This week was always going to be about Alex Smith.
The Washington quarterback’s remarkable comeback was featured in a People magazine article. The 36-year-old sat down for a remote interview with former quarterback and NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner to discuss the same topic. Smith’s story naturally took the spotlight ahead of a Thanksgiving showdown with the Dallas Cowboys, with many casual viewers tuning in to follow his journey for the first time.
But on Thursday, in the team’s biggest game of the year, in one of the franchise’s most decisive wins over its most hated rival, Washington was more than just Smith.
The team got huge, star-making contributions from an assortment of players — embarrassing Dallas for the 41-16 win at AT&T Stadium to take sole possession, for a few days at least, of first in the NFC East.
To a national audience, rookie running back Antonio Gibson dazzled with three touchdowns. Terry McLaurin’s touchdown-saving tackle is sure to make the highlight shows like “SportsCenter.” Chase Young and Montez Sweat bookended a suffocating pass rush.
The win completed a season sweep of the Cowboys, which hadn’t happened since 2012. Washington had been just 1-8 against Dallas on Thanksgiving, too.
With the win, 4-7 Washington jumps past the 3-6-1 Philadelphia Eagles, who play the Seattle Seahawks on Monday.
“Our record is not the best, our conference is not the best, but we’re still in it,” Gibson said. “That gives us hope. That’s what we’re pushing for. If we can make the playoffs, why not? We’re going to keep going and do our best to get in there.”
“It means a lot,” Washington coach Ron Rivera said. “These guys have worked hard and played some quality football especially the last few weeks. … I’m very happy for our football team.”
Against Dallas (3-8), Smith threw for just 149 yards on 26 passes, good for 5.7 yards per attempt. Washington was still able to move the ball. Gibson, a third-round rookie out of Memphis, led with 115 yards. McLaurin, a star in the making, had seven catches for 92 yards. Logan Thomas? The tight end had a completed pass attempt, a rushing attempt and a reception — all on the same stat sheet.
The playmakers on the roster stepped up and, well, made plays.
Before the season, Washington had faced so many questions about its offense. The unit was one of the league’s worst in 2019, and the team spent the offseason addressing problems through the draft and with bargain-bin free agent signings.
Washington got much younger and while the newcomers may lack NFL experience they seem to be working out — none more so than Gibson, the third-rounder from Memphis whose three touchdowns Thursday improved his season total to 11. That’s the second-most in the league, behind only Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook (13). He was the first play to record three touchdowns and at least 100 yards on Thanksgiving since Barry Sanders did the same in 1997.
Gibson’s second touchdown, in particular, helped put the game away for Washington. The team got the ball back in great field position in the fourth quarter after the Cowboys’ curiously called a fake punt on fourth-and-10 from their own 25. The play was immediately snuffed out, and Gibson proceeded to break through the line of scrimmage for a 23-yard touchdown to make it 27-16.
As Gibson raced to the end zone, he waved goodbye to the Cowboys behind him.
“Usually it’s the peace sign,” Gibson said, “but today it was the wave.”
Offensive coordinator Scott Turner deserves some credit for the offense’s production. On Thursday, his play-calling routinely caught Dallas off guard. He dialed up a throw from Thomas, a former quarterback turned tight end, that resulted in a 23-yard gain. In the second quarter, he called a “fumblerooski” trick play for J.D. McKissic, who took an underneath handoff from Smith and busted outside for a 6-yard gain. He later called a direct snap to Thomas.
Turner’s variety of formations and play wrinkles helps offset any talent deficiencies that Washington may have. But Washington needs talented players to execute those plays, which they’ve done.
In addition to playcalling, Washington plays with effort that just hasn’t been there in recent years. Just look at the way that McLaurin chased down Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith to prevent a pick-six late in the third quarter. If the Cowboys had scored on the interception, the game would have been tied at 20.
McLaurin’s stop was huge. Washington’s defense responded to the momentum. The unit buckled down in the red zone, forcing the Cowboys to a field goal.
“I know Jaylon Smith personally, he’s a fast guy,” McLaurin said. “I just wanted to play until the whistle blew. Our defense made a great stop off of that play and helped propel us.”
That type of response was apparent all game. In the first half, cornerback Ronald Darby broke up a pass on fourth-and-inches to give Washington the ball at Dallas’ 34-yard line. The play was redemption for Darby, who gave up a 54-yard touchdown that tied the game early on.
Following Darby’s stoppage, Washington capitalized on the short field. Smith checked down to McKissic, who made defenders miss to move the chains on third-and-9. With a new set of downs outside the end zone, Smith eventually found Thomas for the 5-yard score to give Washington a 17-10 lead with 2:31 left in the first half.
The team never lost the lead after that. Washington held Dallas to 247 total yards. Cowboys quarterback Andy Dalton (215 yards) was sacked three times and was picked off with 3:31 left. On that play, Sweat batted the pass, snatched it and ran all the way to the end zone for a touchdown.
“Tez is a freak,” Young said.
When these two teams met a month ago, Washington’s players viewed their performance as the standard for how they needed to play to have success. A 25-3 victory, Washington dominated on both sides of the ball with a dominant rushing attack (208 yards) and a ferocious pass rush (six sacks). The win, players said, was a sign that the team was starting to turn a corner. Practices had been sharper, leading to better results, they said.
This time around, Washington was even sharper, giving the team its most complete outing of the year.
“I couldn’t stop smiling on the sideline,” McLaurin said. “All that we’ve been through, the ups and downs from the offseason until now. To be in first place in the division is something to be proud of.
“But we can’t celebrate like we won the whole division. We have a lot of the season left.”
A season that suddenly looks brighter.