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The Cowboys vs. Redskins forgotten classic

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This game was a crazy one in the long history of the rivalry.

Dallas Cowboys v Washington Redskins Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The 1-0 Dallas Cowboys travel to our nation’s capital Sunday to take on the 0-1 Washington Redskins. This will the 117th meeting between these two franchises who have a storied history with many memorable games.

Most Cowboys fans are intimately familiar with some of the classic games between these two division rivals who combined for eight Super Bowl titles between 1971 and 1995. There’s Clint “the Mad Bomber” Longley bringing Dallas back on Thanksgiving of 1974. There’s Roger Staubach leading the team back from double-digit deficits - twice - in his final regular season game. There’s Michael Irvin toasting an in-his-prime Darrell Green for 132 yards and a touchdown to end the 1991 Redskins’ bid for a perfect season.

In fact, there’s too many great games over the years to remember all of them. One classic, however, has never really garnered the attention it deserves. The three largest comebacks in Dallas Cowboys history all featured the team overcoming a 21-point deficit. I don’t think the average fan would be able name one of them. This opening game of the 1999 season against the Redskins is my favorite of the three. (The others, by the way, were against New Orleans in 1984 when Danny White relieved an ineffective Gary Hogeboom and 2014 against St. Louis).

The 1999 Dallas Cowboys were coming off another 10-win season, another division title and another disappointing playoff exit. Troy Aikman was still handing the ball to Emmitt Smith and throwing it to Michael Irvin, and Deion Sanders was still shutting down opposing receivers. They were still America’s Team, on the front of magazines, featured on prime-time telecasts and generally the most popular team in North American sports.

This game featured it all:

  • Over 1,000 yards of offense
  • Big plays all over the field
  • Dramatic, gut-wrenching changes of fortune
  • And finally, the greatest comeback in Dallas Cowboys history

Things started smartly for Dallas as the offense drove 80+ yards on each of the team’s first two drives. More importantly, the team converted each drive into seven points on two touchdown passes to David LaFleur (if you had told me David LaFleur had two touchdowns in the same game I simply wouldn’t have believed it; he had 12 his entire career). Among the forgotten plays during this sequence was Raghib Ismail dropping a sure 60+ yard touchdown pass on a perfectly executed play-action fake.

The Cowboys touchdowns surrounded a field goal by the Redskins for a 14–3 lead early in the second quarter. Pro Football Reference’s Win Probability calculator gave the Cowboys a 79% likelihood of winning. All was right in the world.

Then, over the next two quarters the Redskins scored 32 consecutive points. The Redskins scored four touchdowns, a field goal and a 2-point conversion on eight drives. The offense netted 408 yards on those drives, each traveling at least 48 yards. They averaged almost 11 yards per play. Only two fumbles deep inside Cowboys territory prevented Washington from putting up even more points. The Cowboys’ defense seemed to have no idea how to stop the Redskins.

Simultaneously, the Cowboys offense which started so effectively was wholly ineffective. Over six drives the team totaled 36 yards, netted two first downs and turned the ball over twice:

This was arguably the worst 30 minutes of football the Cowboys had played since the 1–15 debacle of 1989. Thus, as the game entered the fourth quarter the Cowboys trailed 35–14. The Win Probability Calculator gave Dallas a 0.1% chance of winning at this point. The Cowboys had been thoroughly whipped on both sides of the ball.

Thus, it was hard to envision the team suddenly coming to life and orchestrating a 21- point fourth-quarter comeback. But that’s exactly what happened. You’d think the comeback would feature quick strike scores but that’s not what happened. Instead, down 21 with only 15 minutes remaining, Dallas did what every team facing a three-score, fourth-quarter deficit does - they decided to establish the run. Amazingly, they got back in the game by handing the ball off eight straight times on an 11-play drive that ended with an Emmitt Smith touchdown run.

Now down 14 with under 11 minutes remaining, Dallas pulled off a successful onside kick that turned momentum the Cowboys’ way. Darren Woodson and Dat Nguyen both made brilliant plays on the ball; Woodson keeping it in-bounds and Nguyen then possessing it without going out of bounds. (Matt Millen announced this game and is so clueless he doesn’t believe the onside kick was on purpose; he thinks the kicker just happened to shank the ball to a perfect position for the Cowboys to recover.)

I was shocked watching the video of this game to learn the Cowboys didn’t turn the good fortune into points. Instead, they turned the ball over on downs at the Redskins 28 after two consecutive incomplete passes to Michael Irvin. The Dallas defense did force a 3-and-out from the Redskins (the Redskins first punt since the team’s first drive of the game).

