This story originally appeared in Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine. For subscription information, please click here.
There have been years when the Cowboys’ annual Thanksgiving Day classic featured an unfamiliar opponent, not that there haven’t been outstanding, memorable games against the likes of Miami, Denver and New Orleans. But Thanksgiving Day is made for rivalries like the one that is to be renewed at Cowboys Stadium this year.
In truth, rivalry games were precisely the reason original team president and general manager Tex Schramm lobbied for an annual holiday game in Dallas. The team has been playing on Turkey Day since 1966, when the NFL’s schedule-makers sent the Cleveland Browns – themselves a budding rival at the time – to the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys have traditionally played in the late contest, following Detroit’s home affair, with the NFL only just recently adding a third nighttime matchup on Thanksgiving.
“The league is trying something new by moving the game into primetime television, and we’re happy they picked Dallas. Normally, a Thanksgiving Day NFL game brings one of the biggest ratings of the year,” said Schramm, ever the promoter, back then. “Also, we’ve wanted for several years to establish a Thanksgiving Day game in the Cotton Bowl. People in this area, because of the A&M-Texas game, are used to having football with their turkey. We’re hopeful of adding to this tradition.”
That’s exactly what the Cowboys have done through the years, though it’s certainly odd their traditional matchup has outlasted the longstanding meeting between Southwest Conference and then Big 12 rivals Texas and Texas A&M, who will not play this year for the first time since 1914, in a series that dates back to 1894.
At the professional level, few, if any opponents come to town with the shared enmity of the team’s most bitter NFC East foe, the Washington Redskins. Given how special their annual home-and-home series has been for these past five decades, it’s sort of a shame the Redskins aren’t annual holiday visitors to Dallas – at least in the Cowboys’ eyes, since they’ve never lost to Washington in six Thanksgiving Day clashes leading into this afternoon’s tilt. The Redskins did beat the Lions in 1973, their only Turkey Day trip to Detroit.
Despite the Cowboys’ dominance, there have certainly been some fantastic games played between the two on the holiday, including perhaps the most memorable contest in series history. Here is a look back at the Thanksgiving Day battles between the Cowboys and Redskins.
Nov. 28, 1968 – Cowboys 29, Redskins 20
After rattling off wins in their first six games to start the 1968 season, the Cowboys hit a rough patch in the middle. They dropped two of the three outings before their first matchup with Washington on Nov. 17, sandwiching losses to the Packers and Giants around a victory at New Orleans. The Cowboys’ first win over the Redskins that year began a five-game Dallas winning streak to close out the season – the third of those victories coming in front of a dressing-and-cranberry-stuffed Cotton Bowl crowd of 66,076.
When Don Perkins surged into the end zone on a 9-yard second-quarter run, the Cowboys went up 17-0. Even after Jethro Pugh forced ’Skins quarterback Jim Ninowski to fumble out of the back of the end zone for a safety in the third quarter, Washington fought back, taking a 20-19 lead after touchdown receptions by Jerry Smith and Mike Richter. But Dallas’ Mike Clark nailed a 25-yard field goal in the fourth quarter, and Larry Cole returned a Ninowski interception near the end to seal the win.
Nov. 28, 1974 – Cowboys 24, Redskins 23
In undoubtedly the most exciting Thanksgiving Day matchup between the two teams, and in the discussion for best game in series history, the Cowboys overcame four lost fumbles, an interception and, most crushing of all, the departure of star quarterback Roger Staubach with 9:57 left to play in third quarter after a vicious hit by veteran linebacker Dave Robinson. Washington led 16-3 when an undrafted rookie from Abilene Christian came in to replace Staubach. For his one shining moment as a professional, Clint Longley earned the lifelong nickname “The Mad Bomber.”
First, he shocked the Redskins with a 35-yard touchdown pass to tight end Billy Joe Dupree in the third quarter, with Walt Garrison then plunging into the end zone from a yard out to give Dallas a 17-16 advantage. Washington answered with a 19-yard scoring run by former Cowboys star Duane Thomas just 94 seconds into the fourth period to retake control.
The Redskins then had a chance to make it a two-score game less than three minutes later, but Ed “Too Tall” Jones blocked a field goal. Later, wide receiver Drew Pearson fumbled a 20-yard reception, seemingly cementing his status as a goat (he had dropped a potential game-winning pass against Washington 11 days earlier). However, when the Cowboys got the ball back with 1:45 left in the game, he had a shot at redemption.
First, Longley overcame a fourth-and-6 on a clutch conversion to the aging Bob Hayes. Then, with just 35 seconds left, the ball on the 50-yard line, he dropped back again in desperation and found Pearson streaking downfield for an improbable touchdown.
“They were doubling me,” Pearson said. “I gave them an inside move … and Clint got it to me. It’s real sweet. There are no words to describe it.”
The mood in the opposing locker room was different. The Cowboys had kept their playoff ambitions alive for another week, and put the Redskins’ hopes in doubt.
“I don’t have very much to say,” Washington coach George Allen said afterward. “It was probably the toughest loss we’ve ever had.”
