Former Redskins president Bruce Allen once gave a simple reason for why he viewed every game between Washington and the Dallas Cowboys to be meaningful: “It’s Cowboys and Indians.”
Well, not anymore.
This year’s Thanksgiving Day showdown between the Cowboys and The-Team-No-Longer-Known-As-the-Redskins still has some of the trappings of the storied history of this classic NFL rivalry, even if Washington decided to ditch its longtime nickname and American Indian imagery months ago.
As it was in the days of Tom Landry and Joe Gibbs, first place in the NFC East is on the line, despite a couple of identically woeful 3-7 records. And NFL ratings, especially on Thanksgiving Day, are one of the surest bets in television, so there’s little doubt that millions will tune in for a game that’s become as much a part of the holiday as the bird itself.
But this isn’t your granddad’s “Cowboys and Indians” anymore, or even your dad’s, for reasons that run the gamut from mismanagement and irrelevancy to downright embarrassment.
“Neither one of these teams — what have they done in 20-something years?” former Redskins great and Hall of Fame running back John Riggins told The Washington Times. “You can’t have a great rivalry when you’ve got two teams and every year they’re 0-8 when they play the game. … Quality has to a lot to do with rivalry and the meaning of it.”
Feud loses luster
Brian Mitchell likes to say that he’s the one person who played in the NFL who hates the Dallas Cowboys more than anybody.
As a running back for Washington throughout the 1990s, Mitchell played in the rivalry 20 times, including twice on Thanksgiving. He went on to join the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants in the early 2000s, ensuring he’d be matched up against the Cowboys every year. Mitchell said he hated the Cowboys flaunting the “America’s Team” brand, how Dallas fans living in the District liked to brag that “D.C.” stood for “Dallas Cowboys,” how “pompous” the Cowboys came across.
“I played 14 years against them, twice a year,” he said. “I couldn’t stand them. Ever.”
Mitchell, though, admits the rivalry isn’t quite what it used to be.
Now an analyst for NBC Sports Washington and a local radio host, Mitchell said there’s an age gap between those who are deeply invested in the Washington-Cowboys rivalry and those who aren’t. He tends to find the people who are invested are from an older generation — those who can distinctly remember the battles from the ‘80s and ‘90s when both teams were often Super Bowl contenders.
He added that younger fans — those with memories of playoff-less seasons instead of Super Bowls — don’t get the rivalry. How could they, after years of meaningless games?
“It has to be something for people to feel like it is,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell said the rivalry isn’t dead, it’s just dormant. The buzz would return, he said, if Washington and Dallas were consistent winners.
Other marquee rivalries in the NFL have gone through highs and lows. The San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks became one of the league’s best rivalries with Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson, saw a drop off in San Francisco’s down years and experienced a jump when the 49ers became contenders again.
Over the last year, Washington and Dallas have each made changes in hopes of restoring some luster to once-premier franchises.
Washington, with just three playoff appearances since the turn of the century, hired coach Ron Rivera for the franchise’s latest turnaround/rebuild, while the Cowboys, who’ve only had seven trips to the postseason themselves, hired Mike McCarthy, who has a title while in Green Bay on his resume.
It’s still early for both veteran coaches, but so far the results are underwhelming — despite the fact Thursday’s winner stands to take sole possession of the NFC East lead for at least a few days.
The two teams have met just once since the hires: Washington smashed Dallas, 25-3, in October.
“Every rival is pretty juiced up, but you can feel the ebbs and flows,” Rivera said. “One thing is, if you’re not playing very well and they’re not playing very well, you can always count on this being the type of game that could help fire them up.”
What’s in a name?
Despite the uneven year for both teams, Thursday’s game will almost surely be a ratings hit. For one, the NFL football menu was trimmed Wednesday when the prime-time Baltimore Ravens-Pittsburgh Steelers game was pulled off the schedule over a COVID-19 outbreak.
That leaves viewers with the Houston Texans-Detroit Lions early game at 12:30 p.m. and Dallas-Washington in the 4:30 p.m. slot — where the Cowboys always draw big numbers, especially when matched up against their biggest rival.
In 2016, Fox set a ratings-record when the matchup averaged 35.1 million viewers — making it the most-watched regular season game for the network. Two years later, the game averaged 30.5 million on Fox — a 14% jump from the year prior.
