For 52 years, the fortunes of the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins have swung back and forth, their success or failure, especially against each other, defined by a few large figures. You can feel the power shifts in real time because the central characters are usually great quarterbacks or coaches. When they arrive — or leave — the ground shifts.
When the Cowboys were born, my childhood buddies knew we could laugh at expansion Dallas. Why, they had Eddie LeBaron, discarded by Washington, as their quarterback. In 1960 and ’61, the Cowboys’ first seasons, the Redskins were 2-21-3, but 2-0-1 vs. Dallas. We sure didn’t laugh long.
For the past half-century, most of the seismic events — until this season — have usually favored the Cowboys, who lead the series by a whopping 62-41-2. Don Meredith (who followed LeBaron at quarterback), Tom Landry, Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman were all ill omens in Washington. Before Joe Gibbs’s 1982 team, Dallas finished ahead of the Redskins 17 of 19 years. That domination, especially in national acclaim, was so large that D.C. built an outright loathing for Dallas; several fine Redskins teams got little credit in the shadow of “America’s Team.” Cowboys condescension fed the fires, too.
But the pain’s been shared — well, some. After Gibbs got the upper hand, the Redskins finished ahead of the Cowboys nine of 10 years. That’s always the pattern. Parity never lasts long. Somebody’s got the whip and knows it.
Right now, the ground is shaking again. Sure feels like it’s D.C.’s turn.
Ever since the Redskins built a 28-3 halftime lead on Thanksgiving Day in Dallas, then won 38-31, all warning flags have been flying for the ’Boys. Sunday night, the teams meet with the NFC East title at stake. It’s the favored Redskins who have the six-game winning streak and home-field edge, too.
Most of all the Redskins have Robert Griffin III, a native Texan who threw four scoring passes in his Dallas debut. This may be just as bad news for Dallas as the arrivals of Staubach and Aikman were for Washington.
In a one-game sample, any factor may be decisive. Sooner or later, the Redskins’ plus-14 turnover differential may dwindle, and the Cowboys (minus-10) may reverse their profligate ways. That alone might ignite a Dallas win.
The Redskins lead the NFL in rushing, love play action and bootlegs plus read options out of the pistol formation. So weather shouldn’t bother them much. The Cowboys, historically lousy in games with temperatures below 40, may face a kickoff in freezing temperatures.
Whatever Sunday night brings, though, there’s a larger context. The talents and limits of their quarterbacks have defined the Cowboys. Texas isn’t football patient. At 32, Tony Romo is in his ninth year as a Cowboy, seventh as a starter. He has a 55-37 career record and is 1-3 in the playoffs. He’s a known inconsistent commodity.
Like Meredith, Craig Morton and Danny White, who won one title in 16 years combined as Cowboys starting quarterbacks, Romo has reached that point where Dallas signal callers either own the town because they’re “winners” or are put on the city’s tasting menu because they’re the problem.
Romo, excellent except when he’s awful, has started 11 times against the Redskins and won six, and averaged only 18 points in those games. Why is he going to get better? And is that going to get it done against RGIII?
A case can be made that there’s more pressure Sunday night on Griffin because it’s his biggest NFL game so far. The opposite case is at least as strong: Griffin has little to lose as the 22-year-old who has outperformed expectations, while Romo is looking at back-to-back losses to a rookie as well as a third season out of his last four as a healthy starter with no trips to the playoffs.
This past week has already brought Griffin two more distinctions: He’s now the second quarterback to pass for 3,000 yards and rush for 750 (Randall Cunningham did it in 1990) and only the second rookie at the position to make the Pro Bowl. The other: oh, just Dan Marino.
No Redskins or Cowboys quarterback has ever been as good and as famous as quickly as Griffin. He’s even flipped the notion of America’s Team. This week, a national ESPN poll showed that 49 states and 73 percent of fans were rooting for the Redskins in this showdown.
But the Cowboys did carry Texas. Given time, Dallas owner Jerry Jones, meddler-in-chief, could even change that. He’s already dragged a dynasty down to mediocrity (128-127 the last 16 years). The big-picture dynamics in play are that Griffin is ascending as Romo has reached a plateau. And Jones refuses to cede authority on personnel even as Washington team owner Daniel Snyder appears to have taken his hands out of the Redskins machinery.
To those who’ve watched the whole inter-team saga and seen all of this several times before, the plot is familiar and haunting. You know the theme, but you don’t know the timing. When does “mostly losing” turn to “mostly winning?” Does it happen in one game or over a couple of years?
Also, these teams love to thwart each other; Dallas may be tougher to beat because it hears the Redskins pounding on the door.
The Cowboys can’t do anything about the arrival of Griffin or Alfred Morris, who needs 87 yards for 1,500 on the season, or the pistol any more than the Redskins could when Aikman arrived or Staubach ran the shotgun. The next chapter of the Cowboys-Redskins novel has already been roughed out. The details? Will the Redskins merely be good with RGIII or, eventually, exceptional? Was Thanksgiving in Texas Stadium foreshadowing for Sunday night or a red herring to throw us off the trail?
All this has happened before. “History may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme a lot.” One team’s story arc ages, another’s tale suddenly gets a rewrite. Once the transition is complete, fans and franchises sometimes feel like it takes an eternity before the next script flip. The Cowboys once had things their way for almost 20 years, the Redskins ruled for as much as a decade.
That’s the longer-term story that hangs over this one dramatic Sunday night game. The Redskins love their future and can’t wait to see the next chapter. More than likely, all the Cowboys can do is read it and weep.
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.