January 21, 2021

Cowboys 18, Redskins 16: The Knockout Punch That Missed

Redskins QB Rex Grossman is stripped on last meaningful play of the game. (Photo by Brian Murphy)

Redskins defensive coordinator Jim Haslett is from Pittsburgh. So was Billy Conn. If you don’t know who Billy “The Pittsburgh Kid” Conn is, you’re not alone. Conn, a light-heavyweight who died in 1993 at the age of 75, is best remembered for being knocked out in a heavyweight title fight by Joe Louis in the summer of 1941. Despite being ahead on all three judges’ scorecards entering the 13th round, Conn continued to fight in his trademark aggressive style. His reward was a savage beating from Louis and a defeat by knockout. The New York Herald Tribune wrote, “Conn wound up on his wounded left side, trying to make Irish legs answer an Irish brain.”

Leaving nationality and the innate folly of cross-sport comparisons aside for a moment, Haslett’s defense found itself in more or less the same position on Monday night.

Washington led 16-15, with 2:20 to go. The Dallas Cowboys faced a near-impossible 3rd down situation, needing to make 21 yards from their own 30-yard line. The gallant Redskins defense had tried to make life hell for Tony Romo all night and had just preserved the lead on the previous Cowboys possession despite the home team having first-and-goal at the 2. Romo on the other hand, had to deal with pain in his ribs that would have put most of us on the coach with a spirometer. His center more or less snapped the ball whenever he felt like it (I counted four snaps that caught the quarterback completely unaware, either whizzing by him or forcing him to make a bobbling catch), and his receivers (no Miles Austin, remember) appeared to have just stepped off the bus from Cow College that day. Romo’s visible frustration (which was no doubt amplified by his pain) was not exactly photogenic, but it was perfectly understandable.

The Redskins hadn’t had it all their own way, either Anthony Armstrong had been absent since late in the first half with a hamstring injury, denying Washington their one true deep threat. The humid conditions, which were amplified by the open roof at Cowboys Stadium, cost Washington the services of Brian Orakpo on a significant number of second-half plays due to cramps. With the exception of the third-quarter touchdown drive, the running game struggled to get going against Dallas’ front seven (Washington finished with 65 total rushing yards). Grossman was unspectacular, completing 22 of his 37 passes for 250 yards. He threw one horrible interception — which led, natch, to a Dallas field goal — and even some of his completed passes were more than a little shaky. And then, of course, there was his game-ending fumble, a result of a total lack of feel for what was coming behind him. Namely, Anthony Spencer.

This sack and fumble by Tony Romo was negated by a defensive holding penalty. (photo by Brian Murphy)

The play-calling was even more suspect than it was when we touched on it last week, as the Redskins offense had to settle for field goals on two of their opening three drives despite being deep into Dallas territory. On the first possession, Kyle Shanahan got too cute on second and ten at the Dallas 25, opting for a shovel pass to Santana Moss, which didn’t fool the Dallas defenders even a little bit. The play lost three yards, and Graham Gano’s 46-yard field goal came two plays later. Later in the quarter, after a Dallas fumble was recovered at the Cowboys 10, setting up first-and-goal, Shanahan opted for the Notre Dame offense of the Bob Davie era: run, run, incompletion, kick. From the moment the Redskins took a 16-9 lead late in the third quarter on a 1-yard touchdown reception by Tim Hightower to Dallas’ final meaningful possession of the game, Washington ran 11 pass plays and two running plays, hardly a recipe to kill the game off.

And then there were the special teams miscues. Brandon Banks would have given his team better field position by letting the ball bounce through the end zone rather than running it out, and punter/holder Sav Rocca dropped the snap on what would have been a 36-yard field goal attempt. Naturally, the Cowboys got three points of their own on the ensuing possession.

But all the sloppiness and all the poor execution and all the hurt and all hatred crystallized on 3rd-and-21, when Jim Haslett, another Pittsburgh Kid ahead on points, went for the knockout. You already know what happened. Eight men were sent. None made it. And once the officials had finished counting off the dubious penalty yardage against the hapless DeAngelo Hall, who may or may not have grabbed Dez Bryant’s facemask, the Redskins had been hit for 45 yards and were dazed. The one-two knockout combination of game-winning field goal and game-sealing fumble came shortly after.

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