In 1980, the Cowboys came close to going to their 6th Super Bowl, losing to the Eagles in the NFC Championship game. The Redskins, on the other hand, lost both regular-season games to the Cowboys and finished the season at 6–10–their worst record since 1968.
In 1981, the Cowboys were less than a minute away from playing in the Super Bowl, but that quest was denied by the 49ers, 28–27. The Redskins had a new head coach in Joe Gibbs and finished the season at 8–8. As it did in 1980, the team lost both regular-season games to the Cowboys.
For Washington, a negative pattern was in place–with five consecutive losses to Dallas and no playoff appearance in five years.
Things turned around in the strike-shortened 1982 season, Washington finished 11–1 (including two playoff games). But an otherwise bright year was tarnished by the sixth straight loss to Dallas. The Cowboys finished 8–3 (including playoffs). And to put the icing on the cake, the two teams would meet again, this time in the NFC Championship game played at RFK Stadium. The Redskins not only got revenge–knocking Cowboys’ QB Danny White out of the game, cruising to a 31–17 win–they ended up going all the way, winning their first Super Bowl.
That championship game gave the rivalry renewed energy. The rematch, which took place on Sept. 5, 1983, at RFK Stadium, was a barnburner.
Played on a hot and humid Monday night in front of a national audience, the game ended up being a tumultuous affair. Washington stormed out to take a 23–3 halftime lead but then watched Dallas storm back to win, 31–30.
The Redskins had a chance to return the favor in Week 15–and did just that–winning 31–10. The Cowboys finished the season in second place (12–4) and then lost in the first round of the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Redskins marched into the Super Bowl at 16–2, where the Raiders handled them with ease, 38–9.
The rivalry made history in 1984 when Washington beat Dallas twice–something the team had never done previously. Some luster was lost because Dallas had an uncharacteristically bad year. It was only the second time in 20 years that the ‘Boys had failed to qualify for the playoffs.
But every time it seemed as though the rivalry was a thing of the past, something happened to keep it alive. 1984 was no different.
In their second meeting of the year, the ‘Skins were up 30–28 with very little time left on the clock. Washington needed to run out the clock, which is an easy QB assignment: the ‘victory formation’ would fill the bill. But cocky Joe Theismann decided otherwise. Three times in a row, Theismann dropped to one knee and then got up and ran around the backfield. Cowboys’ cornerback Ron Fellows, who had enough of it, leveled Theismann. A bench-clearing brawl ensued, and the referees decided to end the game with 24 seconds remaining on the clock.
There was a carryover to 1985. On a hot September night in Texas, the Cowboys had vengeance on their mind as the teams took the field for the Monday Night game. Dallas whomped the Redskins, 44–14, and humiliated Theismann, who finished the game with a 32.3 passer rating.
The Cowboys repeated that feat, beating Washington again in Week 10–one week before Theismann suffered a horrific leg injury that would end his career. The Cowboys were sad to see him go. Theismann did, after all, add spice to a hot rivalry.
But history would show that the rivalry was coming to an end. The teams split games in 1986, but neither game was close or memorable. One reason is that the Cowboys had a losing year, their first losing record in nearly 20 years.
But Washington was still on the uptick. The ‘Skins made it to the NFC Championship game but went no further (shutout by the Giants). They got redemption in 1987 with a Super Bowl win. Doug Williams was under center that year. And the ‘Skins won it again in 1991 with Mark Ripken at QB.
Since 1991, the Redskins have won 10 games in a season only three times. They’ve made the playoffs six times, never advancing beyond the divisional stage.
The Cowboys, on the other hand, had five consecutive losing seasons from 1986–1990. But things began to turnaround when Jerry Jones bought the team in 1989. Jones made drastic changes, including releasing iconic Tom Landry as head coach and hiring Jimmy Johnson, who made a number of chancy trades.
Jones and Johnson–both with Razorback roots–were a good pair. The team responded by winning there Super Bowls (1992, 1993, and 1995). But the ‘Boys have been generally unremarkable since. Since 1996, they’ve never made it beyond the divisional round of the playoffs.
Today, when Washington plays Dallas, it’s another game on the schedule. But from 1971 to 1985, it was one of the best rivalries the NFL has ever known.