DALLAS, NOV. 21 -- The Washington Redskins say they see a bit of Terry Bradshaw in Troy Aikman and that Emmitt Smith reminds them of Tony Dorsett. They say middle linebacker Eugene Lockhart deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with any of the dominating defenders the Dallas Cowboys have had.
Yes, 'tis the season to exaggerate. Yet the Redskins (6-4) also insist they enter the Thanksgiving Day game at Texas Stadium (4 p.m., WUSA-TV-9) with genuine respect for the young and improving Cowboys (4-7).
"They're vastly better than they were last year when they beat us," said Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs, gently reminding his team again of the defeat he singles out as the most painful of his 10 years in Washington. "They're better now than they were when we played them earlier this season. They're making rapid improvement and I just hope we can get in there, get a win and get out of town."
The Cowboys may be better, but they're still not exactly Doomsday. Aikman is the NFL's 28th-rated quarterback, and the Cowboys are 27th in offense, 15th in defense in the 28-team league. They have Aikman and Smith, who both might start for the Redskins, but they also have 19 players either released or left unprotected by other teams.
"When I first came to the Cowboys in 1984," Lockhart said, "I thought I'd be going to the playoffs every year. The Cowboys used that in negotiations, telling you, 'You know you're going to get some extra money because you're going to the playoffs every year.' That was a big bargaining point for them.
"I've been in one playoff game in six years."
Still, a year after going 1-15 and having the firings of Tex Schramm and Tom Landry thrown in their faces a few hundred times, the new Cowboys regime -- owner Jerry Jones and Coach Jimmy Johnson -- has gained at least a measure of respect around the NFL.
They've drafted three gifted offensive players -- quarterback Aikman, running back Smith and wide receiver Alexander Wright -- and made trades for three extra first-round choices the next two drafts. They're likely to have three of the top 10 picks in next spring's draft and have come so far so fast that they're predicting a return to the playoffs in 1991.
"We're significantly better," Johnson said. "We went into games last year and realistically knew we were going to have a hard time doing anything. We've still got a long way to go, but we've made some progress. We'd still like to get some impact defensive players just like everybody else and we need help in the offensive line. Really, we're still in a position where we could use almost anything."
The Cowboys began playing these Thanksgiving Day games 24 years ago when no other franchise wanted them. Schramm agreed to play on Thanksgiving in 1966 only if he could play on Thanksgiving every year. Schramm said he believed the hardships would be outweighed by the terrific exposure on a day millions of Americans would spend in front of their televisions. So Dallas has missed the Turkey Day date only in 1975 and 1977.
The Redskins have been their guests three other times, and lost each one. The last was 1978 when the Roger Staubach-led Cowboys rolled, 37-10, but the most memorable was 1974 when backup Clint Longley came in to throw a 50-yard touchdown pass in the final minute for a 24-23 victory.
It's a different game in many ways and the Cowboys believe they have a distinct advantage in playing a team that must play on Sunday, then turn around and travel on Wednesday. Still, Dallas is on an 0-4 run in the holiday game.
"I can't say you really like the idea of playing on Thanksgiving Day," Redskins defensive end Charles Mann said. "You don't know how your body will feel playing so soon after a game. I will say getting the three days off after the game could make it worthwhile."
The Redskins say it's an important game. It's their last game against an NFC East opponent and next-to-last inside the conference. They're tied with Philadelphia for the best record among wild-card contenders and their goal now is to gain the home field for the first-round game. The Eagles play the unbeaten New York Giants Sunday.
It has been hard to gauge how good the Cowboys are. They're coming off a 24-21 victory over the Los Angeles Rams, and Aikman had his best day as a pro, throwing for three touchdowns and 303 yards. He led an 89-yard drive for the winning field goal.
But that game was different. The Rams threw a zone defense at him and Aikman ripped it apart, hitting wide receivers deep and Smith short (four catches, 117 yards).
It hasn't been that way very often. The teams that have blitzed him and played his receivers man-to-man have stopped the Cowboys. Aikman passed for only 96 yards against San Francisco the previous week and he has thrown at least one interception in 13 straight games.
In the days after the San Francisco game, Aikman and Smith complained publicly about conservative play-calling, and offensive coordinator David Shula has been under heat almost from the moment he arrived with Johnson.
All of that probably comes with the territory, especially for Johnson in Landry land.
The Redskins defeated the Cowboys, 19-15, in Week 3, overcoming the loss of Mark Rypien to a knee injury in the first half. They sacked Aikman eight times and intercepted him twice, with Darrell Green returning one for a touchdown.
"Troy's been so close so many times that it has been scary," Johnson said. "We expect so much of him that sometimes we think he ought to go out and play like a six- or seven-year veteran. He has an inexperienced supporting cast around him and that has complicated things for him. I'm very pleased with the progress he has made. He can make big-time plays and he's becoming more consistent."
Meanwhile the Redskins are hoping the magic they got from Rypien's return last week continues. He was almost perfect in the 31-17 victory over the New Orleans Saints as he threw for four touchdowns and led the Redskins to scores on five straight possessions.
"Everything has been okay," Rypien said. "I missed some things out there, but the knee hasn't been any problem at all."