- The Washington Times - Monday, September 26, 2011

ARLINGTON, Texas — One by one, Washington Redskins players zipped up suitcases and solemnly rolled them out of the visitors’ locker room at Cowboys Stadium in the wee hours of Tuesday morning. They experienced a new type of sting. They weren’t a disappointed group fighting for respect, as in past years. It was a missed opportunity to make major gains in the transformation into a legitimate contender.

The Redskins came within three minutes of making their dream start a reality with a gritty road win over the archrival Dallas Cowboys. A 3-0 record was close enough to taste, but their evolution never was going to be easy. The Redskins still are a work in progress, and Dallas provided a gutting reminder.

The weight of Washington’s lackluster offense proved too great a burden for the defense in the final minutes. The Cowboys converted third-and-21 en route to Dan Bailey’s 40-yard field goal with 1 minute, 47 seconds remaining and beat the Redskins, 18-16.

“This is tough,” veteran tight end Chris Cooley said. “It literally feels like a waste of a week for me. It was a game we were capable of winning. We could have won a divisional game on the road, something we prepared well to do. I don’t think I speak [only] for myself when I say that I’m really disappointed in the way we finished the game tonight.”

There were plenty of regrets for the Redskins to ponder on their overnight flight home, evidence of the distance remaining between them and the NFL’s elite.

They botched the hold on a 36-yard field goal in the first half, missing out on three points in a 2-point loss. They rushed for only 65 yards. Quarterback Rex Grossman threw an interception and lost a fumble.

The most painful, however, might be the third-and-a-mile conversion they surrendered with 2:20 left in the game on Dallas’ winning drive.

From the Cowboys’ 30-yard line, Washington blitzed eight defenders, leaving Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall isolated on receiver Dez Bryant. The Redskins effectively used that defense several times throughout the game, but this time the Cowboys blocked it by sliding their line to the left and deploying the running back and tight end to the right.

Hall initially blanketed Bryant, but Bryant stutter-stepped and separated to make the catch. Hall wasn’t happy he was asked to cover Bryant one-on-one for such a long time.

“You ain’t supposed to have to,” he said. “[Expletive] happens.”

He also questioned gambling on the blitz instead of playing a softer coverage despite the success the Redskins had blitzing eight throughout the game.

“You don’t have to be a [expletive] rocket scientist to figure it out after a while,” Hall said.

Coach Mike Shanahan defended the decision to blitz without keeping any safeties back. “You could go back and second guess everything,” he said. “At the end of the day, they did have a chance to have a sack there. … It happens. That’s the nature of this game.”

Exacerbating the play was a 15-yard facemask penalty against Hall. Replays showed Hall did not grab Bryant’s facemask, but that moved the ball from the Redskins’ 40 to the 25 — essentially into field-goal range.

“It was a [expletive] terrible call,” Hall said. “I told the ref he could [expletive] lose his job. He’s going to get some demerit points for that call.”

The defensive breakdown at the end marred that unit’s solid performance. Although Felix Jones rushed for 95 of his 115 yards in the second half, Washington limited the Cowboys to six field goals.

“Anybody feels like they’re going to win when that happens,” Hall said. “I guess we didn’t make enough plays as a team.”

Offensive players agreed. Washington’s offense scored a touchdown on only 1-of-3 drives inside Dallas’ 20 and finished with its lowest point total of the season.

“Some of it comes down to luck if they dial up the right defense versus the play we have,” Grossman said. “There’s some things in execution we definitely could have done better.”

Play-calling was a sensitive subject on the offensive side, too. The Redskins led for more than 17 minutes in the second half but attempted only seven runs compared to 18 passes.

“Don’t you want to run the ball when the game’s on the line when you’re up in the fourth quarter?” right tackle Jammal Brown asked out loud. “Yeah, of course.”

Coordinator and play-caller Kyle Shanahan defended his approach.

“We’re not playing to conserve the clock,” he said. “You’re trying to win, and the best thing we’ve got to move the ball is throwing it at the time.”

The raw emotion and unrest was symptomatic of a disappointed team that expects to win such games.

On this night, however, the killer instinct was absent, the room for growth painfully obvious.

“We’ve got to figure out a way to finish a game,” Cooley said. “Offensively, we had a shot. We had the ball with seven minutes left. We had a couple first downs. This team has to just learn to how to just say, ‘We’re going to win right now.’”

• Rich Campbell can be reached at rcampbell@washingtontimes.com.

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