Momentum now turns wrong way

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IRVING, Texas.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t the Redskins reel off six straight wins at the end of last season to reach the second round of the playoffs? You’d hardly know it from their halting efforts so far this year. This team looks more like the ragtag bunch Joe Gibbs inherited from Steve Spurrier than the group that finished 2005 on such a high.

All it has taken is two losses — at home to the Vikings and 27-10 last night to the Cowboys — to make you wonder whether the Redskins have progressed much at all since they last visited Texas Stadium. Much money has been spent, of course. And a new offensive system, promising more fireworks, is in place. But the early returns are far from encouraging.

Granted, Clinton Portis didn’t play against the Cowboys. Neither did Shawn Springs, Gregg Williams’ best cover corner. But clubs with Super Bowl aspirations are supposed to be able to handle occasional absences like these. Besides, an offensive line as expensive as Washington’s should be able to create running room for whoever’s carrying the ball, from Portis on down through Rock Cartwright.

It hasn’t so far this year, though. The three longest running gains in the first half last night came on an end around to Santana Moss (19 yards), a draw to T.J. Duckett on second-and-21 (15) and a scramble by Mark Brunell as the clock expired (12). Real ball control there. The rest of the time, the ground game spun its wheels.

The passing attack, meanwhile, continues to be a mess. Somebody please reintroduce Brunell to Chris Cooley, his No. 2 receiver a year ago with 70 catches. The quarterback is still trying to find him.

Newcomers Antwaan Randle El and Brandon Lloyd haven’t seen much action either. And come to think of it, Moss has been pretty quiet, too.

The only reason the game was even remotely close was because the Cowboys handed the Redskins a field goal with back-to-back 15-yard penalties and Cartwright ran a kickoff back for a touchdown. The one time the offense reached the red zone under its own power, Brunell got picked off by Roy Williams at the 1-yard line. (Hey, at least the pass was intended for Cooley.)

Chew on this for a while: The two biggest reasons the Redskins made the playoffs last season were their 5-1 division and 10-2 conference records. (They got swept by the AFC West.) They’re now 0-1 in the division and 0-2 in the conference. So obviously, they’re going to have to find another formula this year — net touchdowns or something.

You had the feeling all week that the loser of this game would be in Big Trouble. This ain’t baseball or basketball; an 0-2 start is hard to overcome in the NFL. So the stakes were high for both clubs. Dallas had blown a 10-point lead at Jacksonville in its opener and was guaranteed to be in a foul mood; if the Redskins didn’t match that mood, it figured to be a long evening. And it was.

While Joe Gibbs has been writing large checks to free agents, longtime rival Bill Parcells has been rolling the dice with Terrell Owens and reloading through the draft. At this point, Tuna appears to have gotten the more immediate results. The Cowboys’ young pass rushers — DeMarcus Ware, Chris Canty, et al. — put steady pressure on Brunell, and the Dallas offense is actually dangerous now with the addition of T.O. and rookie tight end Anthony Fasano (to go along with Terry Glenn, Jason Whitten, Julius Jones and underrated Patrick Crayton).

Indeed, the final score could have been much worse — something along the lines of 41-10 — if Dallas’ receivers hadn’t had about a month’s worth of drops. (Parcells: “I think we made it a little harder on ourselves than it had to be.”)

Don’t be deceived by Drew Bledsoe’s modest numbers (19-for-38 for 237 and two TDs); he badly outplayed Brunell (18-for-33 for 197 and an INT). In typical fashion, No. 8 was 7-for-18 for 64 yards in the first three quarters and 11-for-15 for 133 yards in garbage time.

How does the man do it? When the Redskins beat the Cowboys here last September, stunning them with two late touchdowns, they left Dallas convinced they had finally turned the corner. And in many ways they had — though there were still some bumps to negotiate (e.g. consecutive home losses in November). They were a much more confident club, a much more together club, at the end of the season.

But now, it’s like they’re back at the beginning. The momentum of last season, all the good feeling, has been lost. The Redskins are at the bottom of the mountain again, looking up.

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