(With Richie Whitt on vacation for the next two weeks, Dallas Observer staff writer Sam Merten has graciously agreed to pitch in. Commenters, on your mark...)
Long before the Cowboys' playoff chances were officially toast, this season felt doomed from the beginning. The devastating 13-7 loss to the Redskins on September 12 was a game they should have won. Tashard Choice's fumble at the end of the first half and Alex Barron's holding penalty at the end of the game set the tone for perhaps the most disappointing season in franchise history.
Although Dallas managed to win Sunday's rematch with Washington in the 100th meeting between the two rivals, it's clear the team hasn't gotten much better. Sure, the Cowboys are now 4-2 since Jason Garrett took over and Wade Phillips was shown the door, but they can't finish in the red zone, and the defense is abysmal, especially the secondary.
After a 38-yard kickoff return by Bryan McCann to start the game, Dallas settled for a 42-yard field goal. During the Redskins' first drive, Rex Grossman, starting his first game since November 2008, misfired to Anthony Armstrong on third down, and Orlando Scandrick dropped an easy interception. McCann eased the pain with another great return -- this time a punt for 31 yards, which could have gone for a score if he hadn't been tripped by punter Sam Paulescu. The penalty that should have been called, wasn't, but Jon Kitna connected with Jason Witten for a 26-yard pass down to the 4-yard line.
Kitna followed a 3-yard run by Felix Jones with an overthrow of Miles Austin, and then a Kyle Kosier's false start moved them back to the 6 for third down. The play call? A Kitna quarterback sneak. It almost worked, but Kitna was taken down at the 1. Garrett went for it on fourth down, and Choice was destroyed by London Fletcher over the top. No points, and remember, Garrett is supposed to be the offensive guru.
Despite the missed opportunity, Gerald Sensabaugh intercepted Grossman, and the Cowboys were able to put six on the board as Miles Austin showed up momentarily with a nice move in the end zone to beat DeAngelo Hall. The defense held Washington to a three-and-out, but a catchable ball thrown to Sam Hurd was dropped in the end zone, and it was time to settle once again for a field goal. Hurd then committed an obvious facemask penalty while tackling Brandon Banks on special teams and actually danced afterward. No call by the refs.
Terence Newman made sure his penalty was noticed as the Redskins drove down the field, using his helmet and hitting Santana Moss late after Moss was tackled for an 8-yard loss. A 19-yard pass to Ryan Torain cut the Cowboys' lead to 13-7, but the offense responded with a nifty trick play out of the wildcat, as Choice handed off to Jones, who handed off to Kitna, who then tossed a 32-yard pass to Jones. The drive was capped off by a 14-yard touchdown pass to Jason Witten, who became just the fourth tight end in history to catch 600 balls with the reception.
It was time to put Washington to bed after the Cowboys' defense held them to another three-and-out, but Dallas couldn't expand its 20-7 lead before halftime. Miles Austin dropped a pass from Kitna in the end zone that was off the mark but catchable, and then David Buehler pulled a 35-yard field goal wide left.
A Grossman fumble caused by DeMarcus Ware to start the second half put the Cowboys in a position to seemingly put the game out of hand with a touchdown with the ball at Washington's 15 yard line, and, sure enough, they managed to extend the lead to 27-7 with a three-yard run by Choice.
Then everything started falling apart.
On his way to 322 yards passing and four touchdowns, Grossman threw three touchdowns and two 2-point conversions in the Redskins' next three possessions, tying the game at 30-30. Meanwhile, the Cowboys settled for a 20-yard field goal, which just squeaked inside the left upright, and they punted for the first time.
In their next possession, Moss dropped a long pass from Grossman, who was subsequently sacked twice by Scandrick and Butler. Dallas followed with a 39-yard field goal -- this one just inside the right upright. With 50 seconds still on the clock, Garrett had a smile on his face from ear to ear and started high-fiving folks as if the team was headed to the Super Bowl.
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An interception by Newman ended Grossman's attempt to get Washington in field-goal range, and Dallas won a game it should have had in the bag at halftime.
After the win, everyone talked about how a win is a win, no matter how they got it. But, really, that's bullshit. This was an ugly win against a hated rival that's an awful team right now. What this game showed was how close the two teams are right now -- both are 5-9 -- and that should frighten the players and coaches.
But Garrett's not worried at all. He's giddy before the game even ends. Heck, he was also all smiles after losing a heartbreaker to the Eagles.
While there are those ready to hand over the full-time gig to Garrett, he's got a lot to prove in the team's final two games. Style points do count when you're auditioning for a job, and merely pulling out a win wasn't enough yesterday.