LANDOVER, Md. -- The past took center stage Monday night at Fed-Ex Field, and the feel of history was almost palpable.
But when push came to shove, it wasn't really the kind of history that the Washington Redskins cared to re-live, given that it was of the recent, frustrating variety in terms of their series against the Dallas Cowboys, their hated NFC East rivals.
For a night that had a throwback feel to it in so many ways -- head coaches Joe Gibbs and Bill Parcells matching wits for the first time since 1990; an old-fashioned NFC East showdown before a Redskins record crowd of 90,367, with the Monday Night Football cameras rolling, no less -- the result was ever so up to date. Dallas 21, Washington 18, giving the Cowboys a 13-1 run of domination against the Redskins since mid-1997.
Welcome back, Joe. Now you're really a Redskins head coach again.
Only the details of Washington's defeat were novel. The Redskins came excruciatingly close to a game-tying, overtime-producing field-goal attempt, but receiver Rod Gardner was tackled in bounds by Cowboys safety Roy Williams at the Dallas 21 after catching a 46-yard bomb from quarterback Mark Brunell. The final 7 seconds ticked off the clock as Washington, with no timeouts remaining, tried in vain to hustle up to the line of scrimmage and spike the ball.
"We kind of wish we had it back or it had gone another way, but that's life up here,'' Gibbs said of the game's final play, and his latest attempt to beat an old rival. "I came back to try and win games for our franchise and our fans. And we're giving everything we've got to try and get that done.''
Actually, the notion of Parcells besting Gibbs, his fellow 1980s-90s Super Bowl coaching legend, is a pretty old one. Dallas' re-incarnated head coach now holds a 12-6 career edge over Washington's re-incarnated head coach, with seven consecutive wins and 12 out of 15.
"He'll do a good job,'' Parcells graciously said of Gibbs. "He's an outstanding coach. I can see the way they're making progress, and they're going to be a threat.''
In recent years, the Dan Snyder-owned Redskins haven't been able to beat the Cowboys no matter who's coaching them: Chan Gailey, Dave Campo or the Big Tuna himself. Washington entered the game 1-9 against Dallas in Snyder's first five seasons of ownership, notching only a rather meaningless home win in the 2002 finale, which doubled as Campo's swan song.
All told, Dallas' 13-1 record against Washington since 1997 is a ridiculous success ratio for a franchise that had mostly non-winning seasons in that span. These days, when Washington faces Dallas, the Redskins' famous fight song is unwittingly changed to: "Fail, fail, fail Redskins.''
And Gibbs or no Gibbs, nothing about that trend changed Monday night. It was Dallas that made the game's key plays, and the Redskins who made the tide-turning mistakes. Dallas sacked Brunell five times, held running back Clinton Portis to 94 yards on 23 carries, with a long gain of 13, and forced a whopping eight Washington punts.
"That was a very good defensive team we were up against, they led the league in defense last year,'' Gibbs said. "We certainly have a lot of work to do. I think everyone knows that. ... The big thing for me is they fought their hearts out, and as long as they keep doing that, we'll be okay. It was a hard-fought deal.''
And here are the hard, cold facts of Gibbs' resurrection project in Washington: Three weeks into his career's second act, his Redskins have sunk into sole possession of last place in the NFC East, at 1-2. The Cowboys improved to a 2-1 and climbed into a second-place tie with the Giants, a game back of division-leading Philadelphia (3-0).
Parcells and Gibbs exude old school, but it was a bit of very un-old-school like trickery that decided the outcome, with the winning points being scored on a 26-yard Richie Anderson halfback option pass to receiver Terry Glenn in the back of the end zone. Glenn just managed to drag his feet in bounds, putting Dallas ahead 21-10 with 13 minutes remaining. Gardner, who finished with a game-high 10 catches for 167 yards and two touchdowns, gave the Redskins hope again, hauling in a 15-yard scoring pass from Brunell with 4:30 left to play.
But when it mattered most, both Gardner and the Redskins came up just short. As Washington has time and time again when facing the Cowboys in recent years.
"Obviously we could have used just one of those [timeouts] at the end, but we had to burn them earlier,'' said Brunell, who finished 25 of 43 for 325 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions, despite being harried by the Dallas defensive front all night long. "You hoped he [Gardner] got out of bounds, but he wasn't able to. If he gets out of bounds, maybe we have a chance. But we're 1-2 and we still have a lot of football left.''
In the first half, for all the hoopla surrounding this Week 3 encounter, the only reasonable question seemed to be: We waited 14 years for this?
Retro may be all the rage, but the vintage head coaching matchup that we all couldn't wait for didn't quite live up to its billing. In a half that had it all, but not much you'd actually ever want to watch again, not even the side show of Parcells versus Gibbs was enough to dress up a ragged, sloppy display of football.
But that's what happens when nostalgia gives way to all kinds of nonsense that's supposed to pass as offensive football. The past is all well and good, but it's better to actually execute in the present.
In an opening two quarters that was as ugly as it was long, both offenses slumbered through their prime time opportunity, with Dallas grabbing a modest 7-3 lead. The first half featured nine punts, dropped passes galore, 12 men on the field by the Dallas defense, and something considerably less than pinpoint passing by both quarterbacks. Midway through the second quarter, the Redskins had 64 yards in total offense and 66 yards in penalties, in essence leaving them stuck in reverse.
But at least now, with the Cowboys' latest win in the books, we can all stop being stuck in the past and get busy judging Gibbs and Parcells on how they do in 2004, rather than dissecting how things unfolded for them circa 1984, or thereabouts.
"We're happy to win on the road,'' Parcells said. "Any time you come some place on a Monday night, especially a rivalry like this, and you're able to win, you have to be very happy.''
Once again in this two-tiered rivalry, it was the Cowboys and Parcells walking away with all the happiness, and the victory against the Redskins and Gibbs. On this Monday night, that's where the past and the present nicely dovetailed.
"I didn't see any coaches making any tackles or making any passes,'' Cowboys quarterback Vinny Testaverde said of the game's two largest figures. "But both coaches are well-respected. They're both great for this game. They're great for the NFL and I'm glad to see both of them still coaching.''