But that forgettable press tag lingers as one of the last relics of another era — the final game of a team once known as the Washington Redskins. Perhaps fittingly, that day was also the end of the old Cowboys-Redskins rivalry.
Pro football’s most prestigious battle will survive a name change. Dallas vs. Washington doesn’t need the word “Redskins” to carry on the hatred that comes with six decades of battles for playoffs and tussles for respect in those years where nothing tangible appeared to be on the line. But the rivalry’s sudden rebrand comes at an appropriate time. In a year when nothing feels normal anymore, why should the NFL’s greatest twice-a-year clash be any different?
A new Dallas-Washington rivalry wobbles into FedEx Field on Sunday with the same team owners locked in their perpetual arms race and little else resembling the old. The coaches are new. The quarterbacks are new. Washington’s helmets are new. As it often does, the game is essential for each team’s postseason desire, but this year, the standings are a wreck. The 2-4 Cowboys and 1-5 Washington should be playing for the bottom of the NFC East. Instead, it’s a fight to see who will sit closest to the top.
“This is one of the really good rivalries in the NFL, the Cowboys and the Washington Football Team,” Washington Coach Ron Rivera said this week. “It’s just, unfortunately … part of it right now is a little bit weird.”
He was talking about the FedEx stands, which will stare oddly vacant at the game below. This might be the strangest thing. Even as fans flocked away from Washington’s team in recent years and more swaths of orange and yellow seats glared from among the spectators, Dallas always drew a full house. The roar inside the stadium was never greater than on the one day the Cowboys were in town. As jarring as it might have been to see Washington playing the Rams in the silence of the novel coronavirus pandemic, it will be especially disquieting to watch Washington and Dallas kick off in a barren concrete canyon.
“The time you feel the rivalries is just on game day, I think the fans bring a lot of that into it,” said Washington’s new offensive coordinator Scott Turner, who grew up in the rivalry watching his father, Norv, manage the Cowboys’ offense through two Super Bowl wins in the early 1990s and then coach Washington for nearly seven years. “It’s just a different kind of energy.”
On Sunday, that energy will be gone. As it did two weeks ago for the game against the Rams, Washington will let about 250 of the players’ and coaches’ family members into the game. They will sit in distant bunches spread across the lower bowl. Inside the vast stadium, they will be close to invisible. Other than being the first witnesses of the new Dallas-Washington rivalry, their presence will have no greater significance.
Of course, things already were changing during the Cowboys’ 47-16 victory in that last game of last season. Rumors were flying that Rivera was about to be hired and Washington Owner Daniel Snyder had all but exiled the team’s decade-long president Bruce Allen, the son of the team’s first Super Bowl coach George Allen. At game’s end, Snyder jumped into one of a fleet of black SUVs that rolled from the depths of AT&T Stadium in a motorcade led by motorcycle police with screaming sirens, rumbling past a deflated Allen, who would be fired the next morning.
Looking back, Snyder’s public humiliation of Allen was a symbolic start to severing the franchise’s past. No one could see then the forces that would push Snyder to drop the name “Redskins” eight months later. At the time, he was simply preparing to turn to Rivera in the hope that Rivera, who led Carolina to a Super Bowl, could do so again. Down the vast corridor that runs beneath the stadium, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had to be contemplating the similar move he would make days later to hire former Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy — a Super Bowl winner — to lead the Cowboys.
Now both coaches walk into this rivalry as outsiders trying to use past successes to push two franchises obsessed with former glory into the NFL’s title game, which neither team has seen in more than a quarter of a century. Their starts have been disasters, filled with quarterback uncertainty after Rivera benched the team’s presumed quarterback of the future in Dwayne Haskins and McCarthy watched in horror as Dak Prescott severely fractured his right ankle two weeks ago. Kyle Allen vs. Andy Dalton is not the headline act of a healthy rivalry, and there is a sense that both teams are in an odd transition even as the Cowboys have a roster of stars and Rivera is convinced his young team will be able to win regularly as soon as next season.
This week, they said the right words about the significance of this rivalry. “It’s an important game every year,” McCarthy said on a conference call with the Washington media, while Rivera said some of the Thanksgiving games both teams have played in past years “gets your attention [to] just how big this rivalry is.” But their attention must be focused not on the decades of mutual rage between two of the league’s premier franchises but the strange opportunity that a game in which a pair of teams playing lousy football have a legitimate chance to win a wretched division.
Somehow, in the oddest of times for the greatest of rivalries, that makes perfect sense.
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