Down 14 with 6:15 remaining at their own 34 the Win Probability number stood, again, at 0.1%. The best way to capture what happened over the next 10 minutes of game time is to recognize that Troy Aikman had 150 yards passing at this point but would end with 362. First, an 18-yard pass to Ismail set up a 37-yard touchdown pass to Michael Irvin. (The replay showed Irvin didn’t actually score but the Redskins failed to challenge. Matt Millen stated that was a wise decision because the Cowboys likely would have scored from the one any way and the Redskins needed to keep both their challenges.)

The Cowboys were now within seven points with just under four minutes remaining. The once-raucous Redskins fans were now very nervous and the Cowboys were fully energized. A 31-yard first down pass from Brad Johnson to Michael Westbrook, however, moved the ball near mid-field and seemed to signal the excitement was about to end. But then three straight runs failed to move the ball anywhere and Washington punted; the Cowboys taking over at their own 10 with 3:01 remaining.

The next drive was not a classic, come-from-behind series of signature plays. Four times the Redskins jumped offsides, giving the Cowboys 20 free yards. Sandwiched between the penalties were short catches by Irvin, Ismail and Jeff Ogden (Jeff Ogden?). Not until the Cowboys reached the Redskins 12-yard line did they face a third down. That’s when Aikman hit Irvin for a 12-yard touchdown and a 35–34 score. Naturally, the extra point bounced off the upright, nearly derailing the entire comeback, but luckily crossed over for the point and a tie game. The 14-play drive (including penalties) took only 1:11, leaving the Redskins 1:50 on the clock to mount their own comeback.

Again, however, the Redskins were ineffective, using only 14 seconds while going nowhere. A short punt gave the Cowboy’s possession at their own 47 with 1:30 remaining. Remarkably, Dallas was now in position to win the game. With momentum firmly on the Cowboys side it only makes sense that Aikman immediately threw an interception and gave Washington yet another chance, starting from their own 37.

On first down Johnson fumbles the snap, picks it up and throws a blind desperation pass down the sidelines which flies eight yards over the receiver’s head. Terrance Mathis is ruled to have interfered, however, and the ball is advanced to the Cowboys 23. The Redskins are happy to try the 40-yard field goal and make no attempt to advance the ball. In a game that featured everything else, it makes sense that punter Matt Turk would drop the snap on the field goal try then wildly toss the ball for what could have easily ended up an interception and a Cowboys’ game-winning touchdown. But it didn’t; the game instead ending in regulation in a 35–35 tie.

Whew. Watching those last few minutes I was dumbstruck. I had completely forgotten all that extra drama after the Cowboys tied the game. The Redskins received the OT kickoff and looked in good position when they moved into Cowboys territory. A Greg Ellis sack on third down, however, forced a punt. Washington then pinned the Cowboys down on their own five-yard line when Turk made a perfect punt.

Emmitt Smith then made a terrific third-down play, taking an outlet pass and racing around the corner to just barely make the first-down marker (Smith seemed to just reach the first-down marker a lot). Two more plays left the Cowboys facing 3rd-and-1 from their own 24.

Remember that perfect play-action pass from the first quarter when Ismail dropped a sure long touchdown? Nah, neither did the Redskins. Here, deep in their own territory and facing a 3rd-and-1, with the Redskins expecting a run, the Cowboys went back to the play. Aikman executed the fake perfectly, both safeties bit hard and Ismail raced past them. Aikman’s pass was placed perfectly, Ismail caught it easily and joyously raced alone into the end zone to complete the 21-point fourth-quarter comeback.

Washington fans sat in stunned silence. Cowboys players raced around deliriously. It was a truly remarkable game.

It was a disorienting tale of three distinct, separate games. Consider, both teams flip-flopped from dominating on both sides of the ball for sustained periods of time:

The Cowboys would go on to a 3–0 start to the season but would win only five of their next 13 games. They snuck into the playoffs as a wild card team with an 8–8 record. Their reward would be a visit to Minnesota to take on a Vikings team that featured Randy Moss, Chris Carter, Jake Reed and Robert Smith. This was also Michael Irvin’s last hurrah; he would catch only five more passes before suffering a career-ending injury in Philadelphia four weeks later.

If you’ve never seen this game, or saw it originally and haven’t seen it since do yourself a favor and watch it. If not the entire game, at least the last 20 minutes or so. It’s a true Cowboys-Redskins classic and deserves more recognition.