A new era of Washington Redskins history started in 1981, when they hired the offensive coordinator of the San Diego Chargers, Joe Gibbs, as their new head coach. Gibbs had overseen the most explosive attack in the NFL to put him on the map as head coach material. The 1981 Washington Redskins didn’t have the most auspicious of beginnings—to put it mildly—but they eventually generated the momentum that started the most glorious era in franchise history.
Washington was a young team and started four rookies on offense. Two of them, Virgil Seay at wide receiver and right guard Melvin Jones, didn’t have long runs in D.C. But two others, the left side of the offensive line, Joe Jacoby and Russ Grimm did. They, along with fellow offensive line rookie Mark May, would eventually form the “Hogs”, one of the great offensive fronts in NFL history.
Joe Washington was the most productive runner, going for 916 yards. Gibbs also got two accomplished veterans to come out of retirement. One of them, Terry Metcalf, didn’t last past this season. The other one was John Riggins and this one worked out considerably better for the Redskins.
The quarterback was Joe Theismann, now 32-years old, and he threw for over 3,500 yards, albeit with a TD/INT ratio of 19/20. Art Monk, his 24-year-old wide receiver accumulated 894 yards through the air.
On the other side of the ball, there was a talented rookie defensive end in Dexter Manley. On balance though, this was not a team exploding with great talent—at least full developed talent. Not a single Redskin starter made the Pro Bowl, and the only player on the team to do so was their great return specialist, Mike Nelms.
The season started with a home game against the archrival Dallas Cowboys, who were on their way to another vintage 12-4 season under head coach Tom Landry. After a scoreless first quarter, the Cowboys took over the line of scrimmage, winning the rushing battle 206-44. The Redskins committed six turnovers, four of them interceptions by Theismann. The game ended 26-10.
Three more losses to NFC East rivals followed. The Redskins were tied at home with the New York Giants, 7-7 in the fourth quarter, but one of their four turnovers was a fumble inside the 10-yard line that turned into an easy defensive touchdown. Washington lost 17-7. Theismann threw for 388 yards at the St .Louis Cardinals, but the ‘Skins fell behind 40-17 and lost by ten points. They were competitive at Philadelphia for three quarters, trailing 14-13. But it all got away in the fourth quarter of a 36-13 loss.
Gibbs was still looking for his first win when the San Francisco 49ers came to town. The 49ers would win the Super Bowl this season and put Joe Montana and Bill Walsh on the map. But they weren’t quite on the map by Week 5—the winless Redskins were still a two-point favorite. It was a big miscalculation by the oddsmakers.
Washington trailed 7-0 and was driving, when a fumble was returned 80 yards for a San Francisco touchdown and the rout was on. The score got to 30-3, before a couple meaningless Redskin touchdowns made the final look respectable at 30-17.
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The new head coach and the fans were wondering if a win would ever come. Finally, on the road at a bad Chicago Bears team, it did. The ‘Skins led 3-0 early in the game, when linebacker Neal Olkewicz returned an interception for a touchdown. It was one of four times the Redskins picked off Chicago quarterback Vince Evans. Riggins pounded out 126 yards, while Joe Washington had 88. The final was 24-7 and Gibbs was off the schneid.
Washington played well at Miami one week later, being tied 10-10 into the fourth quarter against a team that would win the AFC East. The Dolphins kicked a late field goal and won 13-10, but it seemed possible the ‘Skins were getting on a roll. But one week later, playing an absolutely awful New England Patriots team at home, Washington trailed 15-7 in the second quarter. The home fans still hadn’t seen a win yet, and it looked like this whole Gibbs thing was going to get flushed down the drain before it started.
Then Nelms turned the momentum. He returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown, the Redskins got it rolling and escaped with a 24-22 win. It wasn’t pretty, but at least it was a win. It obviously presumes a lot to think that had the Redskins not won this game, they wouldn’t have eventually closed this season strong or gone on to their future glory under this coaching staff. It’s fair to say this though—in a town where media sharks swirl, it made everyone’s life a lot easier not to blow this game.
And then the winning really started. Theismann threw two long touchdown passes early in a home game against St. Louis, 38 yards to Monk and 51 to Seay. The quarterback finished the game 14/19 for 219 yards and led an easy 42-21 win.
A wild back-and-forth home game with the Detroit Lions followed. Joe Washington and Detroit counterpart Billy Sims each piled up big yardage on the ground. Seay and Lion receiver Freddie Scott had big days catching passes. But the Lions made mistakes—six turnovers—and it allowed the Redskins to get the final blow, a 44-yard field goal from Mark Moseley to win 33-31. Moseley came through again in New York against the Giants, tying the game 27-27 with a 49-yard field goal. Then he won it with a 48-yarder in overtime.
The ‘Skins were closing in on .500 at 5-6, but then tough road games against playoff-bound teams set them back. They were tied in Dallas 10-10 in the third quarter, but again got outmuscled by the Cowboys, giving up 258 rushing yards and losing 24-10. Washington gave up 188 more on the ground in Buffalo, losing four fumbles themselves, in a 21-14 defeat. The bright side was that these losses were clearly more competitive than what had happened early in the season.
Philadelphia, who had won the NFC title the year before and would make it back to the playoffs this year, came to old RFK Stadium. The Redskins trailed 13-9, but linebacker Monte Coleman intercepted Eagle quarterback (and future ESPN analyst and self-proclaimed film guru) Ron Jaworski, took it to the house and Washington won 15-13. Then they blasted a very bad team, the Baltimore Colts 38-14, as Theismann threw an early TD pass to Seay and went on to throw for 339 yards.
As improbable as it seemed, the Redskins were playing the final game of the 1981 season for the chance to get to .500. They were on the road at the Los Angeles Rams, who were also out of the mix, with a 6-9 record. The Redskins offensive line set the tone all day long. The team rushed for 241 yards, with Riggins, Joe Washington and even unknown Nick Giaquinto, getting in on what was a balanced attack. An easy 30-7 win capped Gibbs’ first year at 8-8
We all know how the Gibbs era turned out. Winning eight of the last eleven games in 1981 set the stage for winning the Super Bowl in 1982. It was one of four NFC crowns and three Super Bowl wins that Gibbs would oversee in Washington D.C. They came a long way from an October afternoon in Chicago when everyone wondered if they would ever win a game.