ARLINGTON, Texas. – When Redskins coach Mike Shanahan announced the switch of quarterbacks last week, he said he timed it to avoid creating a circus.
Here we are, just a few days later, and we've seen everything but elephants, cotton candy and clowns stuffed in a tiny car.
The featured performer in this three-ring affair on Sunday was Rex Grossman, if not the heir apparent to Donovan McNabb at least the stopgap. He hadn't started a game since the 2008 season, and that was three teams ago. He hadn't thrown a pass for the Redskins since the final, ill-fated end of the club's loss to the Detroit Lions, when Shanahan first hooked McNabb and indicated the depth of his dissatisfaction with the veteran's adaptation to his system.
What are we to make of his debut as the starter against the Dallas Cowboys?
He threw four touchdown passes and twice completed passes for two-point conversions. He passed for 322 yards. He led the Redskins back from a 20-point deficit in the second half. He got the Redskins to the 30-point mark for the first time since last season.
All in his first start since 2008. None of it was enough, as the Redskins succumbed 33-30.
"He played with a lot of poise," Shanahan said. "No, it doesn't surprise me. He's been doing it in practice consistently."
Sure, there was a bad interception early, a strip and a fumble that led to a Cowboys touchdown and the crushing interception at the end. No intent here to minimize those. On the whole, though, and after a painfully slow start, the Redskins began to move with a certain authority and crispness generally lacking in previous weeks under McNabb's guidance.
The Redskins, losers now of four straight, came into this so-called "rivalry" game, ahead of the Cowboys in the NFC East standings but third and fourth place were the ones at stake. That doesn't stir the passions as would a battle for the playoffs but this game would likely determine which team finishes last in a division long on prestige. Now they're both 5-9.
Planting McNabb on the sideline and starting Grossman changed the Redskins' entire dynamic. Receiver Anthony Armstrong said it was a tricky transition because the two are "polar opposites, in a way." It certainly appeared difficult at the outset.
From the leaky coverage of the opening kickoff, to the field goal surrendered on that ensuing drive, to the three-and-out on Grossman's first series, to more special team's ineptness, the goofs and gaffes came early and often under the arched roof of Jerry Jones' big top. Imagine trapeze artists with no nets beneath them trying to make those risky exchanges with hands coated in sweat. Lions that bite off the heads of their trainers. Clown cars that explode ... with the clowns still in them.
Grossman threw one early interception that led to a touchdown and turned the ball over on a fumble. The Redskins defense, put in untenable positions by the special teams and turnovers, wilted after a decent early effort. The Cowboys scored or threatened to almost every time they had the ball in the first two quarters, built a 13-0 lead and took the Redskins out of their game plan, such as it was.
The Cowboys, though, have a little Bozo in them as well. One penalty for a late hit enabled the Redskins to keep a drive alive and score their first touchdown. Two others hurt their field position and gave the Redskins defense breathing room, though the Cowboys ultimately overcame their own screwups and the Redskins recommenced committing theirs. Andre Carter drew a flag for hitting quarterback Jon Kitna in the head on a third-down pass that was incomplete and that gave the 'Boys a fresh set of downs and the chance to score on Kitna's 14-yard pass to Jason Witten for a 20-7 lead.
That was Witten's 600th career catch and it only seems like 500 have come against the Redskins. What this one did do, however, was allow the Cowboys to finish a 91-yard drive with a touchdown.
The 20-7 halftime lead might have been much larger. The Cowboys skipped out on trying a field goal early in the game from the Redskins 1-yard line and got thrown back on fourth down by linebackers London Fletcher and Rocky McIntosh. At the end of the half, David Buehler missed a 35-yard field goal. So a potential blowout was actually less than a two-touchdown game.
Not for long, though. Grossman's third turnover, on a sack and strip by DeMarcus Ware, gave the ball to the 'Boys at the Redskins 15 and Tashard Choice scored from three yards away for a 27-7 lead.
On it went, these trapeze artists swinging back and forth. Touchdown, Redskins. Field goal, Cowboys. Touchdown, Redskins, after Anthony Spencer, with a ticky-tack slap to Grossman's facemask, drew a roughing the passer penalty that allowed a drive to thrive and Grossman to find Santana Moss in the end zone for a second time.
Then came the five-yard pass to Chris Cooley for a touchdown. And Grossman completed yet another pass for his second two-point conversion of the afternoon. The Redskins were back.
When Grossman got sacked on consecutive plays and the Redskins, tied 30-30, punted, the Cowboys got the ball with 3:11 and in relatively good field position. That led to what became the winning field goal of 39 yards by David Buehler.
And on the Redskins' last possession, with no times-out left but hope building? Yeah. The interception. Terrence Newman picked off a Grossman floater on third-and-one, rambled around the field until the clock showed zeroes and then gave himself up to be tackled.
That's always been the knock on Grossman. Streaky. Terrific for a series, terrible for a series. Hideous for half, then heroic. Five sacks and endless pressure complicated his day.
So close and yet so far for the Redskins. One bit of nuttiness follows the next – the first benching of McNabb at the end of the Debacle in Detroit, the suspension of Albert Haynesworth, the McNabb benching part deux – and the circus, rather than coming to town, never actually leaves. It's carnival rides and funnel cakes, sideshow barkers and helium balloons every day.
The only thing missing? The fun house. At least for a while, this game provided some fun.
Larry Weisman, an award-winning journalist during 25 years with USA TODAY, writes for Redskins.com and appears nightly on Redskins Nation on Comcast SportsNet. Read his Redskinsblitz blog at Redskinsrule.com and follow him on Twitter.com/LarryWeisman.