DALLAS - It is the NFL's range war, Dallas-Washington, one of the best rivalries in sports. And when it's featured on Opening Day, as it was in 1999, the atmosphere is the closest one can get to the playoffs in September.
"It's an early big game and it's a great way to kick off your season provided that you win that game," said former Cowboys defensive end Greg Ellis, who played for Dallas from 1998-2008. "But it's definitely a great time. You spend a lot of your off-season dwelling on games like that."
New Washington owner Dan Snyder purchased the franchise for $800 million that may following the death of owner Jack Kent Cooke. The 34-year-old owner brought in free agents quarterback Brad Johnson, running back Larry Centers, and receiver Irving Fryar to add firepower to head coach Norv Turner's offense.
The Cowboys embarked upon year two of the Chan Gailey era. Coming off of a 10-6 season where they swept the entire NFC East, Dallas sought to continue its dominance as The Triplets, quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith, and receiver Michael Irvin, sought one last ride to the Super Bowl before the new millennium.
Dallas jumped out to a 7-0 lead with Aikman connecting with tight end David LaFleur for a 15-yard touchdown midway through the first quarter. Washington countered with a 25-yard Brett Conway field goal with 3:37 in the first quarter. But where Washington kicked field goals, Dallas scored touchdowns. LaFleur caught another Aikman pass, this one of 14 yards, to give Dallas a 14-3 lead five seconds into the second quarter.
Washington struck back in three plays with receiver Michael Westbrook taking a 41-yard Johnson pass to the end zone on the ensuing drive. Conway added a 42-yard field goal to bring Washington to within one, 14-13.
Ellis, the Cowboys' eighth overall pick from the 1998 NFL Draft, had a burden to bear being such a high draft pick in club history. Though he started all 16 games his rookie year, notching three sacks along with a forced fumble and fumble recovery, the former North Carolina Tar Heel knew he needed to show improvement in his second season.
"I felt like I had something to prove because my first year was a decent year, but I wanted to do better," said Ellis. "In my position, I wanted to get more sacks and was blessed to be able to do that."
An opportunity for blessing was late in the first half. Washington drove from their own 28-yard line to first-and-goal at the Dallas 6 thanks to a 55-yard Albert Connell catch. Washington burned their first timeout and was in prime position to take the lead either by two or six points heading into halftime.
Ellis spent his off-season studying second-round rookie Jon Jansen. The right tackle from Michigan drew Ellis, who knew he had to make a play on third-and-4 after a Stephen Davis 2-yard rush and an incomplete pass.
Said Ellis: "It's just time to step up and make a play. And for myself personally, being the first-round pick the year before and being one of the highest first-round picks that Dallas ever had, they paid me to go in there and make those kind of plays. So, when the game is at that state, at that point, it's my job to step in there and say, 'Okay, you're supposed to make these kind of plays in these kind of games.'"
The 6-6, 275-pound defensive end sacked Johnson and forced a fumble that safety George Teague recovered to abolish Washington's vie for the halftime lead.
Momentum may have worn a navy Cowboy jersey, the kind Ellis hated wearing, into the locker room, but it came out the second half sporting a white Washington jersey. Rookie cornerback Champ Bailey's interception of Aikman setup Washington at their own 35. Connell caught a 26-yard pass and drew a pass interference call to bring Washington to the Cowboys' 14.
An Alonzo Spellman offside penalty welcomed Washington inside the 10. Running back Stephen Davis knocked on the door three times with 3-yard runs before breaking in for a touchdown. Davis also ran in for the two-point conversion to put Washington ahead 21-14.
"That was one of the things I hated about playing Washington," Ellis said. "They're not known to have outstanding, Emmitt Smith-type running backs, but they are known for their offensive line play, which allows their running back to be pretty good. They are always committed to running the football every time they play the Cowboys.
And, so, he was something to be reckoned with, if you would, because that team was committed to run the football. And that offensive line, they took pride. And I still think the offensive line takes pride in being able to have a successful running game.
"Don't get me wrong. Stephen was an awesome, amazing running back. I'm not saying he's not. But what I am saying is that compounding his ability with a team and an offensive line that takes pride in running the football, they were something to reckon with. That's why it was so frustrating when you get behind because you now realize, dude, they could literally run the ball every single play right now."
