Thirty years ago this month, the Redskins were in the midst of an 0-4 preseason and still very much unsure of how good they could be.
They had won eight of their final 11 games after an 0-5 start in 1981, but that still left them 8-8 under rookie coach Joe Gibbs and out of the playoffs for a fifth straight season. In contrast, three of their four NFC East rivals, the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles, had reached postseason.
Quarterback Joe Theismann had tossed more interceptions than touchdowns, No. 1 running back John Riggins was 33, and their only Pro Bowl players were return man Mike Nelms and 34-year-old cornerback Lemar Parrish, who would be traded before the season.
So the Redskins were hardly perceived as Super Bowl contenders. As guard Russ Grimm said, “we were just a bunch of young guys.”
Indeed, Grimm, left tackle Joe Jacoby, right guard Mark May, receiver Charlie Brown, defensive ends Dexter Manley and Mat Mendenhall and linebacker Mel Kaufman had each debuted in 1981. Tight ends Doc Walker and Don Warren, center Jeff Bostic, receiver Art Monk and linebackers Rich Milot and Neal Olkewicz were all in their third or fourth seasons. Cornerback Vernon Dean was a rookie.
But it was veteran kicker Mark Moseley – after almost not making the team on the heels of a dreadful 1981 season – who hit a 48-yarder as time expired to force overtime in which he beat the Eagles with another field goal. Washington then survived a monsoon in Tampa behind Riggins to improve to 2-0.
Then came the 57-day players’ strike. A sage request from Gibbs to his team leaders on the eve of the walkout would make a big difference.
“Just before the strike took place, Coach Gibbs called a few of us in,” Monk recalled. “He said, ‘Whatever happens, I want you guys to stay together.’ We did. We practiced five days a week. We had meetings. That’s what really kept us together when we came back.”
While the Redskins did lose to the Cowboys, they were otherwise perfect, clinching a playoff spot two weeks later with a 15-14 victory over the Giants with 11 seconds left on Moseley’s 42-yarder that was also a then-record 21st consecutive success. Routs of the New Orleans Saints and St. Louis Cardinals finished Washington’s 8-1 regular season and sealed home-field advantage in the expanded NFC postseason.
Washington first plastered Detroit 31-7 as 5-foot-7 Alvin Garrett caught three touchdowns in place of the injured Monk. Riggins starred in the 21-7 dismissal of Minnesota, rushing 37 times for 185 yards before bowing to the RFK Stadium crowd which had been screaming, “We Want Dallas” in hopes of a NFC Championship Game showdown.
The fans got their wish. The Cowboys had beaten the Redskins six straight times and had their bags packed for Pasadena because the strike had canceled the extra week between the conference title games and the Super Bowl.
“It was the ultimate insult,” said defensive tackle Darryl Grant. “They had all the high-profile players. They were going to come into our backyard and dance all over us. The coaches had to pull us off each other a little bit in practice because we were so intense. There was a lot of talk about ‘no respect.’ We could hardly wait to get on the field.”
The fans were just as revved up, as Grimm will never forget.
“There are still times when I close my eyes and picture myself strapping the pads on in that old RFK locker room and hearing that chant, ‘We Want Dallas.’ I still get the chills,“ he said.
After an early Dallas field goal, Theismann and Brown hooked up for a 19-yard touchdown. Riggins soon upped the margin to 14-3 which was the score when Manley kayoed Cowboys quarterback Danny White with a concussion just before halftime. Backup Gary Hogeboom, who had thrown just eight passes in three years, tossed two touchdowns, but Riggins followed a long Nelms return with a score and Moseley’s field goal made it 24-17 Redskins midway through the fourth quarter.
On Dallas’ next play, Manley tipped Hogeboom’s screen pass. Grant grabbed the floating ball and high-stepped 10 yards to the end zone as the crowd erupted, knowing the NFC Championship had been won.
The young Redskins could have been glad just to be in the Super Bowl, but after Miami’s Jimmy Cefalo got between cornerback Jeris White and safety Tony Peters for an early 76-yard touchdown catch, Dolphins quarterback David Woodley – who passed for just 21 more yards — and his offense were thwarted by Washington’s defense.
Still, Miami led 17-13 late in the third quarter thanks to Fulton Walker’s 98-yard kickoff return score. That’s when Theismann made what Dolphins coach Don Shula called “one of the great plays in Super Bowl history” by knocking an interception away from Miami defensive end Kim Bokamper for what would have been a sure touchdown.
Given that reprieve, Gibbs made one of the Super Bowl’s great calls by feeding Riggins the ball on a play called 70-Chip with 10:01 left and the Redskins facing fourth-and-inches at the Miami 43-yard line.
“The play was blocked exactly the way it was supposed to be blocked,” recalled Redskins offensive coordinator Dan Henning. “There was one guy left [cornerback Don McNeal]. The job of the running back is to run him over. John ran him over.”
McNeal slipped slightly while shadowing tight end Clint Didier, who had gone in motion. McNeal, who also had a 45-pound weight disadvantage, hit but couldn’t bring down “The Diesel,” who broke away and rumbled into history. Theismann’s six-yard touchdown to Brown with 1:55 remaining was the exclamation point on the 27-17 victory, the Redskins’ first championship in 40 years.
After averaging just 3.1 yards a carry while gaining 553 yards during the nine-game season, Riggins surged to 4.5 yards a carry with 610 yards on 166 carries during the four-game postseason.
“Through that four-game stretch, he was like Babe Ruth,” Henning said of Riggins, who set a then-Super Bowl record with 166 yards on 38 carries.
President Ronald Reagan called Gibbs after the game and jokingly asked if he could change his name to Reaginns.
Responded Riggins, “At least for tonight, Ron’s the president, but I’m the king.”
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin