The Dallas Cowboys got back in the game because Coach Chan Gailey did not do the conventional thing. Even with his team trailing by 21 points in the fourth quarter, he did not give up on a running game that he saw was methodically battering the Washington Redskins into submission.
Finally, when the Redskins knew what was coming, there was something else. On third and two from the Cowboys 24, Gailey surprised both the Redskins and Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman by calling something else: a fake handoff to running back Emmitt Smith followed by a 76-yard touchdown lob to Raghib Ismail that gave the Cowboys a 41-35 victory in overtime.
Ismail had dropped a certain touchdown on the same play in the first quarter, and now with the game on the line, he got another chance. With the safeties moving toward the line of scrimmage to stop the run, Ismail sprinted past them and found himself running free for the second time. This time, he caught the ball in stride.
In the celebration that followed, Gailey had trouble catching his breath, Aikman had trouble believing what had happened and a locker room celebration included a heavy dose of disbelief.
"I've never been in one like that," Gailey said. "To be honest, it's all a little bit of a blur right now. I've never been in a game like that. It's overwhelming."
Ismail does not do interviews, but after rallying from 21 points, most of the other Cowboys were. Aikman talked about the first five-touchdown passing game of his career. Michael Irvin talked about sharing the spotlight with Ismail. And Smith talked about watching his team pass another huge test.
"That was probably the wildest game I've ever been part of," Aikman said.
The Cowboys seemed done when Brad Johnson gave the Redskins a 35-14 lead with a 50-yard touchdown pass to Albert Connell with 64 seconds left in the third quarter. The Cowboys closed it to 35-21 with an 11-play, 70-yard drive that included nine running plays that gained 62 of the 70 yards.
They still trailed by 14 points with 6 minutes 15 minutes remaining. Once more, Gailey trusted his running game before Aikman threw a 37-yard touchdown pass to Irvin. Their final chance came when they started at their 10 with 3:01 remaining. Aikman completed 7 of 10 passes on the final drive, including a 12-yard touchdown pass to Irvin with 1:50 left in regulation.
After the Redskins muffed a game-winning field goal attempt, the Cowboys got another chance in overtime. On third and two from the 24, Gailey made his best call.
"If I said I was expecting that call, I'd be lying," Aikman said. "You think we're going to pound it. But when the call came in, I thought it had a chance to be big. Chan deserves a lot of credit. That's a gutsy call. It's a great way to start off the year."
Ismail was so wide open that Aikman and Gailey had trouble believing what they were seeing.
"Both safeties bit on the fake," Gailey said. "I couldn't believe it. . . . They had a lot of secondary guys beat up. When he caught it, I started breathing again."
Aikman said: "I came out of the fake and didn't see anyone. The whole time the ball was in there I was waiting for a safety to come out of nowhere and make a play."
When the Cowboys broke the huddle, Smith whispered to Ismail: "Go get it."
"With the way we were running, all I had to do was give him a good fake," Smith said. "I kind of stumbled over someone, but when I looked up I saw him running down the field."
In the glow of victory, the Cowboys admitted they'd attacked backup cornerback Darryl Pounds after Champ Bailey got hurt. Once they saw starting safeties Leomont Evans and Sam Shade leave the field with leg cramps, they believed the Redskins could be attacked.
"Everyone in the stadium saw [Bailey] walk off the field," Gailey said. "Did we run some things to that side of the field? Yes."
It was a stirring victory, even for a team that has been to the playoffs eight of the last nine seasons and won the Super Bowl three times. The Cowboys have been called old in recent seasons, they've been called complacent and they've been portrayed as a team whose time has passed.
For at least one more afternoon, they found their old magic.
"It says a lot for our whole organization," Aikman said. "Not to get too carried away, but it says a lot for guys to keep battling. To do it on the road and in front of a tough crowd says a lot. I hope it carries over."