The Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys remain two of the most popular franchises in the NFL, but they appear to have a long way to go to regain their past glory.
These disappointing NFC East rivals meet Sunday at Cowboys Stadium, with Washington trying to earn its second season sweep of Dallas in the last 14 years.
Expectations were high for both teams, with Dallas (4-9) ending a 12-year drought without a playoff victory in 2009 and Washington (5-8) hiring coach Mike Shanahan and acquiring Donovan McNabb from Philadelphia.
A 13-7 win for the Redskins over the Cowboys in the opener, however, apparently foretold the poor seasons for both.
Neither team played well in the contest, and Tony Romo’s apparent winning touchdown pass to Roy Williams on the final play was nullified by holding. Washington scored its touchdown on the final play of the first half when Tashard Choice fumbled after catching a pass, and DeAngelo Hall returned it 32 yards.
That ill-advised play was called by Jason Garrett, who was promoted to interim coach after the Cowboys’ 1-7 start. The former offensive coordinator and assistant head coach has guided Dallas to a 3-2 mark, although there is little at stake.
"I think Jason has really done a great job of laying that out there for all the players," tight end Jason Witten said. "You’ve got to keep building. You’ve got to keep working. You can’t back it in. This team won’t."
Shanahan has endured a difficult first season, particularly in his handling of Albert Haynesworth. The disgruntled defensive tackle has been suspended for the rest of the season after a litany of incidents.
In addition, McNabb is turning in his worst season as a full-time starter with a rating of 77.1 and a career-high 15 interceptions.
Shanahan was oddly evasive when asked Wednesday if McNabb would start against Dallas, saying that he was "not committing to tell you who the starters are at any position.”
While the coach was in a playful mood while talking to the media, McNabb didn’t appreciate that he hadn’t yet been told whether he was playing.
I would have hoped,” McNabb said. ”That’s professionalism. Communication.”
The situation reinforces McNabb’s uncertain status in Washington. He signed an extension Nov. 15, but there is a clause allowing Washington to cut ties with him after 2010.
He will return to the stadium where his Philadelphia career ended last season with a second straight loss to Dallas, games in which he was sacked eight times and managed one touchdown and one interception.
"I’ve been a part of up-and-down seasons, nothing to this point," McNabb said. "When you get in these situations, I think it’s important as a team that you continue to stay together. And make sure everyone understands, if you’re not fighting for anything, make sure you’re fighting for yourself."
Washington’s last sweep of Dallas came in 2005, and prior to that was in 1995. Another one likely won’t come easily since the Redskins haven’t mustered an offensive touchdown in their last 15 quarters against the Cowboys.
Stopping the Cowboys will also be difficult since the Redskins’ defense ranks last in the NFL, allowing 394.8 yards per game. Dallas has averaged 32.0 points in the five games Garrett has coached for the fourth-best mark in that span.
"Obviously, this isn’t the situation we wanted to be in, but you talk about being a pro," Witten said. "That’s what you have to do. We’re all being evaluated. We’re all trying to build and move forward."
Both teams endured close losses at home Sunday. Dallas fell 30-27 to Philadelphia and Washington lost 17-16 to Tampa Bay.
The Redskins cut punter Hunter Smith after he mishandled the snap on an extra point in the final seconds that would have tied the game. Sam Paulescu takes over the punting and holding duties.
This is the home finale for Dallas, which is 1-6 at Cowboys Stadium and assured of its worst finish at home since the 1989 team dropped all eight games.
"You don’t ever pack it in," defensive end Stephen Bowen said. "It’s about pride right now. We’re going to try and finish these last three games with wins and finish on top."