I have a theory as to what the National Football League’s greatest rivalry is, but I need to know what the NFL itself would say. So I call NFL Network’s Mike Lombardi and ask him. Lombardi possesses an unmatched system of alliances (he has worked for everyone from Bill Walsh to Bill Belichick), an ability to seamlessly do-si-do between the executive and press boxes, and an uncanny penchant for spouting the smartest strain of the moment’s conventional wisdom. In short, Lombardi is the David Gergen of the NFL. His answer will be definitive. He pauses for quite some time. Finally, he comes out with it:
Ernie Accorsi, who served as the general manager for the New York Giants from 1998 to 2007, agrees. “I have to admit that that rivalry was probably the best one,” he says. “It just had some spirit to it. And they” — the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins — “were fortunate to play in big games and be Super Bowl contenders at the same time.”
“Like any rivalry, it ebbs and flows,” adds Greg Aiello, the current NFL spokesperson, who worked for the Cowboys for more than a decade. “It continues to be a great rivalry because of the history and the tradition there. It’s like Army-Navy — it’s so well ingrained, every time they play it takes on some kind of heightened interest.”
Ebbs and flows all right. Dallas and Washington meet tonight to play their 15th Monday Night Football game each having won exactly two playoff games in the past 15 years. How would you convince someone that these teams — and not, say, the New England Patriots and the New York Jets, or the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens — constitute the greatest rivalry, even today? First, you’d cite the 13 Super Bowls and 18 postmerger conference championships the two teams have appeared in. You’d make a cynical reference to Forbes‘ ranking the two teams the two most valuable NFL franchises five years running. But, as with a discussion of a quarterback, you’d quickly find your way to the intangibles: the rabid fan bases; the two teams’ massive spheres of influence, which do not reside tidily within the same region, nearly connected by one road (I-95 for Jets-Pats, I-70 for Steelers-Ravens), but stretch across the better part of the continent; even the fact that their uniforms have largely stayed the same throughout the years.
Oh, and the names. “The rivalry goes beyond football,” Hall of Fame Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin tells me. “It goes back to what we’ve seen on TV, what we’ve watched, what we were told. We watched Cowboys and Indians!
“This goes back eons,” Irvin adds. “Eons!”
When George Preston Marshall moved the Boston Braves to D.C. in 1937, the legendarily racist owner rechristened them the Redskins and declared them the team of the South.1 The star quarterback, Slingin’ Sammy Baugh, was a parody of a Texan good ol’ boy. The Skins barnstormed throughout the region, which was then bereft of professional teams, in preseasons, and owned extensive broadcast rights. Their fight song proclaimed their allegiance: “Hail to the Redskins,” it went, “hail victory, braves on the warpath, fight for ol’ Dixie!”2
The peculiarity of Marshall’s institution explains why he was the most vociferous opponent of making the Cowboys an NFL expansion team in 1960. You know the story: In the late 1950s, oil heir Lamar Hunt wanted his own NFL team, but the league refused to expand and the Chicago Cardinals’ Bidwill family refused to sell. So Hunt tracked down seven other rich guys and founded the American Football League. The NFL responded by trying to create new teams, beginning with one to compete with Hunt’s team, the Dallas Texans.
But Marshall was against expansion, which required unanimity among the owners. Enter, believe it or not, “Hail to the Redskins.” Bandleader Barnee Breeskin, the composer, held the rights to the tune. He disliked Marshall. When Breeskin learned that Marshall was blocking the NFL’s Dallas franchise, Breeskin offered prospective owner Clint Murchison Jr., the song. Compounding matters, Marshall’s wife had helped write the lyrics. Accounts differ over whether the future Cowboys owner ever literally owned “Hail to the Redskins,” but he certainly used this leverage to strike a bargain with Marshall: I’ll give you back your song if you let me have my team. The Cowboys debuted in 1960 — the same year as the AFL (Hunt’s Texans soon moved to Kansas City and became the Chiefs). In their first season, they were helmed by ex-Skins quarterback Eddie LeBaron.
The rivalry received its biggest boost when the Redskins hired George Allen3 as their coach and de facto general manager for the 1971 season. “Not only did the Redskins get good,” Accorsi says, “but Allen was a colorful guy. And the Cowboys were kings.” Longtime Washington Post sportswriter Thomas Boswell explains, “To me it’s the rivalry that George Allen created and fueled and just adored. It appealed to his adolescent spirit of skullduggery. He wanted to psych up his own players and psych out the Cowboys because they were so icy and superior.” (Speaking of icy, rumor has it that Allen would turn off the hot water in the visitor’s locker room whenever Dallas came to town.) The Redskins’ Joe Gibbs — the coach who won the franchise its three Super Bowls — loved the rivalry, too, according to Boswell, because it gave him two games a year when he didn’t need to worry about motivation. The Cowboys’ ever-fedora’d Tom Landry tended to look down on Allen’s arriviste affectations, though he was not above cashing in after Jones fired him following the 1988 season, shooting a Comfort Inn ad instructing, “Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be Redskins.”
