In Closing, Redskins Shut Down Against Cowboys
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 28, 1998; Page D1
IRVING, Tex., Dec. 27 A season overflowing with disappointments ended on a deflating note for the Washington Redskins. They got to face the Dallas Cowboys' junior varsity for a half tonight as they attempted to cap their recent resurgence with a win. But the Cowboys got a crisp first-half performance from their offense and then turned over matters to their defense, coasting to a 23-7 victory in front of 63,565 at Texas Stadium.
The Redskins had their four-game winning streak snapped and lost for the third time in their past nine contests, ending the season with a record of 6-10. The Cowboys, who already had clinched the NFC East title, improved to 10-6 and became the first NFC East team to be unbeaten and untied in a season in division play.
The Redskins suffered their first season-ending loss in the five-year tenure of Coach Norv Turner who now, along with many others at Redskin Park, will wait to see what happens in the team's offseason.
"It's disappointing," Redskins defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson said. "We fought for this game. We weren't lackadaisical. We just couldn't get on track. You have to give a lot of credit to Dallas. Those guys played well."
The Cowboys were playing without ailing cornerback Deion Sanders, and Coach Chan Gailey removed his other key players after a half to avoid further injuries before Saturday's first-round playoff game here against the Arizona Cardinals.
Quarterback Troy Aikman and running back Emmitt Smith made the most of their time, though, as Dallas played some of its best offensive football in weeks. Aikman completed 10 of 15 passes for 184 yards. Smith ran for 67 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries, becoming the league's all-time leader in rushing touchdowns. The Cowboys scored 17 second-quarter points to turn a 7-3 deficit into a 20-7 halftime lead and never looked back.
The Redskins were just as short-handed. Turner has been patching together lineups for weeks as the team's injury list has grown ever longer, and tonight the Redskins used Stephen Davis at tailback and tight end Mike Sellers at fullback because of ankle injuries to running backs Terry Allen and Skip Hicks. The Redskins turned to recently reacquired veteran wide receiver Henry Ellard after a third-quarter knee injury to Albert Connell.
Quarterback Trent Green threw a six-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Leslie Shepherd at the end of the first quarter, but the Redskins' offense went dormant from there as the Cowboys eased their way to 20 unanswered points. The Redskins squandered first-half scoring opportunities on a fumble by tight end Stephen Alexander and an end-zone interception thrown by Green.
"We made some mistakes, and it cost us," Shepherd said. "People said [the Cowboys] didn't have much to play for, but they came out and played physical."
The Cowboys had totaled only 33 points in their previous three games and they needed a sluggish, 13-9 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles a week ago to clinch the NFC East. Their front-liners had little trouble moving the ball against the Redskins, however.
Aikman, Smith and Co. moved Dallas from its 41-yard line to the Redskins 31 on the Cowboys' first possession, but Richie Cunningham left a 49-yard field goal attempt short. No matter. The Cowboys got the ball right back when defensive end Greg Ellis wasn't fooled on a third-and-three reverse play and threw Shepherd for a five-yard loss. Hayward Clay rushed up the middle to deflect Matt Turk's punt, and Dallas took over at the Redskins 46.
Sherman Williams got 24 yards on a first-down reverse, but the Cowboys' drive stalled and they had to settle for Cunningham's 34-yard field goal and a 3-0 advantage.
The Redskins got their offense going on their second possession. Green, on the run, connected with Alexander for a 23-yard gain, then followed with a pair of completions to Shepherd for 11 and 14 yards. After Davis ran for three yards, Green hit Alexander in the middle of the field for a six-yard gain to the Dallas 14. But the rookie tight end had the ball stripped from his hands by linebacker Randall Godfrey, and nose tackle Chad Hennings made the recovery for Dallas.
"The thing we did that we hadn't done in the last eight weeks is turn the ball over," said Green, who finished 21 of 35 for 223 yards. "And we turned the ball over inside the 20-yard line. Those are big momentum-changing plays."
The Cowboys' offense went three plays and out, though, and the Redskins had the lead soon thereafter. Shepherd beat cornerback Kevin Mathis and gathered in Green's well-placed lob for a 39-yard gain to the Dallas 14. Davis totaled eight yards on a pair of carries. On third and two from the 6, Green rolled right, avoided linebacker Dexter Coakley and got the ball to Shepherd in the rear corner of the end zone on the final play of the first quarter for a 7-3 Redskins edge.
Dallas got touchdowns on each of its next two possessions. The run began with Aikman making an on-target throw to wide receiver Michael Irvin for a 51-yard gain despite stride-for-stride coverage by cornerback Darrell Green. Smith took care of the final 14 yards with three runs, getting into the end zone from the 1 on the last one to move ahead of Marcus Allen with career rushing touchdown No. 124.
The Redskins had to punt, and the Cowboys needed only four plays plus a Washington penalty to go 88 yards and make it 17-7. Wide receiver Billy Davis beat cornerback Darryl Pounds on consecutive plays for gains of 19 and 24 yards. Irvin drew a pass-interference call on Green for another 14 yards. Smith ran for five yards, then got touchdown No. 125 with a spectacular 26-yard dash. He got stopped in the middle of the line but maneuvered his way to the sideline to his left and dove across the goal line.
The Redskins moved to the Dallas 17, and Trent Green tried to get the ball to Alexander along the sideline in the end zone. But Godfrey was right there and got to the ball first. Both players ended up with their hands on the ball as they fell to the ground, but the closest official ruled that Godfrey had possession and gave the ball to the Cowboys.
"The official in the back said, if anything, it was incomplete out of bounds," Alexander said. "The other official said no, it's an interception. We just got a bad break, but you should be able to overcome that. Our offense did okay on our first couple drives, but we didn't make enough plays tonight."
Aikman connected with tight end Eric Bjornson for a pair of 14-yard gains, then escaped pressure and found wide receiver Patrick Jeffers down field. Jeffers provided a tumbling catch for a 45-yard gain to the Redskins 12. The Cowboys couldn't apply the finishing touches for a third touchdown on three second-quarter possessions, but Cunningham's 23-yard field goal 25 seconds before the intermission upped the lead to 20-7.
Two pass interference calls against Redskins reserve cornerback Tim Denton early in the fourth quarter helped the Cowboys to Cunningham's third field goal of the evening. The Cowboys couldn't cash in on a first-and-goal opportunity after Denton's interference penalty in the end zone, but Cunningham connected from 26 yards to make it 23-7.