- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 14, 2003

It was, without question, the absolute low point in a season full of low points for the Washington Redskins: a 21-14 road loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Nov.2 that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score might indicate.

That day the Redskins became a national laughingstock, a team on a four-game losing streak that was unprepared, unmotivated and undressed by its longtime rival.

“Even though we only lost by seven, they pretty much dominated the game,” coach Steve Spurrier said this week.

A lot has changed for the Redskins since that day. The record isn’t much better (5-8), but the quality of play is.

For that reason, the Redskins enter today’s rematch with the Cowboys (8-5) feeling like an entirely different team than the last time the two met.

“Oh, no doubt about it,” defensive end Renaldo Wynn said. “At that time, we were [getting] a lot of penalties that were killing us. I think that’s the biggest difference. I think guys just recognized it: We can’t win games when we make those kinds of mistakes and are killing ourselves like that. Everyone’s been accountable, and there’s just been a level of discipline. We’ve raised the bar.”

Wynn and others on defense cite the lack of penalties as the biggest difference. Offensive players point out another area of significant improvement: pass protection.

“I think our pass protection has gotten a lot better,” said Rock Cartwright, who is expected to start at tailback today with Trung Canidate, Ladell Betts and Chad Morton all out. “We haven’t allowed as many sacks as we did early on in the season. That’s the main thing: We’ve stopped guys from getting to the quarterback.”

Both assessments are correct. Washington has made improvements in pass-blocking and penalty prevention since last facing Dallas.

In their first eight games, ending with the loss to the Cowboys, the Redskins committed an average of 9.5 penalties and allowed an average of 3.6 sacks. In the five games since, they’ve been penalized an average of 4.6 times while surrendering 1.4 sacks a game.

The penalty problem was solved by sheer discipline. The pass protection problem was more complicated.

Redskins coaches have made major alterations to their passing game, leaving tight ends and running backs in to help block, setting up matchups more favorable to the offensive linemen and calling for more quick, three-step drops from the quarterbacks.

The changes have not gone unnoticed.

“They’ve shored up a lot of things as far as their pass protection,” Cowboys safety Darren Woodson said. “Last time we had a lot of blitzes, and the Redskins didn’t handle it very well. We brought a lot of pressure, and [quarterback Patrick] Ramsey just couldn’t find the guy he wanted. Now I think they’re protecting the quarterback a lot better.”

Ramsey, of course, is no longer under center for Washington. Unable to play with an aggravated right foot, the second-year quarterback finally shut things down last week and went on injured reserve.

In his place, Tim Hasselbeck has shown the ability to run an efficient, mistake-free offense without leaving himself open to many hits from defenses. Hasselbeck’s quick thinking in the pocket, combined with tangible alterations to pass-blocking schemes, makes the Redskins look much different than the team that looked helpless in Dallas.

“I hope we’re a smarter team than we were,” Spurrier said. “I hope our protections come up better than they did that day. … Certainly, it appears we’re not opening the gates as much.”

The better performances on the field haven’t translated to more wins, though. After blowing fourth-quarter leads in three straight games, Washington finally held on last week to beat the Giants 20-7.

Things won’t get much easier today, though the Cowboys have lost three of four and need a victory to maintain their tenuous hold on one of the NFC’s two wild card berths.

For Redskins players, though, the prospect of dealing their arch-rivals’ playoff hopes a severe blow — and avenging the embarrassing loss six weeks ago — is plenty of motivation.

“I try not to look at it as payback,” cornerback Champ Bailey said. “But I want to beat them bad.”

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