Where in the world do we start? Do we begin with the defense not being able to hold a 21-point lead in the fourth quarter, for jumping offside four times in 10 snaps and allowing late drives of 90 and 95 yards?

Do we start with the special teams players, who even after being warned explicitly by the coaches, were completely clueless in the face of a onside kick, and later couldn't even get off the potential winning field goal?

Or do we start with the offense, even after scoring 35 points, for losing two fumbles inside the Cowboys 10-yard line and looking downright feeble during an overtime possession that lasted all of 2 minutes 13 seconds before the Redskins had to punt?

This much is for sure: There's plenty of blame to go around. I mean, it's hard to score 32 consecutive points and lose. You have to have a complete meltdown to blow a 21-point lead in less than 11 minutes.

Okay, the guys on the other side of the ball are still pretty good. Specifically, Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin. But you see, this isn't the early 1990s, or even the mid-1990s. The Cowboys were playing without three of their four best defensive players--Deion Sanders, Leon Lett and Kevin Smith. (Did I say bet the house that Deion would play? I did. Just not my house.) We might have expected the Cowboys to just rise up five or six years ago, when Dallas was a serious threat to win the Super Bowl and the Redskins were trying to figure out which way was up. But now? These Redskins should be better than these short-handed Cowboys.

So for the Redskins, on Opening Day, before the largest home crowd in franchise history, under an edict from their new owner to win now, playing their mortal enemy, to choke this one away is criminal. Yes, choke. If you blow a 21-point lead at home, a bone must be stuck in your throat. It's a staggering loss.

All the explanations, no matter how rational or legitimate, are still inadequate.

How can a team jump offside four times in 10 snaps with the opponent marching toward a tying touchdown? Redskins Coach Norv Turner says Mark Stepnoski, the Cowboys' center, "rolls the ball before he snaps it," thus suckering three defensive linemen (Marco Coleman, Kenard Lang and Ndukwe Kalu) to jump.

How come there was no Redskin within five yards of that onside kick? "LeCharls [McDaniel, the special teams coach], told them, 'This is a great time for [Dallas to try] an onside kick," Turner said. " . . . It was a very unusual kick, well executed by them and poorly played by us."

Was Dan Turk's snap bad on that potential winning field goal attempt at the end of regulation, or did punter Matt Turk just drop the ball? "Neither one of them got it done," Turner said.

The bottom line is, we seem to have picked up this Redskins season where the previous five left off: with explanations, extenuating circumstances, failure to execute properly, the other guy playing the game of his life every time the Redskins are on the other side of the field. It's up to the Redskins to convince us that this start isn't the same old junk we've been watching. Close. Almost. Better. Nearly. If. But.

The bottom line is, you can put up all the new signage you want. You can sell all the seats and improve the entertainment inside the stadium. You can call the building and the town in which it sits whatever you want. But what really matters is the team had better stop coming up with lame performances. Sunday against the Cowboys was lame. And any assessment less than that, this team is fooling itself.

Turner said afterward: "We're capable of running the ball, throwing the ball, defending the run, rushing the passer. I believe we can be a very good football team."

He's right, too. The personnel is impressive. It seems to be a team that can excel at a variety of things. But guess what? It doesn't matter, ultimately, what this team can be, what it might do, what it's capable of. It's a team that needs to be good now. Especially at home against a mortal enemy with the crowd cranked up. The Redskins should have been ahead 49-14. It's not like the Cowboys were perfect; in fact, they were perfectly beatable. It's necessary that we give the Cowboys credit for coming back. But not too much. And to think, I got suckered by a first-team defense that allowed only three points in seven quarters during the preseason.

What makes the whole thing even more unacceptable is that the most unproven and vulnerable parts of the team played so wonderfully through three quarters. The Redskins need to demonstrate they have a running back who can have a big impact; Stephen Davis rushed for 109 yards and 4.5 yards a carry. They needed at least one wide receiver to give their offense a vertical passing game; Michael Westbrook and Albert Connell caught a total of nine passes (two for touchdowns) for 296 yards, which is 33 yards per catch. And most important, they needed the offensive line to give Brad Johnson time to throw; the line performed admirably. Johnson was sacked only twice, and one was totally his fault because he held onto the ball so long. For three quarters, it was all kisses and candy. The defense stopped Dallas cold on five of six third downs during one stretch. But all that matters now is there's a big, fat, "L" for the Redskins, with four of their next five games to be played on the road.

Leomont Evans, the Redskins' talented young safety, had an understandable response to the afternoon. "I'm in shock," he said. "I really don't believe it. I'm very shocked. They say it's only one game of 16. But this is our rivalry, a division game."

When something complex happens with the Redskins, I think we're served by listening to Darrell Green. In 17 years, there's nothing he hasn't seen, and he has a knack for almost always being able to see through the trees and around corners. Green's reaction to this loss wasn't what I thought it would be, which is probably great for the team. I recalled a postgame interview three years ago when the Redskins were 7-1, and Green warned to be careful, that the record might be better than anything the team was capable of sustaining at that time. Of course, he turned out to be right.

So, based on a long track record, Green gets the last word today, and what he said makes me stick with my forecast that the Redskins will go 9-7 and win the NFC East.

"I don't think the owner put $800 million on this one game," he said. "Or for that matter, on this one season. There's a whole new feeling on this team, and I feel certain it's strong enough to survive any one game, to say the least. I'm not blowing smoke. Just remember this: My rookie year [1983] we lost to Dallas on a big Monday night game. It seemed huge at the time. But remember, we only lost one more game all season. We went 14-2 that year. How big, in retrospect, was that season-opening loss to Dallas?"

Green has been right far more often than not during his distinguished career. The Redskins had better hope he's right again this time.