The Redskins-Cowboys rivalry of the 1970s and 1980s is etched in NFL history. The rivalry began when the Redskins hired George Allen as head coach in 1971. Allen had been the head coach of the LA Rams from 1966–1970. Washington had some great teams in the 1930s and early 1940s. The Redskins had played in six NFL title games–winning two of them–but their recent history wasn’t much to brag about. From 1946–1970 they had only four winning seasons and no post-season appearances.
You can read the whole story and listen to the podcast episode below.
The Future Is Now
Allen wanted to win right away, not in the future. His motto was “The Future is Now!” He wanted veteran players, and he was willing to trade away draft picks to get them, including getting several players who were with him in Los Angeles. Those players would enhance the team’s talent, players like Sonny Jurgensen at quarterback, Charley Taylor at wide receiver, Jerry Smith at tight end, Larry Brown at running back, and Chris Hanburger at linebacker.
Some criticized Allen for trading away top draft picks, but it was hard to argue with the results. After five weeks in 1971, the team was first in their division with a 5–0 record. The most impressive of those wins came in Week 3 against the Dallas Cowboys in the Cotton Bowl. Quarterback Billy Kilmer connected with receiver Roy Jefferson for a 50-yard score to give Washington a 14–3 lead. The Redskins prevailed that day, 20–16.
Kilmer and Jefferson were examples of how Allen stacked his team with veteran players. Kilmer came by way of the New Orleans Saints to be the team’s back-up QB to starter Sonny Jurgensen, while Jefferson came from Baltimore and was supposed to complement star receive Charley Taylor. But after Jurgenson and Taylor went down with serious injuries, Kilmer and Jefferson stepped in to fill the void.
A Rivalry Is Born
The story was a bit different for the Dallas Cowboys. Born in expansion in 1960, the team struggled to produce a winning team until 1966, when it fell one game short of reaching the Super Bowl. It was the beginning of a pattern. 1967 was the same as 1966, falling one game short of the Super Bowl. In 1968 and, again, in 1969, Dallas lost in the divisional playoff game. Dallas finally reached the Super Bowl in 1970 but lost the game on a last-second field goal.
The Cowboys and Redskins met again in 1971, Week 10, in a game played at RFK Stadium. Dallas got its revenge with a 13–0 shutout and went on to win its first-ever Super Bowl. The Redskins, on the other hand, lost their playoff game to the 49ers, 24–20. But George Allen had proved his point: no longer would the Dallas Cowboys have a free ride to the division title.
Allen, a master psychologist, knew that overtaking the Cowboys as divisional champions wouldn’t be easy. He needed more than players to do it. So he manufactured intense dislike for ‘that team’ from Texas. It wasn’t a stretch for him, either.
When he was with the Rams, the Cowboys accused Allen of sending spies to watch their practices. He resented the accusation and waited to exact revenge. It came during a 1971 regular-season game when a dog ran onto the field. Allen accused the Cowboys of using the dog to disrupt his team’s concentration. Washington won, 20–16.
So deep was Allen’s dislike that he refused to call one of his players, Dallas Hickman, by his first name. Allen’s players bought into his detest for the Cowboys, including d- lineman Diron Talbert, who focused his angst on Cowboys’ quarterback Roger Staubach.
As the 1972 season approached, Washington’s goal was crystal clear: overtake Dallas as divisional champions and get to the Super Bowl. Washington drew first blood in a Week 6 match-up at RFK stadium. They won, 24–20, and moved into 1st place with a 5–1 record. But Dallas got even in Week 13 with a 34–24 victory. The ‘Skins finished the season 11–3, while the Cowboys ended at 10–4. That meant Washington was the division winner, and Dallas had to settle for a Wild Card spot in the playoffs.
Washington beat Green Bay 16–3 in the first playoff game. Dallas defeated the SF 49ers 30–28 with a furious come-from-behind rally. Those victories set up a Cowboys/Redskins match-up on New Year’s Eve in DC. The winner would go on to face the undefeated Miami Dolphins in the Super Bowl.
Cowboys’ coach Tom Landry decided to start Roger Staubach at quarterback over Craig Morton even though Staubach had missed most of the season because of shoulder surgery. Few questioned the decision since it was Staubach who engineered that comeback win over the 49ers.
But starting Staubach wasn’t enough. The Redskins cruised to a 26–3 win. Afterward, Diron Talbert implied that it was easier to beat the Cowboys with Roger Staubach at the helm rather than Craig Morton. That insinuation incensed Staubach, who vowed to get even.
A snafu gave Staubach reason to smile. Those in charge of ordering shoes for the big game must have thought that the Cowboys would be Miami’s opponent. Burgundy shoes–the ‘Skins color–never arrived. Talbert was irate when he saw that they would be wearing blue shoes (the Cowboys color) for the big game.
It got worse from there: the Redskins lost the Super Bowl to the Miami Dolphins 14–7.
Redskins vs. Cowboys Rivalry of the 80s
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. The rivalry had lost a lot of its luster.
Things turned around in the strike-shortened 1982 season, Washington finished 11–1 (including two playoff games). But what could have been a perfect season 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, and 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 satisfaction in that accomplishment 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.
Redskins vs. Cowboys Rivalry Slows Down
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 three 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.
Mark Morthier is the host of Yesterday’s Sports, a podcast dedicated to reliving memorable sports moments from his childhood days and beyond. He grew up in New Jersey just across from New York City, so many of his episodes revolve around the great sport’s teams of the 70s for the New York area. He is also an author of No Nonsense, Old School Weight Training.
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