The NFL season of 1982 was overshadowed by labor difficulties and after two games, the season was temporarily shut down with a players’ strike. Play would not resume until November 21 with plans for a truncated nine-game schedule and divisional distinctions abandoned for playoff purposes. Nothing—not the strike, not broken momentum, not anyone in the NFL could stop the 1982 Washington Redskins, as they won the franchise’s first Super Bowl.
The Redskins had finished 1981 strong, winning eight of their last 11 after an 0-5 start. Head coach Joe Gibbs was now in his second year and there was a lot of young talent to move forward with, particularly up front.
The offensive line that would become known as “The Hogs” was in its infancy. Joe Bostic, Russ Grimm, Joe Jacoby and Mark May were all 24 or younger. The old man of the group was right tackle George Starke, at 34.
On the defensive side of the line of scrimmage, another 24-year-old was Dexter Manley, who recorded 6 1/2 sacks. Another up-and-coming talent, away from the trenches was rookie wide receiver Charlie Brown, who made the Pro Bowl.
Gibbs also had good veterans. Joe Theismann had a Pro Bowl season at quarterback, throwing for over 2,000 yards in a nine-game schedule. John Riggins keyed the running game. Dave Butz held the middle of the defensive front.
On balance though, the roster was not seen as loaded with talent. The only player to make the Pro Bowl besides Theismann and Brown was strong safety Tony Peters. Respect was hard to come by for the ‘Skins .
Washington opened the season at Philadelphia. The Eagles were two years removed from reaching the Super Bowl and had gone to the playoffs in 1981. The ‘Skins quickly fell behind 10-0 and trailed 27-14 going into the fourth quarter. Then Theismann hit Brown with a 78-yard touchdown pass and the magic of 1982 was underway.
It was a passing display on both sides. Theismann went 28/39 for 382 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Philly’s Ron Jaworski was 27/38 for 371 yards, two touchdowns and no picks. The two QBs that would each become ESPN commentators with a high regard for themselves staged a big-time duel.
Theismann won it with help from his great kicker, Mark Moseley, who booted a 48-yard field goal to tie the game 34-34 and then won it with a 26-yarder in overtime. The following week in Tampa, it was the running game that delivered. Riggins ran for 136 yards in a 21-13 win over the Buccaneers, who had made the playoffs in ’81 and would do so again in 1982.
Then the strike hit. Play would not resume until November 21, and when it did, the playoff format was completely altered. Divisional distinctions were abolished. Teams would just play out the remainder of the schedules, seven more games, and then each conference would be seeded 1 thru 8, what remains the largest postseason bracket in NFL history.
Washington visited the mediocre New York Giants on their first game back and picked up where they left off. Theismann threw a 39-yard touchdown pass to Brown, the ‘Skins opened up a 21-0 lead and ultimately won 27-17.
On November 28, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, it was time for the home opener at RFK Stadium. The Eagles were making the return visit and this time the pass defenses were ready and conditions were wet. Cornerback Jeris White intercepted two passes, and the team as a whole picked off Jaworski five times. Washington won it 13-9 and were rewarded by being on the cover of Sports Illustrated with a “Hey, Look Who’s 4-0” headline on the magazine article.
The tone of the headline showed how much the Redskins had to prove if they were going to get respect and the best way to do it was to beat the Dallas Cowboys, who came into RFK for a late Sunday afternoon national TV appearance. But Washington was unable to run the ball, Theismann threw three interceptions and they lost 24-10. It appeared there was still a gap between them and the league’s elite.
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But the team quickly got back on track and with a lot of help from Moseley, won their final four games. In a road game at the St. Louis Cardinals, the Redskins offense got inside the red zone four times, never found the end zone, but four Moseley field goals and great defense produced a 12-7 win.
The kicker came up even bigger the following week at home against the Giants. On a day when Theismann played poorly, with four interceptions, the defense kept the team in the game, trailing 14-9. Moseley drilled two fourth-quarter field goals, the last one a 42-yarder with nine seconds left to win 15-14.
In a decision that underscored Moseley’s clutch performances, his record 21 consecutive field goals made and the strange nature of the 1982 NFL season, the kicker was voted the MVP award. Suffice it to say, no kicker since has been so honored.
Washington went to New Orleans for the season’s penultimate game, tied with Dallas atop the conference standings, but losing the tiebreaker battle. Theismann threw a 57-yard touchdown pass to Brown to get the ball rolling against the Saints. It was part of a 14/23 for 264 yards performance for Theismann, and Brown caught three more passes, ultimately getting to 156 receiving yards.