The metaphorical soil was fertile: East Coast versus Sun Belt; politics versus oil; America’s capital versus America’s Team; suits versus boots; centralized government versus self-sovereignty — the Stars and Stripes versus the Lone Star. “The Cowboys always wanted a duel at dawn, 20 paces,” Boswell tells me. “Gentlemen. Pressed uniforms. They did it by 50-yard runs and deep bombs. The Skins wanted a brawl — they would gouge you, ground it out.”
What’s your favorite Cowboys-Redskins game? To a certain crowd, it’s like asking what your favorite Lennon/McCartney song is: It first depends on whether you prefer John or Paul. Irvin notes, “There is no favorite — ever.” The first classic came in 1965, when paunchy-but-deadly-accurate Redskins QB Sonny Jurgensen threw three touchdowns and rushed for a fourth, leading the Skins to 21 fourth-quarter points and a 34-31 comeback victory. There was the Ken Houston Game on a 1973 Monday Night Football, in which the Redskins scored all their points in the final four minutes and Skins safety Houston stopped Walt Garrison on the goal line on a last-minute fourth down. Then the next year, there was the Clint Longley Game, in which the eponymous rookie came in for the injured Staubach and led America’s Team to victory on Thanksgiving (“I thought it would kill my father,” Boswell recalls). In 1983, there was the Cowboys’ overcoming a 20-3 halftime deficit to win 31-30, in Washington — on the season-opening Monday Night Football. Even beyond the Glory Years, there was the 1999 season-opener (and Dan Snyder’s first game as owner), which the Cowboys won in overtime, as well as the 2005 Monday Night game that saw two fourth-quarter Mark Brunell bombs to Santana Moss for a 14-13 Redskins win. You could even throw in the Cowboys’ 13-3 win at Washington in 1989 — the sole bright spot in a 1-15 season.
“The best football game I ever saw was December of 1979. Dallas won right at the end,” says Brad Sham, longtime voice of the Dallas Cowboys. “I don’t know how many Hall of Famers were on the field that day. The Redskins seemed to be able to score real easy, the Cowboys had to work for everything they got.” In a back-and-forth game with playoff implications, the Redskins sat pretty, up 34-28 with less than two minutes left, needing short yardage for a game-clinching first down. Instead, Larry Cole tackled Hall of Fame Redskins running back John Riggins for a loss; the Redskins punted; and Roger Staubach — in his second-to-last game ever — led the Cowboys 75 yards down the field, without timeouts, for a game-winning touchdown.
Boswell’s favorite game is the first NFC Championship, on New Year’s Eve 1972, which the Redskins won, 26-3. “There had been a huge period where there had not been any success for the Redskins — since World War II,” he explains. “The Cowboys were fully entrenched. And Allen brings in the Over-the-Hill Gang, and targets the Cowboys specifically: constantly talked about how much he hated them, accused them of cheating, of spying on the Redskins’ practices.”
The “knockout punch,” according to Boswell, was a long bomb from Billy Kilmer up the sideline to Charley Taylor. “We had a photographer, Dick Darcey,” he tells me. “He was so close to the team that he knew they had practiced that particular play, and he had asked them to tip him off. We’re in the press box. We see Darcey running like crazy — this skinny guy carrying all this equipment, running from midfield to the end zone — to get in position — and it produced one of the greatest action sports photos ever.”
Joe Theismann’s favorite, unsurprisingly, is the second Cowboys-Redskins championship game, in January 1983, in which Theismann took the Redskins to their second Super Bowl (and the first they won). Dexter Manley injured Danny White, Staubach’s successor, on a sack; the game was clinched when Darryl Grant tipped a pass, caught it, and high-stepped into the end zone. “It had five or six rows of aluminum seats,” Theismann recalls of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. “At the end of the game the fans were pounding their feet, and the ground beneath my feet shook.” (Talking to Theismann on the phone is slightly surreal; you keep waiting for NFL Films’ basso profundo John Facenda to interrupt you.)
Irvin’s favorite Cowboys-Redskins game was Tom Landry’s last, in 1988. “I was walking in, thinking, ‘Is Darrell Green coming in?'” he reflects, referring to the Skins’ Hall of Fame cornerback. “I was thinking, ‘I gotta beat Darrell Green. He’s the baddest man in the world. If I can beat Darrell Green, that means I’m the baddest man in the world!'” Irvin scored three touchdowns that day.
Of course, this is distracting you from the two problems with calling this the greatest rivalry ever. The first is that the Cowboys are a unique franchise, arguably the most successful since their inception and inarguably the most popular. They have a rivalry with the Steelers, too, with whom they have contested a remarkable three Super Bowls, and with the San Francisco 49ers, with whom they have gone head-to-head in four conference championships. And they have played almost exactly as many games against the Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles (and plenty against the St. Louis/Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals, who were in the East until 2002).