After a Dallas three-and-out, Davis capped off a nine-play, 61-yard drive with a 7-yard touchdown to extend Washington's lead 28-14.
Another Cowboys three-and-out and a 21-yard punt return from Brian Mitchell gave Washington first-and-10 from their own 48. Davis rushed for two yards, and then Connell caught a 50-yard pass from Johnson to give Washington a 35-14 lead with 1:50 in the third quarter.
The fourth quarter commenced two plays after the Cowboys' ensuing drive. This was the 30th time in franchise history Dallas was down 21 points or greater to start the fourth quarter. Only 1/29 times had they ever pulled it out for a victory: Oct. 21, 1984 versus New Orleans. These weren't the Aints; this was a Washington team that would win the division with a 10-6 record along with a playoff game.
"I couldn't believe this had happened," said Ellis. "And I give credit to Washington. They're a good football team. I know they helped it happen. But, still, as a competitor in a game like that and you're playing defense, you're like, man, we had them in a good position and now the tables have turned and they have come back and got on top of us. And, so, we have to deal with that. And you feel like we're going to lose the game honestly.
"But our offense hung in there and the defense finally got enough stops. Offense hung in there and battled and got back into the game."
The Cowboys finished the 70-yard drive with a 1-yard Smith touchdown run to chip into Washington's lead 35-21 with 10:43 to play.
Dallas recovered the Toby Gowin onside kick to have another shot at catching up with their arch rivals. Aikman was unable to connect with Irvin on a fourth-and-13 from the Washington 28-yard line with 7:57 to play.
That was the last pass Irvin would fail to catch.
The three-time Super Bowl champion caught a 37-yard touchdown after a Washington three-and-out to pull Dallas within a touchdown, 35-28 with 6:15 to play.
Dallas forced Washington into a three-and-out and burned all of their timeouts in the process. The Cowboys got the ball back with 3:01 to play from their own 10-yard line. The Cowboys did not face a third down the entire drive until a third-and-8 from the Washington 12-yard line, and that is where Aikman hit Irvin again for the game-tying touchdown.
"For me as a young player at that time, that was amazing," Ellis recalled. "You see, you quickly gain respect for those guys even more because you're like, 'Okay. I see why they go to the Pro Bowl every year. I see why they have the career and the reputation they have.' It was fun. It was great to sit there. You watch big Mike, Michael Irvin catch big balls and turn them into a lot of yardage, and then Troy hang in there and get the ball down the field to him. It was phenomenal."
Washington holder Matt Turk bobbled the snap on a 40-yard field goal at the end of regulation to force the game into overtime. All would be well if it could end well, and it seemed favorable for the home team as they won the coin toss in sudden death. Washington drove from their own 24 to the Dallas 45-yard line. Facing a very manageable third-and-3, it seemed very likely Washington's offense would convert and go on to put Conway into field goal range for the game-winner.
Ellis, who was feeding off of the heroics of Aikman, Smith, and Irvin, rose to the occasion and dropped Johnson for an 8-yard loss to give the Cowboys a chance to get the ball and win the game.
Said Ellis: "I sat there and watched those guys make those kind of plays. And I said, 'Okay. I've got to fit into this bunch. I get paid to fit into this bunch.' And then when it's time to make a play, I need to be among the group of them making these type of plays. And, again, that's what I wanted to do and was blessed to be able to do it."
Five plays later, Aikman hit speedy receiver Raghib "Rocket" Ismail for a 76-yard touchdown that sent Washington fans home disappointed and extended the Cowboys' winning streak to four games (in what would be a 10-game streak) over their nemesis in the NFC East.
"That was the most exciting play, to me, of the game to see that right there," said Ellis.
With the ups and downs of 2017, Cowboys fans may not want to tax their hearts as much as they did on Sept. 12, 1999, but they do want to see a similar result of a Dallas victory. It may be up to a first-round pick on the defensive line to save the day 18 years later.
What is your favorite memory from the Dallas vs Washington rivalry? Share 'em with Mark on Twitter @therealmarklane.
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