The loyal and passionate fan base of the Washington Redskins had endured frustration from 1977-79. All three seasons saw the Redskins be in position to make the playoffs on the final week of the season, only to come up short.
The 1980 Washington Redskins solved the problem, but not in the way anyone wanted—the ’80 Redskins had offensive problems all year, got off to a poor start and their 6-10 record ended the short three-year tenure of head coach Jack Pardee.
Washington’s offense had been progressively improving each of the past three years and with Joe Theisman the undisputed quarterback in 1979, the Redskins ranked 10th in the NFL in points scored. But a huge regression in 1980 saw the team slip to 25th. The primary reason was the lack of a running game.
John Riggins “retired”—or more accurately took a year off from football, and Washington struggled to find a replacement for the big running back. Wilbur Jackson was the leading rusher, with 708 yards, but consistency was a problem all year. The offensive line had four players over the age of 30 and no Pro Bowlers—the age of the Hogs hadn’t yet arrived in D.C.
Those problems were manifest in the first Monday Night game of the season. The Redskins hosted the Dallas Cowboys. Not only were the Cowboys a longtime rival, but their 35-34 win in the ’79 finale remains on the short list of the organization’s most gut-wrenching defeats (this writer, a Redskins fan at the age of nine still isn’t over the trauma of sobbing while we decorated the Christmas tree that terrible Sunday afternoon).
Furthermore, Dallas was in transition, as their great quarterback Roger Staubach retired and was being replaced by Danny White.
None of that mattered. Washington generated just 58 yards rushing. Running back Clarence Harmon was the leading receiver with seven catches, a fact that underscored the lack of production from the passing game. Dallas won 17-3.
Given that the Cowboys went 12-4 and reached the NFC Championship Game, this result may look par for the course, but it was the Redskins who came into Week 1 a two-point favorite.
Washington got their first win a week later, beating a bad New York Giants team 23-21 on a late field goal from Mark Moseley. The ‘Skins then played a competitive game out in Oakland, losing to the future Super Bowl champions just 24-21. But the fact Washington was destroyed on the ground, with a rush yardage differential of 227-84 underscored a problem that wasn’t going away.
Nonetheless, you could argue that the schedule all but dictated a 1-2 start, with a game against one bad team and two really good ones. But you couldn’t argue your way around a 14-0 home loss to the woeful Seattle Seahawks. Jim Zorn, who would one day torment Redskin fans as head coach from 2008-09, tormented them on the field, running for a touchdown, while Theisman threw four picks.
Losses at future NFC champ Philadelphia and at Denver on Monday night followed. The Bronco loss was particularly aggravating. Washington led 17-13 late until giving up a 32-yard touchdown pass to speedy receiver Rick Upchurch.
The next two weeks produced wins over bad teams and gave some brief hope for the season. Theisman threw for 307 yards, spreading the ball around in a 23-0 win over the St. Louis Cardinals. The Redskins then beat lowly New Orleans 22-14. The game was never in doubt, but Washington allowed a team on its way to a 1-15 season to run for 220 yards. The record was 3-5, and there was nominally a chance, but the vital signs remained as bad as ever.
Any lingering hope came when mediocre NFC Central (the current NFC North) teams won blowouts. The Minnesota Vikings shut down the run, went over 200 rush yards themselves and won 39-14 in RFK Stadium. The ‘Skins then went to Chicago and fell behind 35-0 at half. Three second-half touchdowns made the score respectable, but couldn’t disguise a poor performance.
Washington then lost three straight to the elite of the NFC, Philadelphia, Dallas and the Atlanta Falcons, all of whom won 12 games. The Cowboy loss was the most disheartening—the ‘Skins intercepted White four times, two of them from Pro Bowl corner Lemar Parrish. But Dallas got the pick that counted, a 43-yard Pick-6 by Larry Cole that turned a 10-7 Washington lead in the fourth quarter into a 14-10 loss.
The defense also played well in Atlanta, losing 10-6, mainly because the Falcons avoided turnovers. Parrish, along with Joe Lavender were excellent corners and ballhawks. Mark Murphy was an up-and-comer at free safety.
Amidst the wreckage of what was now a 3-10 season, was another bright spot. A rookie receiver named Art Monk would finish the season with 58 catches for 797 yards and get a Hall of Fame career underway. The brightest spot in this lost season came the next week.
It wasn’t the game itself—though the fact the Redskins beat the San Diego Chargers 40-17 certainly helped. The Chargers were on their way to the top seed in the AFC, but a 51-yard interception return by Lavender early on set the tone. The ‘Skins picked off the great Charger quarterback Dan Fouts five times and Harmon had a terrific day—11 rushes for 71 yards, and 12 catches for 118 more yards.
But the brightest spot that day was one no one knew at the time. The offensive coordinator of that San Diego team was Joe Gibbs, who one year later would arrive to coach the Redskins.
The team competed for Pardee the final two games. The Redskins rallied from 10-0 down and beat the Giants 16-13, when Theisman hit little-known running back Bobby Hammond on a seven-yard touchdown pass late. Then Washington went to St. Louis and won 31-7, as Hammond ran for 135 yards in what would prove to be his final game as a pro.
It was a nice ending to Jack Pardee’s Washington tenure, and paved the way for the new era that was just a year away.