Every so often a game comes along that has everything—triumph, despair, redemption, tragedy—and this one qualified. Homer would have loved it. He should have been at Texas Stadium Sunday for what Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs called "an alltime game...one of the alltime gut checks I've been associated with." That's as good a description as you'll hear of the Redskins' 30-28 victory over the Dallas Cowboys. The Skins now rest alone atop the NFC East, and a win in next Sunday's final against the Cardinals will lock up the division title and a playoff spot.
In Sunday's epic, Joe Theismann, the Redskins' quarterback, picked himself up off the canvas, where he'd been dumped eight times by the ferocious Cowboy blitzers, and completed the pass that set up the winning touchdown, a one-yard plunge by John Riggins. What else? It wouldn't be a Redskin game unless it ended with a one-yard Riggins plunge. And Theismann wiped out two Cowboys on a block that sprang flanker Art Monk on the end-around that set up the pass that set up the TD.
Riggins, his nose pushed sideways by a tremendous hit by strong safety Dextor Clinkscale and his 35-year-old body fighting through waves of fatigue, was at his thundering best in the fourth quarter when the game was on the line.
Darrell Green, the Skins' tiny cornerback, was victimized for two scores in the first half, one of them a 60-yarder by Mike Renfro, who had never caught anything so long in his seven-year NFL career. But Green made the play that turned the game in the third period, tearing the ball from the Cowboys' Doug Donley and sprinting 32 yards for the Redskins' first touchdown to cut the Dallas lead to 21-13.
And how about Danny White, the Dallas quarterback who has been waging a season-long battle for his starting job? He began the game with a rush of statistics—completing 13 of 18 passes for 212 yards and three touchdowns in the first half as the Cowboys scored on three of their four full possessions. But then the Cowboys saw a 21-6 lead wiped out in a nightmare third quarter in which they turned the ball over four times and gave the Redskins 17 unanswered points.
"If you look at the statistics we probably outplayed them on offense," White said. "And our defense probably did a better job of stopping them than theirs did to us. But that's not the game. You've got to play a complete game, and a good team doesn't give the ball up four times in one quarter against a team that doesn't give it up all day."
Someone asked White about the playoffs, about the very real chance that the Cowboys might be eliminated for the first time since 1974. Five teams are still in the picture for the last three NFC playoff spots—the Rams and the Skins (both 10-5) and the Giants, Cardinals and Cowboys (all 9-6). White shook his head. "I don't know," he said. "We had destiny in our hands. Now it's in the hands of someone else. It's not a good position to be in and it's not one we're used to."
On Sunday Dallas scored on its opening drive, dug its way out of a hole, drove 51 yards and punted on its second possession, and then put together 77- and 80-yard touchdown drives on the next two chances. The third TD came on the 60-yarder to Renfro; it was a stop-and-go pattern, and the guy who bit on it was Green, who could probably spot Renfro 10 yards in a 100-yard dash and beat him going away.
"It's not a track meet out there," Green said. "If I'm lined up alongside him, I'll blow him away. But it's not that simple. I was playing him real tight. Anything short, I'd kill him. But he had something else up his sleeve."
White's pass, like his 43-yard touchdown to Tony Hill in the fourth quarter, was a moon shot, a high arching thing that took an hour to come down. The bomb is not White's style. The week before, against Philadelphia, he tried to get his long range gun going and it was a joke, an 8-for-25, four-interception game that had people talking about Gary Hogeboom again. But against the Skins everything was working. And the Cowboy offense, operating behind a battered and makeshift line, had already surpassed its per-game average of 18.5 points, the lowest since 1961.
The Skins' offense had been in deep trouble. Riggins was a question mark coming in. His bad back had kept him out of all but two series in the last two games, and early in the week he'd had a traction device set up in his house. The day before the game he said his back "felt fine, but it's my conditioning I'm worried about. I haven't had a chance to work out much in the last month."
The Skins got two first-half field goals on long drives, but when they got in close bad things would happen. Theismann got the ball slammed back in his face when he tried to pass. The Dallas blitzers—safeties, nickel backs, linebackers—were plundering. Theismann was sacked four times and he had another thing to worry about: The Cowboys' new starting alignment replaced linebacker Anthony Dickerson with safety Bill Bates—the hit man, the maniac blitzer.
"It gave us tremendous problems; it caused me to realign my whole offense," said Gibbs, who handled the situation by flanking his second tight end, Clint Didier, out wide to remove Bates, who was covering him, from the action.
Early in the third quarter things looked almost hopeless. Washington ran three plays and punted. Jim Jeffcoat, the Cowboys' defensive right end, was starting to run wild, mainly because the tackle blocking him, All-Pro Joe Jacoby, had suffered a bruised left shoulder. "Joe told me he was losing feeling in the shoulder," said Skins' guard Russ Grimm, who was to leave the game after he caught a finger in the eye.
The Cowboys' first series of the second half ended with Green's interception for a TD, and then the nightmare really began. Chuck McSwain fumbled the kickoff, setting up a 22-yard TD pass, Theismann to Calvin Muhammad, that cut Dallas's lead to 21-20. The Cowboys' next possession ended with another interception by Green, this one in Washington territory, and the series following ended with a low snap from center and a scuffed 16-yard punt. The Cowboys were coming apart. When Timmy Newsome fumbled on the Dallas 23 on the next possession, Mark Moseley kicked a field goal and the Skins were up by two.
"We played with tremendous intensity—we played hard," Tom Landry said. "But you can't turn the ball over that many times."
The Cowboys fought back. They were backed up, third-and-20 on their own 18, but White laid one in perfectly to Hill for 26 yards. Three plays later he connected with the 43-yard bomb to Hill, over right cornerback Vernon Dean's coverage. The Cowboys were back on top, 28-23, but it was the dying spark.
The Skins' winning drive started on their own 45 with 9:41 left. On second-and-one Riggins went for 13, on his way to a 24-carry, 111-yard day. The Cowboys dug in. Everyone knew what was coming: Riggins left, Riggins right. Washington crossed them up. Monk got the call on the end-around. Theismann wiped out Dickerson and cornerback Ron Fellows with a block ("One of the better ones I've thrown," said Joe), and the Skins were on the 15. On second-and-10 the Cowboys brought in three extra defensive backs and blitzed, only this time Theismann rolled to his right, away from the action and connected with Monk, down to the one-yard line. It took Riggins three shots to get it over. There was 6:34 left.
The Cowboys had two more chances. The first drive ended when White was sacked by tackle Perry Brooks. Finally they got the ball back on their 29, with 1:58 left. White completed a shortie to Ron Springs for six yards and then he went to Tony Dorsett, screen left, but Dean took off on the snap of the ball and nailed Dorsett for a seven-yard loss. A third-down pass to Doug Cosbie was overthrown, and the lights went out when Springs slipped making his cut and the final pass fell incomplete.
Afterward the Skins looked as if they'd been in a war. Theismann's face was bruised. Riggins described his nose as "a crooked country road." Grimm's left eye was shut tight and Jacoby's left shoulder was packed in ice. But the Skins look good for the playoffs—if they can find enough healthy bodies.