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Memory Lane: Washington and Dallas clash 16 years ago

The last time the Cowboys visited Washington on September 18, Troy Aikman was still active but injured and the Cowboys need special teams heroics to pull off a win.

Dec 7, 2015; Landover, MD, USA; Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten (82) picks up kicker Dan Bailey (5) after his game winning field goal during the fourth quarter against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field. Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The last time Dallas played Washington on Sept. 18 was in 2000 when first-year Dallas head coach Dave Campo sought his inceptive win on Monday Night Football with Troy Aikman sidelined with injury.

“When I took the job, I knew we were in trouble,” said Campo. “But I thought we could work our way through it. That's what a coach does. He looks at the positive, not the negative.”

After a 41-14 drubbing on Opening Day to Philadelphia and a 32-31 heartbreaker in Arizona, the Cowboys were looking for their first win, not only of the season but of Campo’s career.

Philadelphia knocked out Aikman early in the second quarter. In Week 2 against Arizona on ESPN Sunday Night Football, backup quarterback Randall Cunningham threw three touchdowns with zero interceptions and a 120.1 passer rating. Yet, Dallas blew an eight-point lead in the final six minutes to leave disappointed.
But Campo was not disconsolate.

“I felt like we were making some improvements,” said Campo.

And they were – everywhere except the win column.

Though Dallas had a recent two-game winning streak in Washington, FedEx Field had always been a hostile environment. Going for three in a row looked daunting as Washington sat 2-0 atop the division with New York. To add even more intrigue to the primetime affair was a case of switched loyalties. New Washington cornerback Deion Sanders spent previous five seasons in Dallas, including helping the team win Super Bowl XXX. Calling ex-teammates throughout the week, Sanders was “giving them the business.”

“Deion was calling our guys telling them to watch out coming into FedEx Field,” Campo recalls. “So, I had a good feeling that our guys would be ready.”

Not only was Sanders a force on defense as Campo recalls having been his defensive coordinator from 1995-99, but Sanders was also a threat on punt returns. Since Sanders had returned six punts for touchdowns and averaged 10.8 yards per return in his career.

“First of all, he's the best overall player by position that I ever coached,” Campo said. “And the guy was an exceptional, exceptional talent. And obviously I didn't like losing him, but it was the end of his contract, and they let him go. I was worried about him.

The Cowboys defense started off well forcing Washington into a three-and-out. The Dallas offense similarly stalled after gaining a first down on their opening drive. Having to punt it away meant putting the ball in Sanders’ hands.

Sanders fielded the Micah Knorr punt all right, but he lateraled it to fellow cornerback Champ Bailey who blazed 54 yards into Dallas territory to setup first-and-10 from the Cowboys 33-yard line.

"[Sanders] figured we would be keying on him,” Campo explained. “Our guys would be ready to be all over him, I guess, and opened up with it."

Washington running back Stephen Davis took advantage of the field position with a 7-yard touchdown run to give his team a 7-0 lead. Campo wasn’t worried because he had confidence in Cunningham, a 16-year veteran.

“Overall, I thought Randall did a good job,” Campo said. “I thought Randall did a good job under the circumstances because he was really at the end of his career."

Late in the first quarter, Cunningham helped the Cowboys respond and even the score 7-7 with a 76-yard touchdown pass to running back Chris Warren.

“The first one was an easy one that we flanked Chris Warren out and got him on a safety and he ran right by him,” said Campo. “That was a big play in the game.”

Disaster struck Washington 4 yards into Dallas territory. Cowboys defensive tackle Leon Lett sacked Washington quarterback Brad Johnson and forced a fumble recovered by Cowboys defensive end Greg Ellis, both products of new defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer’s tenacious pass rush.

“During my three years as a head coach, we still had an outstanding defense,” Campo said. “Mike Zimmer did a great job with it. We had developed our own system.”

Zimmer’s defense sacked Johnson three times and forced him into interception caught by safety Izell Reese. Johnson finished the game with a 71.9 passer rating, his second straight sub-75 rating. Ellis, who recovered the fumble, also sacked Johnson as did fellow end Ebenezer Ekuban.

“Ekuban and Ellis were both outside rushers,” Campo said. “And we were a 4-3, we depended on the defensive ends to rush the passer. And both of those guys were pretty good. And they were workman guys.”

After the Johnson fumble, the Cowboys took the lead 14-7 with a 3-yard Emmitt Smith touchdown run. The 11-year running back was the only one of the famed Triplets to play in the game.

“Whether he got 83 yards or 150 yards, it was a workman-like game for him,” Campo remarked. “That's why he was as good as he was. He played through pain. He played through, and a tremendous competitor.

“And for him, 4 yards a carry, that's all he needed because he'd get it every time. It was never zero yards. It was never minus-3 yards. It was 3 yards, 5 yards, 6 yards, 3 yards, 8 yards, 5 yards. He just wore you out."

Early in the third quarter, the Cowboys took a 17-7 lead with a 32-yard Tim Seder field goal.

Cunningham later threw a pick to safety Sam Shade that gave Washington field position at the Dallas 23. Davis rushed the ball five consecutive times, including a 1-yard touchdown run to close the Cowboys’ lead to 17-14. Nevertheless, Campo remained confident things would not go as they did in Arizona.

“I felt we had a chance to win the game, and I was just grinding to get that one done,” he said.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Cunningham culled his playmaking abilities as he threw a 16-yard touchdown pass to receiver Jackie Harris to extend Dallas’ lead to 24-14.

Washington would not relent. With 5:39 left, Johnson found tight end Mike Sellers for a 7-yard touchdown to trim the deficit to 24-21.

As Washington would creep closer, the Cowboys would equally pull away. With 1:50 to go, Seder hit a 38-yard field goal to establish a 27-21 Dallas lead. On the next possession, Washington would run out of time on their nine-play drive that culminated embarrassingly with a Johnson sack and 12-men penalty.

As for Sanders, the Cowboys special teams severely hampered him that evening.

“He had five returns for zero yards,” Campo remembered. “And that was something that I thought was extremely big in the game because I thought he was capable of putting the ball into the end zone any time he touched the football.”

After the game, Campo’s players autographed a game program from FedEx Field, which featured Sanders on the cover, and gave it to the coach who has made a plaque out of the token.

In 2016, Dallas enters FedEx Field same as 16 years ago: winless and without their franchise quarterback. This time, Washington is equally winless, and the two arch rivals battle each other for the 111th time to keep off the bottom of the NFC East floor.

What are your memories of one of the final hurrahs of the Triplets era? Share 'em with Mark on Twitter @therealmarklane.