The Washington Redskins could think of no better way to celebrate today's arrival of a new era than beating the Dallas Cowboys.
There was plenty of talk last week about the Redskins-Cowboys rivalry losing its edge. If that's so, the Redskins have themselves to blame. They haven't been to the playoffs in six seasons, and they haven't played as many important games as they would have liked in recent years.
Still, the Cowboys remain the team the Redskins savor beating the most. And there will be plenty at stake this afternoon when the Redskins put their new-look team on the field at Redskins Stadium to get their high-hopes, high-pressure 1999 season under new owner Daniel Snyder started by facing the defending NFC East champions.
"There are a lot of new faces," Redskins running back and kick returner Brian Mitchell said. "But I think as soon as you sign with the Redskins, you immediately hate the Cowboys. You automatically get that feel."
Said fullback Larry Centers, a newcomer after nine seasons with the Arizona Cardinals: "Any time you go into Dallas week, it's always a big deal. I sense more confidence in this locker room than I sensed in the Cardinals' locker room. I'm happy about that."
Snyder has made it clear he expects the club to end its playoff drought this season. The Redskins believe they have the team to get that done. The starting defense yielded only six points in seven quarters during the club's 3-1 preseason, and on offense the Redskins will put their trust in new quarterback Brad Johnson.
Counting both newcomers and holdovers switching positions, the Redskins have 16 new starters on offense and defense (plus place kicker Brett Conway) from last season, and they insist there won't be a repeat of last year's 0-7 beginning and 6-10 final record.
"Guys want to win," defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield said. "Guys are tired of losing. It's nothing tricky. It's just guys going out and playing hard."
A calamitous road loss to the New York Giants in last season's opener set the tone for everything bad that followed, so the importance of today's game for the Redskins probably cannot be overstated. "You put great emphasis on it until it's over, then you put great emphasis on the second game," Coach Norv Turner said. "But you don't tell the players about that second part yet. It's a real important game for us."
The Redskins are getting the Cowboys at a good time. Dallas's best defensive lineman, tackle Leon Lett, is suspended. One starting cornerback, Kevin Smith, is out with a bad back. The other, Deion Sanders, is suffering from a lingering toe injury that could sideline or limit him today.
But the Cowboys manhandled the Redskins twice last season en route to becoming the first team to go 8-0 in NFC East play. They still have quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith and wide receiver Michael Irvin to spearhead their offense.
The Cowboys used their running game to steamroll the Redskins last season, so today will provide a barometer of how much the Washington defense has improved. With the addition of free agent defensive end Marco Coleman, the Redskins will be the only team in the NFL with four first-round draft picks starting on the defensive line.
The Redskins believe new strong safety Sam Shade and their revamped corps of young linebackers--Shawn Barber, Derek Smith and Greg Jones--will make a difference in stopping the run. They'll put rookie cornerback Champ Bailey on Irvin most often today while veteran cornerback Darrell Green usually will match up with the Cowboys' other wide receiver, Raghib Ismail, and they likely will go after Aikman aggressively.
The Dallas defense doesn't have Lett, but it does have ends Kavika Pittman and Greg Ellis to test tackles Andy Heck and Jon Jansen and the Redskins' reworked offensive line. Johnson will look most often for Centers, Mitchell and tight end Stephen Alexander. But the Redskins want to be balanced on offense, and to accomplish that they need contributions from tailback Stephen Davis and wide receivers Michael Westbrook, Albert Connell and Irving Fryar.
"This is when you need to make it happen," Johnson said. "I'm tired of the preseason. Now you start over. Now it counts."