This year’s Thanksgiving just became an even bigger feast than usual. The minute that the turkey is done cooking may not be the most important sit-down appointment this Thursday, because a 4:30 p.m. kickoff between the Redskins and Cowboys could top it in plenty of D.C. homes. Must see vs. must eat.
In just three tough weeks from now, we’ll know if this Thanksgiving is really just a kind of NFL appetizer for a starved football town. If Washington shows well in three difficult road games in a row, at Dallas, Arizona and Philadelphia, then the biggest Happy Holidays surprise gift in D.C. in nearly 25 years is ready to open. You’ll be looking at a genuine contender, not just a team worthy of a one-week visit to the playoffs in a round of 12, but with an invite to a January party that may last for a while.
Between now and then, there may be plenty of Grinches in the Redskins’ path. In just four days, Kirk Cousins’s latest post-victory primal scream — this time he rubbed the dome of General Manager Scot McCloughan and yelled, ‘How do you like me now?’ — may be read with a different inflection. But if you’re not feeling some electricity by now, you may want to check your emotional circuit breakers ’cause something’s broken.
What is this, the ’80s again? Maybe not yet. But when chants of “We Want Dallas” arrived with several minutes left in Washington’s 42-24 stomp of Green Bay on Sunday night at FedEx Field, it felt like a great rivalry — phony-ed up for the fun of it for a generation — might really be coming back to life.
Once, long ago, Washington and Dallas were true powers. They’d both win 10 or more games, even in the era of 14-game schedules. In fact, counting a strike-shortened season when both were excellent, it happened nine times between 1972 and 1991. That’s why “Washington-Dallas” still has a legendary ring to it, even though that chill-thrilling bell hasn’t really rung in ages.
Few have a sense of how long it’s been since one of pro football’s great hate-fests was the real deal, not a trumped-up excuse to imagine that a glorious past could be resurrected just by willing it. Here’s a quiz you won’t pass: in the past 30 years, how many times have both won 10 games in a season?
Once. That was in ’91, the last year Washington won the Super Bowl.
Yes, the last-game showdown for the NFC East title in 2012 was good stuff, but a chimera. What we see arriving now just may be the resumption of classic hostilities. With the Cowboys 9-1, led by rookie star quarterback Dak Prescott and rusher Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas is a power again. It happened in a blink. Washington is 6-3-1, and 11-4-1 in its past 16 regular season games. However, since Washington was 36-70 before that, going back to 2009, let’s not get too heady about around-the-corner “seasons.”
Everybody likes clarity. Guess we no longer have to wonder who Cousins thinks needed to see more before giving him the Mega-Millions payday. The past two years combined, Cousins’s QB rating just hit 100.4 with a 46 to 18 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 15-10-1 record. If he still looks like This Guy after the next three games, give him a scadillion-dollar deal so huge even Snyder’s house wouldn’t be collateral.
Big moments, like crunching the same NFL-royalty Packers who smoked Washington in the first playoff round last year, bring out big true emotions. There’s little doubt now about Cousins’s feelings concerning all the tough restrained love he’s gotten in five years in town. In his postgame interview, he twice found a way to drag the name “Shanahan” into the conversation. You know, the coach who tried to do a revenge torch job on the franchise and its owner as he left town.
Cousins appreciates Gruden for benching You Know Who III last year and tapping him. But part of negotiating leverage is reminding ’em that you remember who loved you when you were nobody and who, maybe, still hasn’t quite bought into the notion that you are more than just a game-managing system quarterback with tons of tools around him.
The owner was always a “III” kind of jersey-selling guy. But few billionaires really know football, so they always lap up victory, roll over and pay up. However, smart GMs aren’t always so easy. Does McCloughan think that with his rebuilt offensive line — the average weight is now up to 329 pounds per man, even without Trent Williams on the field — and a six-deep receiving corps and, now, Robert “Fat Rob” Kelley, the 321-yards-in-three-games running star, anybody can run this gaudy show?
What does it take to get Scot to buy in? A free “T?”
It was a still-fired-up, eyes-blazing Cousins who rubbed McCloughan’s head, slapped hands and hugged him moments after the win over Greeen Bay, but Kirk didn’t do it with his familiar boyish grin. Instead, he looked like a 28-year-old who’s finally tired of outdated evaluations: draftable but not yet playable; then playable, but mostly as a facilitator, not the featured star; and finally tagged (for $20 million this year) but not yet worth a long-term contract commitment.
This season, even though he’s The Man, the play-calling has kept his fine deep-ball arm under wraps. Until Sunday night in the wind and chill. Finally, the full arsenal: a 44-yard score to Jamison Crowder in stride, a 70-yard scoring strike long to Pierre Garcon into a 25-mph wind and then 53 yards again, into the wind, to Crowder to the 1-yard line to nail a spike in the Packers.
“The one to Pierre, I don’t think I could throw the ball 10 yards into that thing. But he spun it,” said Gruden, who set passing records at Louisville and as a Hall of Famer in arena football. “He’s always been able to knife a ball through wind, really, with that tight spiral. Good quarterback in rain and wind. Really good release and feel for it.”
If Cousins wants his money, and his team wants that most beloved of NFL distinctions — respect won in prime-time games on national TV — now’s exactly the time to step up and claim it.
But it will be brutal the next three games where, if you use some reputable team-evaluation tools, you’d come up with Washington as an underdog by about nine, three and seven points in its next three games. Sobering, yes. By late November, this might be a 6-6-1 team that needs to win out to make 9-6-1 and fight for a playoff spot.
Let’s not get too sober. This is the season of good cheer — and a few cheers, with glasses clinking, too. At least for a few days, because the Cowboys are loaded, imagine the best places this spunky, steadily improving team might go, both this year and in the future. Because, finally, you actually can.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell