LANDOVER, Md. – How did Matt Cassel describe his first victory as the Cowboys' starting quarterback?
"One of the crazier games I've ever been a part of," said the 11-year veteran, who's playing for his fifth career team with 77 career starts.
Much of Monday night resembled moments from Cassel's previous starts for an injured Tony Romo, with the offense struggling to manufacture points. With 3:04 to play at FedExField, the Cowboys and Redskins were tied at nine – six field goals between them. No touchdowns.
In two of Cassel's four starts (all losses) from late October to mid-November, the Cowboys did not score a touchdown. Yet, in all four, they held a lead or were tied in the fourth quarter.
The difference in Cassel's fifth start Monday: the offense got the last word in a wild final frame that featured three ties and three lead changes.
It took a while to get moving, but Cassel got them in position.
He said during the week that the two games he spent watching Romo run the offense -- before Romo's second collarbone injury -- helped his progress within the offense. Cassel's apparent comfort level finally surfaced on the game's final drive, after Washington's DeSean Jackson tied the game at 16 with a 28-yard touchdown with 44 seconds remaining.
"I think that there's a part of you that goes, 'Shoot,'" Cassel said. "But I think at the same time as a competitor you immediately have to flip a switch and say, 'Look, we've got to go win the ball game. Somehow, some way, we've got to find a way.'"
Aided by Lucky Whitehead's 46-yard kickoff return, Cassel completed two straight passes to Dez Bryant for 20 yards, setting up Dan Bailey for the 54-yard winning kick with nine seconds left – his fourth field goal this season over 50 yards.
"(The defense) did a great job really throughout the ball game limiting them from scoring opportunities and forcing them to kick field goals at the end of drives," head coach Jason Garrett said. "But proud of how our offense responded after they tied it up. To go back and kick that game winning field goal was huge."
Said Cassel: "You know, it was the battle of back and forth, and then that fourth quarter – the turnover and them going down scoring and then us kicking the field goal – I mean, the emotional rollercoaster that you go through is pretty intense. But I thought the way that our team finished and the resilience we showed, it shows a lot about the spirit of this team and I was really happy to be a part of it."
The offense's only touchdown – a 6-yard Darren McFadden touchdown run – came minutes earlier in the fourth quarter, two plays after the Cowboys recovered Jackson's fumbled punt return with the score tied at 9.
Starting his first game since Nov. 15, Cassel completed only 16 of 29 passes for 222 yards and no touchdowns, and he couldn't find a rhythm with Bryant early. Bryant drew a pair of pass interference penalties in the third quarter that led to a field goal, and he finally broke loose with a 42-yard catch down the left sideline that led to another three points.
Bryant finished with three catches for 62 yards, and Cassel knows the All-Pro receiver needs to be targeted early and often for the offense to thrive.
"Dez is a great competitor and I think I have to do a better job of giving him more opportunities," Cassel said. "Obviously, we haven't played a ton together, but at the same time I know Dez is a very talented player and he's a very competitive person. So it is my job to try and give him more opportunities to get the ball and make plays, like he did on that [42-yard pass in the fourth quarter]."