and there was no pressure on the Dallas kicker.
"Two guys are supposed to come from the outside and one up the middle," said Wayne Sevier, the Redskins' special teams coach. "The guy in the middle didn't do his job. White runs a lot. He did that twice to me when I was coaching in St. Louis. We talked about it all week."
Linebacker Larry Kubin: "We wanted to get back there and set up a good return for Mike (Nelms). Everything was going our way, you could feel the adrenaline. We knew he has run before but who would have thought it would have happened then? It was a great play."
When White decided to run -- "he's usually more right than wrong when he decides to go," Landry said -- the closest Redskin was Quentin Lowry. But Lowry turned and ran upfield to help Nelms' return. White had no problem gaining 20 yards before being tackled.
Although the Redskins held again and got the ball back with 5:30 left, their momentum was gone. They already had missed two opportunities when Dallas had recovered fumbles in the fourth period by White and Dorsett. And this time, Theismann was sacked a seventh time and Gibbs called for a punt, hoping for one more chance.
"I thought briefly about going for it (on fourth and five at his 41) but I thought we could hold them and then get it one more time," Gibbs said.
Instead, Springs victimized Washington for a 46-yard touchdown run with 1:52 left to send the fans to the parking lot.
"We can't let this ruin our whole season," Gibbs said. "We've got an important game against St. Louis next week and we've got to go in there in the right frame of mind. Our goal is still to somehow make the playoffs and then what happens, happens. That's how we have to look at this one."