The 27-10 win combined with more good news from Big D–the Cowboys had lost at home to the Eagles and the Redskins controlled their fate for the #1 seed in the NFC playoffs. They took care of business with an efficient 28-0 home win over St. Louis (who was a division rival prior to the realignment of 2002), scoring a touchdown in each quarter.
Postseason football was in D.C. for the first time since 1976. The Redskins opened up with the #8 seed Detroit Lions. White put the ‘Skins on top early by intercepting an Eric Hipple pass and taking it 77 yards to the house.
It was a vivid example of the role defense would play for the Redskins in this postseason. While Theismann engineered an efficient passing game, and the receivers–starting with Brown and Alvin Garrett–were being called “The Fun Bunch”, for their choreographed end zone celebrations, and Riggins and the newly nicknamed Hogs were getting attention, the defense continually shut down top running backs and made big plays. The early interception was one of two White picks in this game, Lion running back Billy Sims was held to 19 yards and the final score was 31-7.
Minnesota was next up and the ‘Skins offense struck quickly. A short TD pass from Theismann to tight end Don Warren along with a short run by Riggins made it 14-0. After the teams traded touchdowns in the second quarter, the scoring was done. Riggins rolled up 185 yards, while the Vikings had no ground game to speak of.
The Cowboys won two games on the other half of the bracket and came to RFK Stadium for the NFC Championship Game, hungry to show who was still boss in this rivalry.
Dallas got an early field goal, but Theismann quickly countered with a touchdown pass to little Charlie Brown, Riggins plunged over from a yard out and it was 14-3 at half. Not only that, but Washington had knocked Dallas starting quarterback Danny White out of the game and the visitors would turn to Gary Hogeboom for a rally.
Hogeboom came closer than many might have thought. He threw two touchdown passes in the third quarter, but they were sandwiched around another scoring run by Riggins, so the ‘Skins still led 21-17. A field goal stretched the lead to seven. Dallas got the ball back deep in its own territory in the fourth quarter with a chance to go the distance and tie it up.
Defensive end Dexter Manley and defensive tackle Daryl Grant bore down on Hogeboom, whose pass was tipped up in the air. It landed in the hands of Grant who took a few short steps to the end zone. His dramatic spike got the team another Sports Illustrated cover, this one saying “Wham! Bam! It’s the Redskins!”
The game was all but over and it ended 31-17. Washington had their first trip to the Super Bowl since 1972 when they had the misfortune to run into the undefeated Miami Dolphins.
Ironically the Dolphins were waiting again this time, although they weren’t quite as fearsome. The running game was suspect and David Woodley didn’t scare at anyone at quarterback. The Fish did play defense though and veteran coach Don Shula was still at the controls, as he’d been back in ’72.
When Woodley threw an out pattern to Jimmy Cefalo who turned it into a 76-yard touchdown pass Miami had the early lead. After the teams swapped field goals and Theismann found another one of his diminutive wide receivers, Alvin Garrett for a tying touchdown, Miami’s Fulton Walker returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown.
If you’re going to give up special teams touchdowns and let simple short passes turn into long scores and still win a football game, you better find ways to dominate everywhere else and that’s what Washington did. The defense, having shut down Sims and Dallas’ Tony Dorsett, was overwhelming a mediocre Miami running game. Woodley would complete only four passes for the entire game.
In the meantime, Riggins and the Hogs were controlling the game up front. Miami still clung to a 17-13 lead early in the fourth quarter when the play for which this game is remembered finally swung the tide.
Washington faced 4th-and-1 on the Miami 43-yard line. Gibbs decided to go for it. Everyone knew the ball was going to Riggins. He powered off left tackle, aqua and orange jerseys hanging all over him. Riggins broke through the pile and pulled away, outrunning the rest of the Miami defense to the end zone.
With the ‘Skins defense in lockdown mode a 20-17 lead seemed insurmountable, but when the Washington offense got the ball back, Theismann led them down the field and on third and goal hit Brown in the corner of the end zone for the score that sealed the deal. The 1982 Washington Redskins had given their crazed fan base its first Super Bowl title.
It was easy in the moment for outside observers to think the 1982 title run was a fluke, a byproduct of an entire season that was off-kilter. Gibbs and his team proved everyone wrong. It turned out, the winning was just getting started.