Redskins History: Riggins Was Gibbs’ ‘Egomaniac’ Turned Unlikely Hero
Redskins fans had been waiting 40 years to celebrate a championship. As they nervously watched the game in Pasadena or at home, they wondered how much longer they would have to wait.
The legendary Vince Lombardi had delivered Washington’s first winning season in 14 years in 1969 but had died of cancer before being able to take the Redskins any further. Hall of Fame coach George Allen had made Washington a consistent winner from 1971-77 but had failed to win a playoff game other than in 1972 when the Redskins came up short in Super Bowl VII against the undefeated Miami Dolphins.
So now, after another decade of ups and downs, the upstart Redskins, who hadn’t even made the playoffs the previous five seasons, were trailing the Dolphins as Super Bowl XVII moved into the fourth quarter.
Who was going to finally fulfill those title dreams that had gripped the faithful in the Washington area for so long? Surely not the wacky 33-year-old running back who had walked away from football three years earlier before declaring, “I’m bored. I’m broke. And I’m back,” in 1981.
This after John Riggins had told new coach Joe Gibbs, “You need to get me back there. I’ll make you famous.”
Gibbs thought that Riggins was “an egomaniac” and “a fruitcake” but since the free spirit had demanded a no-trade clause to return, the teetotaler had to put up with him. And although Riggins had helped Washington reach the playoffs during the strike-shortened 1982 season, he had averaged just 3.1 yards per carry. The Redskins were winning because of kicker Mark Moseley’s unerring right foot, quarterback Joe Theismann’s leadership and an underrated defense, not because of the aging Riggins.
However, before postseason began with a game against Detroit at RFK Stadium, Riggins felt what he called “the surge” and told Gibbs, “Give me the football, baby.”
The second-year coach did just that. Riggins ran 25 times for 119 yards in a 31-7 rout of the Lions, a whopping 37 times for 185 yards and a touchdown in a 21-7 victory over Minnesota (before bowing to the home crowd) and 36 more times for 140 yards and two scores in the 31-17 triumph over archrival Dallas in the NFC Championship Game.
Riggins had reached the century mark again in the Super Bowl, carrying 29 times for 101 yards, but Washington still trailed Miami 17-13 with the clock heading towards 10 minutes remaining. He had just been stopped short on third-and-2, making it fourth-and-inches at the Dolphins’ 43-yard line. But Gibbs, still trusting Riggins to get the first down on the game’s most critical play, called 70 Chip.
“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.”
Not only was McNeal outweighed by nearly 50 pounds in his matchup with “The Diesel,” the cornerback also slipped slightly while shadowing tight end Clint Didier, who had gone in motion left before coming back back right. With those two advantages, Riggins pulled away from McNeal’s grasp and rumbled 43 yards into history.
“John Riggins is Mr. Universe,” said Dolphins defensive end Doug Betters. “He is All-World. Their offense was no secret. ‘Give it to John.’ “
Washington led 20-17 and would add a 12-play drive — with Riggins carrying nine times – for the cherry on top touchdown to win its first Super Bowl and its first championship since 1942.
Riggins was voted the MVP after finishing with a then-Super Bowl record 166 yards on 38 carries for an incredible four-game postseason run of 610 yards on 136 carries.
“If you took that over a season, that would be [2,440] yards and  carries,” Henning marveled. “Nobody has ever done anything like that. Through that four-game stretch, he was like Babe Ruth.”
President Ronald Reagan called Gibbs in the postgame locker room and jokingly asked the coach if he could change his name to Reaginns. Hearing this, Riggins declared, “At least for tonight, Ron’s the president, but I’m the king.”
True enough. Twenty seven years after his last game and 21 years after his Hall of Fame election, Riggins remains beloved in Washington, largely because of that 1982 postseason run which he capped so gloriously. Numerous barber shops, sports stores and photography outlets still display the photo of No. 44 bulling over McNeal and unforgettably motoring towards the end zone in Pasadena.
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