Dr. C. Richard King, a Columbia College Chicago professor who specializes in American Indian studies, said that the Cowboys and Indians depiction that came with the Redskins-Cowboys rivalry made it the “perfect trope” for two teams who don’t like each other.
“That’s basically what Cowboys and Indians is, you have two sides pitted against each other, one is supposed to be good, one is supposed to be bad,” Mr. King said. “It’s really helped in terms of a marketing standpoint and escalating that dynamic between the teams.”
Mr. King said that oftentimes, the motif also had “problematic” imagery that was degrading to American Indians: Headlines like “Cowboys scalp Redskins” and fans dressing up in American Indian clothing. “That kind of ingrained language kind of surfaced,” he said.
In July, Washington announced the team would no longer use “Redskins,” and instead go by the temporary “Washington Football Team.” The change came after a push from activists and corporate sponsors for Washington to take action as part of the nationwide reckoning over racial injustice in the wake of George Floyd’s death in May.
As the team looks to rebrand, it remains to be seen how much of the franchise’s recognition is tied to the former moniker. In September, Forbes valued Washington at $3.5 billion based on revenues and operating income from the 2019 season. That was a 3% increase from the previous year, despite the loss of the historic name and imagery.
But according to multiple reports, the team’s three minority partners (Fred Smith, Dwight Schar and Robert Rothman) have lined up an investment group to purchase all 40% of their shares for $900 million — an amount significantly less than Forbes’ valuation. The reported deal is tied up in court, with owner Dan Snyder in a legal battle to try and stop the sale.
Dr. N. David Pifer, an assistant professor of sport management at Texas Tech, said that minority shares can sometimes be sold for less because the owners won’t have controlling interest. He mentioned other factors possibly contributing to the total, such as the investigation into workplace misconduct and a poor on-field product.
Mr. Snyder apologized to fans in a Wall Street Journal article Monday that seemed to be designed to give the owner and his new team a public relations leg up on the impending findings from a months-long investigation into workplace misconduct at team headquarters.
“Let’s be really clear: This is a human issue. I’m sorry that anyone was hurt,” Mr. Snyder said in the rare interview. “But we can change.”
Mr. Pifer said that it’s too early to tell how all this affects Washington in the long run. He noted that any NFL team’s primary income comes from the league’s annual television money that teams share.
“A lot of this is still up in the air,” Mr. Pifer said. “The Washington Football Team, right now, what they end up truly rebranding as will be the interesting thing here. If it’s something that’s received well by consumers, then I don’t think this will have too much of a long-term impact.
“Certainly those are going to be a few hits to the traditional brand name they built, but at the same time, they’re winning back sponsors who were going to leave because they felt (the old name) was racist or insensitive.”
‘The game you wanted to be playing in’
As a player, Riggins said that the team’s former logo and name “never meant anything” when playing. There was more significance, he said, in the team’s burgundy and gold color scheme.
Mitchell agreed, saying name change doesn’t impact the Cowboys’ rivalry.
For Riggins, the Cowboys were always the opponent who “got my attention.” The former running back, who recently launched his own podcast “The John Riggins Show,” said that he always wanted to measure himself against the best, and in those days, the Cowboys were the standard.
But if he was playing in today’s NFL, Riggins is not sure if he’d view facing Dallas with the same sort of excitement. For one, he said it would be especially tough to be in a season without fans — Riggins notably hated practice, preferring games for the atmosphere. Then, there’s the changing nature of rivalries, which Riggins considers to not be as strong as the ‘70s and ‘80s.
On Thursday, Riggins will still tune in to watch Washington. For Thanksgiving, he plans to have five people — his immediate family and his mother-in-law — over to his home, where Riggins is in charge of the cooking. The menu? Green beans. Sweet potatoes. Mashed potatoes. Gravy. Dressing. Maybe a pumpkin pie. And of course, turkey.
Though Riggins will have his hands full in the kitchen, he’ll be paying close attention to Washington and Dallas — just not with the same enthusiasm.
“It’s kind of just become another game,” Riggins said. “There’s all kinds of layers, too. Look at the NFC East — oof. That’s a brutal division. That makes it even more insignificant. So, it is what it is. But once upon a time, it was the game that you wanted to be playing in.”
Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC.