DALLAS — It's Washington Week. Does anyone care?
The NFL may have built some of its interest from the NFC East range war between the Dallas Cowboys and their arch rivals, but the NFL doesn't seem to need it as badly as it did for three decades from 1970-2000. It isn't as bad as the "rivalry" between the Cowboys and the St. Louis/Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals, who were in the division from 1970-2001, but Washington is certainly no longer the hottest showdown involving Dallas.
Take last week's 35-17 win over the New York Giants. It was the 11th time the Cowboys and Giants have met each other on Opening Day. Second place is Washington with nine. Dallas and Washington have not met on Opening Day since 2010 on Sunday Night Football.
Speaking of prime time games, take a guess at which Cowboys rivalry has been featured in prime time every season since 2004. It's Cowboys-Eagles, and it's the longest-active rivalry of any kind in the NFL in prime time. Not even the bouts between Peyton Manning and Tom Brady lasted that long.
Second-longest active prime time streak for a rivalry is Cowboys-Giants. With Dallas and New York playing each other on Monday Night Football in Week 9, that rivalry will see its 15th consecutive game (15 since 2006 because NBC got lucky with a Week 17 flex in 2011 and got to air the entire Cowboys-Giants series on its network). In fact, that game will set the Cowboys' record for most common prime time opponent with 27, relegating Washington to second.
Part of it has to do with the collective mediocrity from both franchises. Washington has not played in a conference championship game since 1991, and the Cowboys haven't since 1995. Between the two of them, they have cobbled together six playoff victories, all obtained in the wild-card rounds, and taken home 11 NFC East titles.
Compare that to 1970-85. Dallas and Washington appeared in eight combined Super Bowls with the Cowboys winning two and their rivals taking one. They met in the NFC championship game twice with Washington taking both of those encounters, and the '82 match-up leading to Washington's first ever Super Bowl win. Both sides combined for 12 division titles, and weren't bounced out of the playoffs by the divisional round.
Wouldn't that be more fascinating to watch or have emotional investment in perennial victors rather than a battle between two clubs who can't get into the NFL's final four for a quarter of a century?
There was a renaissance of sorts in the mid-2000s that carried for a little over a decade. In 2003, the Cowboys hired Bill Parcells as coach, who won two Super Bowls with the Giants in his tenure from 1983-1990. In 2004, Washington brought back Joe Gibbs on the sidelines, who led the club to three Super Bowl wins in his time in D.C. from 1981-1992.
The rivalry was renewed because of the old 1980s NFC East battles Parcells and Gibbs had, and it was sustained with Dallas' Super Bowl hopes revitalized with quarterback Tony Romo. Washington, after Gibbs left, did not finish with a losing record in Jim Zorn's first season, and managed to lure Mike Shanahan in 2010, who led them to a division title with a Week 17 win over the Cowboys. However, the dysfunction in Washington disrupted their competitive edge.
The Dallas-Washington rivalry can sustain itself even if one team is competing for Super Bowls while the other is trying to stay out of the NFC East basement. In the 1980s, the Cowboys fell apart and did not win a playoff game for the rest of the decade after Washington bested them in the 1982 playoffs. The road to the Super Bowl in the NFC East ran through Washington and New York by 1986 with the two sides combining for four Super Bowl wins from 1986-91.
However, there were still memorable games in the Dallas-Washington rivalry such as the "scab game" when Washington's replacement players beat a Cowboys squad with quarterback Danny White among other big-name players who crossed the picket line during the '87 strike. No one in Cowboys Nation will ever forget that legendary coach Tom Landry's final win came against Washington, or that Jerry Jones' first win of his ownership in a hard luck '89 season came at Washington, and that the victory ultimately prevented Washington from going to the playoffs.
That element is also what makes the rivalry spicy. Take the New England Patriots versus anyone in the AFC East, who have also been as perpetually downturn in relatively the same span. When have the Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, or Buffalo Bills ever beat the Patriots in one of their myriad of losing seasons and that win kept New England out of the playoffs? Maybe in 2008, but not at one point while Brady was healthy.
Division games always carry more significance than even conference games, and the twice-a-year familiarity plays a factor into it. But as far as the intensity and significance of the Dallas-Washington rivalry, it has lost much of its luster. TV networks see it, and so do fans. If it is to ever renew, one side has to get busy winning and the other side can't be a doormat.
Do you still feel a sense of sports animosity for Washington? Share your thoughts on the rivalry with Mark on Twitter @therealmarklane.