The Washington Redskins used to love to get on the Dallas Cowboys' nerves.
Coach George Allen once brought in a cake decorated with Roger Staubach's No. 12 and joyfully sliced it up. Defensive tackle Diron Talbert blurted out that Dallas started the "wrong quarterback" after Staubach, coming back from an injury, lost the NFC title game to the Redskins, 26-3, in 1972. Staubach never forgave him.
On the other side, Coach Tom Landry once said his quarterback (Staubach) was a "better athlete" than Washington's (Billy Kilmer). Kilmer never forgave Landry for that.
It's Cowboy Week at Redskin Park. Allen, the man who gave this rivalry its spice, is out of coaching and out of the country, vacationing in Europe.
That's fitting. Four days before the game at RFK Stadium, all is quiet, or seems that way, on the Eastern front.
After practice yesterday, Washington Coach Joe Gibbs became engaged in a debate over which quarterback was better, Joe Theismann or the Gary Hogeboom-Danny White tag team. Usually, this wouldn't be much of an argument. But this is Cowboy Week, and, well . . .
Gibbs wouldn't give Theismann the edge. Absolutely refused to. "Last year, he was the NFL most valuable player," Gibbs said. "This year, we ain't played (Dallas) yet. Last year doesn't mean squat. It's what happens this year and that's going to be Sunday."
Hogeboom, of course, has started six games for the Cowboys, who, like the Redskins, are 4-2 and leading the NFC East. White is sitting on the bench. "We got a guy who has beat the life out of us sitting on the bench," Gibbs said.
The pregame hype emanating from Redskin Park sounds like previews for "Love Boat." You were expecting "Combat?"
"Maybe it was more intense then (during the Allen years) than it is now," linebacker Rich Milot suggested. "Diron Talbert was still here. He really kept it going."
And this from defensive tackle Dave Butz: "Over the long haul, even though the faces have changed, basically, everybody has a lot of respect."
No one will even admit that the Cowboys are struggling. They lost to St. Louis, 31-20, last Sunday; Tony Dorsett has not gone over 100 yards in nine consecutive games and Landry says there is "a success gap" between his team and Gibbs'. The Cowboys haven't been to a Super Bowl since the 1978 season; the Redskins have been in the last two.
"Dallas is in first place; they're not struggling," right tackle George Starke said. "Yeah, we're struggling; they're struggling. But this is not an 'end of the world' game."
Gibbs said the Redskins and Cowboys "are in the same place, in a little different way, but we've both been spotty."
He prefers not to focus on the different ways two teams can get to 4-2, but on the fact that they are there. So the Redskins have won four in a row? So what, Gibbs says.
"After you win four or five in a row, things start to creep in where you forget what it took to get you there. You can begin to think you're better than you are, as opposed to when you're fighting to stay alive," he said.
Are the Redskins falling victim to creeping overconfidence?
"It's always a danger," Gibbs said. "I'd rather have it creeping into somebody else than us."
Somebody like the Cowboys. Gibbs wishes they were 5-1, coming off a victory over St. Louis. Linebacker Neal Olkewicz wouldn't mind 6-0. "Then you know they would get their best shot (from the Redskins)."
Because of injuries and personnel changes, it's easy to wonder if this really is Dallas vs. Washington, or the sequel.
The Redskins say the actors are different, but the script is the same. They are worried about the pass ("That's been the book on us," Olkewicz said. "Pass.") and, of course, the big play.
"They will not come out and grind it out," Olkewicz said. "They are a big-play team."
The big play from Dorsett is the biggest worry, like his 68-yard touchdown on a screen pass in a 23-14 victory over Chicago two weekends ago.
Unless it's in the playoffs, a victory in this game rarely is a knockout blow for the other team. Usually, the second Redskins-Cowboys game of the season means much more than the first.
But the stakes appear somewhat higher this time. If the Cowboys lose, they will have lost two in a row and three games in the division, to the Redskins' none. They also must play Miami in the final Monday night game.
If the Redskins lose, their momentum will have been stalled.
"The team that can get this game," Gibbs said, "has the upper hand, the lead, and gives the other team a division loss."
This Cowboy Week is all football. Hold the cake.
The Redskins' injury report still is in double figures, topped once again by the presence of wide receiver Charlie Brown and defensive end Dexter Manley.
Brown, who missed the game with Indianapolis last week with a sprained ankle, and Manley, who sprained his ankle in that game, both are doubtful for the Cowboys game, Gibbs said yesterday.
"Charlie's a little better off," Gibbs said after practice. "Dexter is still limping very badly and is very doubtful. Right now, it doesn't look like either is going to be able to play."
They were two of five players who missed practice yesterday at Redskin Park. Defensive end Tony McGee (knee), kick returner Mike Nelms (ankle), and running back John Riggins (back) were held out of practice, but they all are listed as probable for the game.
Milot, who had a bone chip removed from his elbow nearly three weeks ago and has missed the last two games, worked in seven-on-seven passing drills yesterday, but did not hit. It was his first practice since the operation.
"I think it will be day-to-day with him," Gibbs said. However, Assistant Coach Richie Petitbon said Milot "looked good" at practice, and, when asked if he could play Sunday, said, "We hope so."
Strong safety Tony Peters (abdominal muscle pull) and Starke (fluid drained twice from a knee) both worked out. They are expected to play Sunday, but, in Peters' case, Gibbs said Ken Coffey still is working on the first team. Starke's status as a starter still has not been determined, he said.