What Makes the Cowboys-Redskins Rivalry So Special?

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Even AFC fans who couldn’t care less about the NFC know about the Washington Redskin-Dallas Cowboy rivalry. Like Hatfields and McCoys, USA and Russia hockey, Redskin and Cowboy football has been historically hateful at times. “Sports Illustrated,” in their Jan. 6, ’08 issue, declared the rivalry to be the best ever in the NFL. It began in 1960 when Dallas fielded an expansion team. The two teams met only once that season, as they were in separate divisions. By 1961, Dallas was moved into the Redskins’ division, and a rivalry was born.

In the 52 years since, the two teams have combined for 27 division wins and eight Super Bowls.

In their first meeting, the Redskins beat the Cowboys 26-14. It was their only win that season, and the Cowboys were winless. By 1961, the teams tied in their first meeting at the Cotton Bowl. Their second meeting that season, at D.C. Stadium, began the tension between the two teams, and it was racially fused in an era when the civil rights movement was in its infancy.

Some Cowboy pranksters stole into D.C. Stadium the night before the December 17 game, carrying bags of chickens – 76, to be exact. 75 of them were white, one was black. The implication was a protest against Redskins’ owner George Marshall, the only owner who refused to hire African-American players. So the Cowboy Chicken Club was born. The chickens were smuggled into the stadium the morning of the game. Nobody was the wiser until halftime, when an usher saw a man with a couple of crates full of noisy chickens. The chickens were confiscated and never unleashed during the halftime festivities, as was the plan. In the years that followed, it came to be common knowledge that the usher was actually Redskin GM Dick McCann.

Next September, in Dallas, the same merrymakers entered Marshall’s hotel room on the night before the game and deposited a turkey in his bathroom. The turkey reportedly puffed his chest and flapped his wings at Marshall, causing him to run from his room. On game day, four banners were unfurled around the Cotton Bowl, end zones and 50-yard lines, each one emblazoned with the word CHICKENS. The “Dallas News” reported the next day on the Cowboys’ first win against the Redskins, “Attendance: 49,888 (and one chicken).”

In the years that have followed, there has been little love lost between the teams. Through the Sonny Jurgensen and Don Meridith days, four games were played in which 222 points were scored and only a ten point difference between teams. By the late ‘60s, the Redskins had secured Vince Lombardi as a coach to battle with Dallas’s Tom Landry. Lombardi finished 7-5-2, Washington’s first winning season in over a decade, but Lombardi died of colon cancer in 1970 at the age of 57, and Landry beat the Redskins under Lombardi every time they played.

The rivalry heated up in 1972. With a new coach at the helm, George Allen, the Redskins were looking to knock the Cowboys off the throne they had held in the NFC East since divisional rearrangements in 1967. The teams met early in the season, both at 4-1, and the Redskins came away with a win. With two games left, Washington was 11-1 and already had the NFC East locked up. They dropped that last game to the Cowboys, then went into the playoffs to knock off the Packers. The next game was to be played for a Super Bowl appearance. Who would they face?

A Dallas Cowboy team, who snuck into the Wild Card round and defeated San Francisco to play for the NFC title. The game was in D.C., and the Redskins spanked Dallas 26-3.

In the decades since, the rivalry has been alive. Even when the two teams are losing, there’s a special spark on the field when the Redskins and Cowboys meet. That spark is extra important tonight, because it’s going to determine who plays football in the postseason.