Mark Brunell's leg was hurting. The Cowboys have a great defense. Laveranues Coles dropped two passes that hit him in the chest. There was what Joe Gibbs after the game called "formation things," where receivers were apparently in the wrong spots. Perhaps they even ran incorrect routes. And on top of all that, I could swear I heard Gibbs say of Brunell, "I thought he played extremely well."

Okay, the numbers sound pretty impressive if you just care about the totals: 25 completions in 43 attempts for 325 yards and 2 touchdowns with no interceptions. But we know numbers can be deceiving, right?

For more than three-quarters of the game, Brunell looked dreadful. He certainly didn't play as well as Vinny Testaverde, who completed only 14 of 29 passes for 214 yards. Maybe Brunell shook the rust off late when he started planting and firing like he used to, when he was one of the NFL's best passers, whether in the pocket or on the run. Perhaps next week at Cleveland, Brunell can pick up where he left off. And he'd better, because the Redskins' offense, regardless of the stats, betrayed the team again.

A great final 41/2 minutes doesn't make for a great offense. Too many sacks (five), too many incomplete passes that should have been complete. Too many "formation things."

Gibbs said Brunell "fought his guts out" like the rest of the team, and there's no doubting that, especially when a quarterback is playing on an injured hammie. But there's no escaping that he has been outplayed in successive weeks by Kurt Warner, whose career had been left for dead, then by nearly 41-year-old journeyman Testaverde, both of whom the Redskins could probably have had if they'd wanted them.

It's time to put away all the dramatic theme stuff now, because three games into the season the Redskins have serious work to do. They're in last place, behind the 3-0 Eagles, the 2-1 Giants and 2-1 Cowboys. And though 13 games is a whole lot of season, it's fair to wonder how in the world the Redskins are going to score enough points to beat the good teams.

They had to settle for a field goal when they couldn't punch it in from the 1. And when asked whether he needed a Riggo kind of back, a big bruiser who could finish around the goal line in a way that 208-pound Clinton Portis did not against the Giants and Cowboys, Gibbs bristled and said: "No. We've got our runner. I love Clinton Portis. There's nobody else I want in the NFL other than him."

So, Gibbs loves Portis, loves Brunell, and that's pure Gibbs, the expression of appreciation for the players who lay it on the line for him. But at some point, all that love had better translate to points, whether it's on the line, the formations, the passer, the runner or the coach. "I'm the guy," Gibbs said, "who's supposed to get it done. It's early, we're 1-2, and there's a lot of good teams that are 1-2."

The game began the way a Redskins-Cowboys game ought to, with head-hunting tackles, and a series of plays being contested by replay, sending red flags flying from the sideline to the field. On the Redskins' second offensive possession, a deep and incomplete pass from Brunell to Coles was first called a Cowboys interception, but was reversed when it became clear the ball touched the ground before being caught. This was a pattern that would hold the rest of the night, right through the fourth quarter.

The Cowboys unsuccessfully challenged a sideline catch by the Redskins a couple of plays later. The Redskins thought they had recovered a muffed punt, only to have the zebras rule that the Dallas return man had fallen on the ball and was downed before he lost it in a scrum. And that was no little play. Instead of the Redskins having the ball at the Dallas 16, in great position even for this offensively challenged team to score, the ball was awarded to the Cowboys at their 16, which is exactly where Washington's troubles in this game began.

Testaverde, who was playing in big games for the University of Miami nearly 20 years ago, will be 41 in November and he's still winging it. He's the first quarterback at the age of 40 to ever pass for more than 300 yards in the first two games of a season. It's as if he's still flashing back to his years playing for Bill Parcells in New York when the Jets threatened to reach the Super Bowl. And it was Testaverde who marched the Cowboys out of immediate trouble on that disputed possession.

Still, Testaverde overthrew Terry Glenn on third and eight, which should have forced a Dallas punt. Instead, Redskins cornerback Walt Harris was hit with about the worst pass interference call an official could possibly make. Replays showed that if anything occurred, Glenn should have been called for offensive interference for grabbing Harris's jersey just before they tumbled into the end zone. It's silly to throw a flag for any reason there, especially since replays showed Harris making a play on the ball. But the penalty against the Redskins was a killer because it put the ball at the 1, and the Cowboys scored a gimme to go ahead, 7-0.

It was yet another case of points going on the board even though the Redskins' defense had done its job. And a seven-point lead against this Redskins' offense now seems insurmountable because the offense is so completely incompetent.

The blame has to start with Brunell, who through most of these three weeks has looked as done as Roy Jones Jr. Yes, the Cowboys have one of the best defenses in the league, though it was shredded by the Vikings in the season opener. And, yes, Brunell had a couple of drops, most notably a pair of momentum-killing, crowd-silencing flubs by Coles who for awhile last night seemed haunted by the pads, then the footsteps of wood-laying Cowboys safety Roy Williams.

Still, Brunell seems to never know where the rush is coming from. He missed some 15-yard routes by 10 yards on overthrows. He threw behind receivers on the most basic medium-range passes. He was 2 for 10 in the first quarter, 10 for 21 at halftime. He nearly threw an interception just before halftime on third and goal from the 2, which would have left the Redskins scoreless at intermission instead of being down, 7-3.

Granted, Brunell's left hamstring is strained, which must have affected his mobility. But he played poorly enough that a coach might consider benching him, except that backup Patrick Ramsey's three-interception performance a week ago at Giants Stadium is still fresh in everybody's memory.

When the season began, who figured Testaverde, with more mileage than a 1985 Volvo wagon, would be so active, so accurate, and so much better than Brunell, who at 34 is seven years younger. Testaverde led the Cowboys right down the field for a 14-3 lead late in the third. And when the Redskins finally countered with a touchdown drive (aided by a late hit on Brunell), Testaverde got the Cowboys close enough for a little trickeration to put away the game on Richie Anderson's option pass to Glenn for a 21-10 lead early in the fourth quarter.

The Cowboys had managed to dent the Redskins' defense in a way the Giants and Buccaneers could not.

Redskins quarterback Mark Brunell draws a crowd of Cowboys while left tackle Chris Samuels, left, witnesses one of five sacks.