But this is easily dispensed with. Every Yankees needs its Red Sox, and indeed, for the Redskins, the rivalry has always been aspirational. “You knew how good they were,” Theismann tells me. “You went out there to earn their respect and beat ’em. Because if you beat the Cowboys, you were good.” Referring to the Connecticut Avenue power deli where then-Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke kept the team’s Lombardi Trophies, Aiello remembers, “Every year, it was Dallas Week, and Duke Ziebert’s was buzzing.” There’s no better example of this dynamic than Snyder: The diminutive Washington owner, more De Gaulle than Napoleon,4 openly sees Jones’ successful reconjuring of the Cowboys’ Glory Years as a model.
For the Cowboys, by contrast, the rivalry is not quite this big a deal. “There are more potent rivalries for Cowboy fans at the moment, particularly with the Eagles,” Sham argues. “When one of those teams is particularly good, Cowboys fans will pay attention. When it’s not so much the case, Cowboys fans are more ho-hum.” (He adds: “Older fans would, I think, very much say that the Redskins are the no. 1 rival, and that [they] will always be.”) Still, the Redskins’ two-a-years leaves the Steelers and Niners rivalries in the dust. Starting with Allen — whose son Bruce is the current Skins GM — Washington got under Dallas’ skin more than any other team. As Accorsi noted, the Skins happened to be great at the same time as Dallas and more often than the Giants. As for Philly — they can call me when they win a Super Bowl.
The second problem is that the Redskins’ mediocrity over the past 20 years and the Cowboys’ mere sufficiency over the past 15 have, one could say, made the rivalry dormant, if not defunct. As Theismann puts it, “What we’ve seen over the last 10 or 15 years is more of a carryover.” But that has hardly mattered. Sure, their overall record stands at a rather lopsided 60-40-2 in the Cowboys’ favor, but that’s nearly identical to, say, Michigan-Ohio State’s 57-44-6. In particular, Allen and RFK lent the rivalry that alma-matrian flair. “RFK, that and Green Bay, have been the two NFL stadiums that are collegiate,” says Accorsi. “As much as I hated to go in there with teams I had, particularly the Giants, it was a sensational atmosphere.” Thinking of Dallas-Washington as a college rivalry that has outgrown its amateur clothes is useful — it, too, is something that is eternal because it is between two institutions that will stand for certain values over the long haul, not just whoever happens to own and play for them at any given moment.
Rivalries based on players, such as those that exist prominently in the National Basketball Association, are inherently weaker and less stable than rivalries between institutions. Last week, NBC scheduled Eagles-Atlanta Falcons for its prime-time game and got nearly twice as many viewers as the Emmys, no doubt in part for the drama of Michael Vick returning to his former home. But what if, for example, last night NBC had scheduled, say, a game whose drama depended mainly on a single player competing in that game, and — hypothetically — that player did not play because, I dunno, he has needed multiple surgeries on, let’s say, his neck? “Pete Rozelle said at one point that it’s good for the league if the Cowboys are going well,” Aiello recalls. “He wasn’t rooting for the Cowboys, he was just stating the obvious. I think he’d probably say the same for the Redskins, Pittsburgh, Green Bay — those types of teams. When they’re going good, it’s good for the league.”
Moreover, in a league dominated by parity, you can’t count on a currently good rivalry to last forever, or even for more than a few years. Rather, you need the structure of the divisions, and the added bonus of historically justified aura. “By ’72, the key elements were in place,” Michael MacCambridge tells me — “one unified league, growing presence in prime time, more national games.” Cowboys-Redskins was not only Steelers-Ravens for 20 years, it was Steelers-Ravens for the 20 years that mattered.
Knowing he grew up in the D.C. area (as did I), I tell Boswell that the Redskins and the rivalry were imparted to me by my father, a lifelong Washingtonian, and that among my earlier memories is Super Bowl XXVI, during which my parents had friends over to watch the Skins dominate the Buffalo Bills. “I remember, the year the Redskins beat Denver so badly in the Super Bowl, my son was like a year old,” Boswell tells me. “For some reason, I wasn’t covering it. And I remember this woman, who is now the chief of staff at the Smithsonian — Doug Williams throws yet another touchdown pass, and she stands up and spikes a football in my living room.” He adds, “My son has grown up with all this mythology. And it’s part of the anger over all these years at Snyder. They don’t just resent having it lost for them, but for their sons.”
In the end, rivalries are barely connected to contemporary reality — like everything else we pass on from generation to generation. To argue that a rivalry’s declined relevance weakens the rivalry is to misunderstand what rivalries are. Like a fourth-generation Irish-American whose favorite holiday is St. Patrick’s Day, an adherent of the Redskins-Cowboys rivalry sees his second-order attachment strengthen as the first-order attachment withers away. In the place of a contingent, instrumental affiliation is an unqualified expressive one. “The Pats and the Jets,” Theismann muses. “Pittsburgh and Baltimore. I don’t know whether they will go generations deep like the Cowboys-Redskins rivalry has. And until the generations have been completely wiped out, there will always be a need for this kind of a rivalry.”
Marc Tracy is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine. This is his first piece for Grantland.
To comment on this story through Facebook, click here.