For all the mind games played by coaches and players, the best one ever in the Washington Redskins-Dallas Cowboys rivalry came from a fan.
A funeral wreath arrived at the Cowboys' practice facility days before the 1979 season finale with the Redskins that would decide the NFC East title. The note offered sympathy about what it called a coming loss and especially incensed Cowboys defensive end Harvey Martin.
Martin stared at those flowers that arrived via a Rockville florist all week, then brought them to Texas Stadium for the game. He already was angry after the Redskins called a timeout with 14 seconds left to kick a field goal in Washington's 34-20 victory just four games earlier.
"The next time we play [the Redskins], we'll chop their heads off," Martin screamed afterward.
The Redskins and Cowboys again meet for the NFC East title on Sunday at FedEx Field, but the current encounter is nothing compared to the one in 1979, when the rivalry was at its peak.
Redskins coach George Allen left two years earlier after raising the series to a feverish pitch, even offering to fight Cowboys coach Tom Landry at midfield for the victory. Coach Jack Pardee played the final three years of his career under Allen and succeeded his coach by taking the Redskins to the verge of the division title. Washington, Dallas and Philadelphia entered the final day tied at 10-5.
Pardee learned to hate the Cowboys under Allen and still had plenty of old teammates around, too. Defensive linemen Diron Talbert and Dave Butz lived to sack Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach. Indeed, Talbert loved to taunt Staubach with threats of violence often fulfilled.
It was a transitional time for the Redskins, after Allen and before Pardee's successor, Joe Gibbs. Three years later, Washington beat Dallas in the 1982 NFC championship game, which ranks among the franchise's great wins along with the 1972 NFC title game over the Cowboys.
The 1979 finale was essentially the last stand of the "Over the Hill Gang" that resurrected the franchise with four playoff seasons and a Super Bowl appearance under Allen.
The Redskins scored 17 straight points on a Mark Moseley field goal and two John Riggins touchdown runs to take a 34-21 lead with 6:54 remaining. Staubach threw a 26-yard touchdown to Ron Springs. The Redskins could have sealed the game on a third-and-2, but John Riggins didn't convert.
The two-time defending NFC champions were given 106 seconds to win. With two large gains, Dallas reached the Washington 8-yard line with 45 seconds left. The Redskins blitzed, and Staubach threw off his back heel and floated an over-the-shoulder touchdown to Tony Hill for a 35-34 Cowboys victory.
Afterward, Harvey threw the wreath inside Washington's locker room, where it landed by Moseley. Harvey later apologized to the Redskins but never believed a Washington Star report that a Cowboys fan from Rockville really sent the wreath hoping to inspire his team.
"Hey, [the Redskins] didn't like me. I didn't like them," Martin said.