It was a one-week fix, Dallas's 21-10 Thanksgiving Day victory over Washington, a game that answered one question but left a lot more hanging. The game was won in the traditional Cowboys manner—get a lead and then hold on to it with a pounding ground game—a tradition that started with the arrival of Emmitt Smith six years ago. And that was the one question that was answered: Yes, Emmitt can still get up for a game when he wants to, when he has to, when he's mad enough. He proved it by rushing for 155 yards on a day when the Cowboys needed him because their passing game was ineffective. But these are the questions that remain.
•Was that the real Emmitt, or was this a one-game phenomenon? Did his big day mean his chronically sore ankle has miraculously healed, or was this an eruption of pure fury from a proud athlete stung by his fourth-quarter benching the previous week in a loss to the Giants and maybe stung even more by hints that there was more wrong than just a bad ankle? One newspaper even ran a chart showing the way a running back declines after the age of 27, which happens to be Emmitt's age.
•Where did the passing game go? Troy Aikman completed 9 of 19 for only 63 yards, which represented his most meager full-game output since the Cowboys became a playoff team in 1991. Afterward he shrugged and said, "As long as we won." Then he mentioned that Washington played front-and-back coverage on Michael Irvin, his go-to guy, and took Irvin out of the picture. The implication was that with Irvin accounted for, not much was left.
•Finally, was this really such a great victory for the Cowboys? They gained only 247 yards against a team that ranked dead last in the NFL in defense. The Skins actually led in the third quarter and were very much in it in the final period, even though their most dangerous wideout, Michael Westbrook, went down on the second play of the game and his replacement, Leslie Shepherd, was lost early in the second half. Dallas, naturally, stacked the deck against tailback Terry Allen, the NFC's rushing leader, forcing Gus Frerotte to throw to second-year tight end Jamie Asher and a wideout corps of 35-year-old Henry Ellard, 32-year-old Billy Brooks and 31-year-old Flipper Anderson. And Frerotte was going against the league's No. 1 pass defense.
Washington wins when it gets on top early and can hang on. Its defense cracks. So if you're Redskins defensive coordinator Ron Lynn, still smarting from the memory of Arizona's Boomer Esiason throwing for 522 yards against your defense three weeks earlier, what do you concentrate on when you're facing Dallas? Do you focus your efforts on Emmitt, coming off one of his career lowlights, a guy so iffy that no one knew he was going to start until the warmups, or do you try to stop Aikman and Irvin?
Lynn crossed his fingers and played the pass. But Emmitt was still Emmitt, at least on Thanksgiving. He answered all doubts with his fifth carry of the day, a 10-yard burst outside left tackle in which he switched into overdrive and made three tacklers miss him. That was the thing he couldn't do against the Giants when defensive end Chad Bratzke nailed him for a three-yard loss and knocked him out of his shoe, the play that sent him to the bench.
"When did I know I was O.K.? Well, not right away," Emmitt said after last Thursday's game. "I really didn't know how long I could go, how long it would be until someone rolled up on my ankle. Then in the third quarter someone did fall on it, and I said, 'Damn, there it goes.' But I got up, and the next play I broke the 42-yarder."
As for Aikman and his receivers, they still have a lot to answer for. Aikman is no Brett Favre, improvising on the go; he expects his pass catchers to be where they're supposed to be and is not effective when they're not. He needs a precision tight end, a Jay Novacek. Instead the latest candidate is Johnny Mitchell, a guy with breath-taking speed and sloppy work habits, a classic coach-breaker.
"A lot of talent," someone said to Aikman.
"And he's the first to let you know," Aikman said.