WASHINGTON -- In a town where reality checks are generally a waste of time -- or haven't you noticed the budget deficit recently? -- this one hit like a ton of bricks. Or, if you prefer, a ton of Mark Rypien passes.
What could it mean?
"I have a hunch," explained Matt Millen, Redskins linebacker and philosopher, "it means we're not going to go unbeaten."
That's right. They're not. The Redskins are officially a measly 11-1, which is great unless you're a poet or a sculptor. Nobody writes poems about teams that are 11-1. Of course, when you think about it, when was the last really good football poem you've heard, period?
So, you can put away your burgundy-and-gold wool cap and stop whistling "The Impossible Dream," because we're back to football as usual.
Thank the Cowboys -- yes, the locally hated Cowboys -- for that. Thanks to the Cowboys, Dan Quayle can now spend his Sundays at home, raking the leaves or doing some other good for the nation.
Thanks to the Cowboys -- "That it's Dallas makes it hurt a little more," said tackle Jim Lachey -- we can put to test the theory that the Washington establishment had been paralyzed by its intense interest in the Redskins' quest for an unbeaten season and can now return to work. In the owner's box yesterday, along with the ever-present, bandwagon-riding veep, were George Mitchell, Alan Simpson, Jack Kemp and Jim Baker. How could the Redskins lose with so much collective good will?
They couldn't, of course. But just when you think you've got it all figured out, up comes America's Former Team, and you're back to regulation, on-any-given-Sunday thinking, like this was just any old season.
Folks, that's what it is now -- any old season. It's a shot-at-the-Super-Bowl season, just like most of them around here.
"It was fun while it lasted," Millen said of the unbeaten run, "but now it's over."
It's over like a Roy Orbison song.
It's over because the Cowboys gave the heavily favored Redskins a Texas-style butt-whippin' (yes, in many parts of Texas, the letter "g" is completely unknown). The score was 24-21, but do not be deceived. I give you the all-important, properly-spoken-in-whispers, time-of-possession numbers: Cowboys, 38 minutes, 44 seconds; Redskins, 21 minutes, 16 seconds. The Cowboys acted as if they owned that football.
Actually, they acted, well, downright peculiar. You want to know how they won the game? They won with a first-half-ending "Hail Mary" pass that never works, except when it does. They won by throwing directly at perennial All-Pro cornerback Darrell "I Hope the Vote's Already In" Green, a strategy that usually succeeds as well as invading Kuwait. They won with a second-quarter, long-odds, on-sides kick. They won despite losing their quarterback early in the third quarter. Oh, and they also won by stuffing the Redskins' running game and rarely allowing Rypien to connect with The Posse, as his receivers are collectively known.
Two minutes into the fourth quarter, the Redskins had accumulated five first downs, 107 yards (to the Cowboys' 357) and had not crossed the Dallas 40.
This was, as you suspect, some cause for merriment in the Cowboys locker room.
Cornerback Ike Holt was standing near his locker, yelling to no one in particular his version of the game.
"They can run a post-up, in and out, back and forth, X-Y-Z, whatever they want, and we can still stop the [expletives deleted]."
That got my attention. He proceeded: "The Posse, huh? Those guys make about a million dollars each, don't they?"
Holt got a few nods.
"Well, I just wanted to see if they were that much better than me."
Were they? someone asked.
"Hell, no," he said, grinning. "The Posse. I'm jealous of those guys. That's why I was all over them."
For which Holt received a few high-fives. There were plenty of high-fives and a good many hugs among the Cowboys, who didn't hide their joy in their accomplishment.
The Cowboys had done some talking on the field, and some had even engaged in friendly taunting of the crowd, imitating the Redskins players' penchant for encouraging the fans to yell. The Redskins were playing for history, but the Cowboys (7-5) were going for a playoff spot and with all the anti-Redskins feeling they could muster. For a while, there was some hint of the old days.
But there was also a hint that the Redskins, as badly as they had played, might yet pull the game out, in the spirit of this season. The first sign came when quarterback Troy Aikman went down. Usually, the opposing team's star player gets hurt either before or during a Redskins game. Then there was a missed chip-shot field goal from the opposition, another Redskins staple in close games. There was also the thought that you couldn't keep throwing to Michael Irvin against Darrell Green without getting burned.
Instead, Steve Beuerlein came off the bench to play great in place of Aikman. After the Redskins put together a 92-yard drive in the fourth quarter to bring the score to 21-14 and gave Redskins fans a reason to live, the Cowboys held the ball for more than seven minutes and then hit what would be the game-winning field goal, although it nearly missed. And Green, who would say he was humbled, never did stop Irvin.
And so it goes. The '72 Dolphins stand alone as NFL unbeatens.
"Realistically," philosopher Millen said, "you know you have to lose somewhere along the line. I bet Don Shula's happy right now."