Nov. 23, 1978 – Cowboys 37, Redskins 10
After winning their second Super Bowl title in 1977, the Cowboys stumbled a bit to begin the ’78 campaign, starting just 6-4 to put the postseason in doubt. But after a loss to Miami to start November, they blew out Green Bay and New Orleans and faced a crucial Thanksgiving Day game against Washington, which also entered the holiday at 8-4.
From the very beginning, the Cowboys were in control. They led 20-0 at halftime, following a 53-yard Staubach-to-Pearson bomb, and found themselves up 37-3 in the fourth quarter following a 39-yard Larry Brinson touchdown run. With the Redskins ganging up to stop Tony Dorsett, Scott Laidlaw thrived, rushing for 122 yards on 16 carries with two scores of his own.
The Cowboys wouldn’t lose another regular season game, then beat the Atlanta Falcons and Los Angeles Rams en route to a berth in Super Bowl XIII. The outcome was a turning point for the Redskins as well, as they did not win another contest and failed to make the playoffs.
Nov. 22, 1990 – Cowboys 27, Redskins 17
After their 1-15 campaign under first-year head coach Jimmy Johnson in 1989, the Cowboys were still a rather rough-around-the-edges football team entering Thanksgiving Day, sitting at 4-7 on the year, though coming off a win over the Rams. Washington, meanwhile was 6-4 and angling for a playoff berth. The Cowboys were getting very little out of first-round pick Emmitt Smith, who had just one 100-yard game under his belt to that point and was often overlooked by offensive coordinator Dave Shula, having failed to reach 20 carries in all but two games before the holiday, though the Cowboys had won both.
The Emmitt Ratio was set. After the Cowboys jumped out to a 10-0 first-quarter lead, they pounded Washington with their rookie runner, handing the ball to him 23 times for what would be a season-high 132 ground yards. He scored two touchdowns on the day, including the biggest play of the game.
With Dallas ahead just 20-17 late in the fourth quarter, he ran through the right side of the Redskins defense to ice the contest. Smith reached 20 carries in each of the next two contests and the Cowboys won, grasping control of their own destiny at 7-7 on the year. Unfortunately, Troy Aikman was injured at the outset of their Week 16 trip to Philadelphia, and any playoff hopes quickly faded.
The Redskins rebounded after Thanksgiving Day and advanced into the second round of the playoffs. Washington would make a third Super Bowl run under Joe Gibbs the next year before being surpassed by the Dallas dynasty of the 1990s.
Nov. 28, 1996 – Cowboys 21, Redskins 10
Fresh off a Super Bowl XXX hangover, the Cowboys started the 1996 season 1-3, including a loss to Chicago on opening night when Smith’s career appeared endangered after he landed awkwardly attempting to sell a play-action fake at the goal line. Almost three months later, the team was trudging along at 7-5, showing signs of age, with Smith’s performance in particular coming into question. He had averaged less than four yards per carry in all but three of the team’s 12 games to that point, seemingly hitting rock bottom leading into Thanksgiving Day with only 18 yards on 11 carries in an ugly loss at New York.
Of course, the NFL’s Not-Yet-All-Time Leading Rusher was far from finished, and he proved it in a rollicking win over Washington at Texas Stadium on Thanksgiving, when a 42-yard burst up the middle of the Redskins defense in the third quarter said emphatically that Smith had a lot of great football left in him. It was his finest game of the year, carrying 29 times for 155 yards and scoring all three Cowboys touchdowns, each from inside the 5-yard line. Aikman was just 9-of-19 for 63 yards on the day, but it didn’t matter, as the Dallas defense dominated and Smith’s constant churning kept them off the field.
The Cowboys’ win made both teams 8-5 on the year, but headed in very different directions. Dallas won its next two games to clinch the NFC East, while the Redskins lost their next two. They would meet again, though Barry Switzer elected to fold up the tent at RFK Stadium in Week 17, the Redskins running through the Cowboys’ reserves for a meaningless victory. Dallas won its home playoff game easily over Minnesota the next week, while the Redskins watched the postseason from home.
Nov. 28, 2002 – Cowboys 27, Redskins 20
The classic rivalry had hit a low point by the early part of the new millennium, as the Cowboys sank to three straight seasons of 5-11, with this Thanksgiving win over the Redskins standing as the last in the Dave Campo era. Staubach and Aikman had given way to Chad Hutchinson in Dallas, while Danny Wuerffel helmed Steve Spurrier’s team.
Still, Smith remained for the Cowboys. This was his last great day with a star on the side of his helmet, the second of only two triple-digit outings of the season – the first had come in his effort to break Walter Payton’s all-time mark against Seattle in Week 8. The future Hall of Famer carried 23 times for 144 yards as the Cowboys erased a 20-10 third-quarter deficit after an interception return by star rookie safety Roy Williams, a 41-yard Hutchinson-to-Joey Galloway strike and a field goal by Billy Cundiff.
Now, a decade later, there are all new faces on both sidelines as the teams meet again on Thanksgiving. With a dazzling rookie quarterback in Washington and a number of young cornerstone players dotting the Dallas roster, the future of the rivalry appears as bright as ever.