WASHINGTON — After putting up his feet at his Pensacola, Fla., home Monday night, miles from the Dallas Cowboys' first game here, running back Emmitt Smith was probably thinking one of two things.
One, he should end his salary holdout today because the Cowboys need him like they need their next breath.
Or, he should remain as far from the sidelines as possible. His team looked bad enough on television.
The defending Super Bowl champion Cowboys began the game with a fumbled snap, and ended it watching Brian Mitchell twirl untouched and laughing into the end zone, finalizing the Washington Redskins' 35-16 victory before 56,345 at RFK Stadium.
"We were a team possessed," said Mitchell, the leading man in the Redskins new-look offense who gained 116 yards rushing and scored twice.
With a mixture of short passes from Mark Rypien--none of his 22 completions were longer than 29 yards--and quick bursts from Mitchell and rookie Reggie Brooks, the Redskins took the lead in the second quarter and never gave it back.
The Cowboys, meanwhile, kept teeing it up for their rivals with four lost fumbles and 63 yards in penalties.
"Just another day at the office," Richie Petitbon, the new Redskins coach, said with a smile.
Just another five touchdowns against the last season's league-best defense, the first time the Cowboys have given up that many since 1989.
The Cowboys were also a team possessed--by the missing spirit of Smith, their leading rusher and most pivotal player who is holding out because of a salary dispute over a difference of about $500,000 per year.
"Yeah the guys miss Emmitt, they talk about him in here every day," said Kevin Williams, the Cowboys' rookie kick returner who lost two fumbles in his debut. "You can tell, it is taking everybody time to get to used to him not being here."
Didn't take the Redskins long. When they realized it would be rookie Derrick Lassic instead of Smith in the backfield, they happily changed their defense.
"Emmitt is here, he makes a big difference," Redskin defensive back Darrell Green said. "He's not here, we say, we stop their running game and we'll be OK."
So they allowed Troy Aikman (whose surgically repaired back held up fine) to throw for 254 yards while they concentrated on holding Lassic to 75 yards in 16 carries with no touchdowns.
Decent numbers, but, well, in the Cowboys' season-opener against the Redskins last year, Smith gained 140 yards and scored a touchdown.
Without a power runner, the Cowboys could not sustain a drive. When they closed the gap to 21-13 with 7:22 remaining in the third quarter, they did it with a four-play, 80-yard drive featuring three long passes, capped by a 32-yard touchdown toss from Aikman to Alvin Harper. Earlier, those two hooked up on an 80-yard touchdown.
These weren't the Cowboys, they were the Houston Oilers.
And they lost as the run-and-shoot Oilers often lose, as the Redskins followed the Cowboys' quick drive with a game-clinching, 99-yard march to end the third quarter.
Lassic touched the ball five times in the second half as the Cowboys played comeback. Think Smith would have seen it a little more?
"I'm tired of talking about Emmitt Smith, just tired," said Cowboy Coach Jimmy Johnson, who was red-faced and clearly irritated. "We got a team that is struggling, and I am tired of talking about Emmitt."
But Dallas owner Jerry Jones is not.
"Emmitt definitely would have helped us today," Jones said. "But I can't try to get him in here any harder than I have tried. I'll just keep trying. I'll be on the phone this week and see what happens."
Jones made Smith a four-year deal worth about $2.7 million a year on Saturday, but Smith wants something closer to the $3.38-million annual salary paid to running back Thurman Thomas of the Buffalo Bills.
Jones has only six days to work this week, before Thomas and the Bills come to Dallas on Sunday in a Super Bowl rematch.
"I'm sure the Bills have gotten real sick reading about the Super Bowl all summer, so I'm sure they will be ready," Johnson said.
The Bills need only look at that 99-yard drive by the Redskins to get ready.
The Redskins began with Mitchell accidentally downing a kickoff on the one-yard line.
"It was so bad, even the referee looked at me like he was mad," Mitchell said.
But then Rypien, atoning for last year's poor season, went to work. On the 13th play of the drive, he hit veteran Art Monk in the corner of the end zone from 15 yards out for the touchdown and a 28-13 lead. Earlier in the drive, Monk had caught a 29-yard slant pass, giving him 149 consecutive games with at least one catch.
"That drive just took our breaths away," Cowboy defensive tackle Russell Maryland said.
Those are the kinds of drives Dallas used to have against the Redskins. Of course, the Cowboys also used to have Emmitt Smith.
Today in Dallas, you can bet that Jimmy Johnson will the only person who does not want to talk about him.