After winning the Super Bowl in 1982 and making it back in 1983, the 1984 Washington Redskins sputtered for a little more than half the season before finding their footing. They won another NFC East title in thrilling fashion, but a playoff loss marked a temporary step back from the NFL elite under head coach Joe Gibbs.
Washington’s offense was no longer the best in the NFL, as it had been in ’83, but they could still score. Joe Theismann followed up his MVP campaign the previous year by throwing for nearly 3,400 yards and 24 touchdowns at age 35. John Riggins, the same age, pounded out over 1,200 yards behind an offensive line that included Joe Jacoby at left tackle and Russ Grimm at left guard, both 1st-team All-Pros.
Art Monk set a single-season reception record with 106 catches (the fact Monk now ranks 41st on the list for catches in a single year tells you how much the game has changed). But depth at receiver was lost with injuries to Charlie Brown and Alvin Garrett. It was the key difference in the offense slipping from first to third in points scored.
Injuries were a factor on defense as well, with Pro Bowl safety Mark Murphy missing much of the year. There was also a decline in production from 34-year-old defensive tackle Dave Butz, off his best season in 1983. The only Pro Bowler on the defense was second-year corner Darrell Green, while the Redskins also got good production from defensive ends Dexter Manley and Charles Mann, who combined for 20.5 sacks. The defense ranked 11th in the NFL in points allowed.
The gap that would open between Washington and the league’s elite was laid bare in the first two weeks of the season. The Redskins played the Miami Dolphins and San Francisco 49ers, teams that would combine to go 29-3 and reach the Super Bowl. The Dolphins’ Dan Marino came to RFK Stadium and threw for 311 yards and five touchdowns in beating the Redskins 35-17. The 49ers’ Joe Montana threw for 381 yards, as the Redskins dropped a 37-31 Monday Night Game in San Francisco.
Washington was quickly in a must-win spot when the New York Giants came to town for Week 3. The secondary continued to show holes, allowing 347 passing yards to Phil Simms. But this time they also made plays, intercepting three passes. Theismann threw for 331 yards of his own. The ‘Skins held a 16-14 lead when corner Vernon Dean took an interception to the house. Safety Curtis Jordan then recovered a fumble and returned it for a score. Washington was off the schneid with a 30-14 win.
The running game churned at New England, with Riggins getting 140 yards, and the team winning the rush yardage battle 235-17 against a team that was just one year away from riding its own running attack to a Super Bowl. The ‘Skins won 26-10.
They won in similar fashion against the shaky Philadelphia Eagles, outrushing Philly 232-76 for a 20-0 home win. Theismann and Monk hooked up for three touchdown passes in a 35-17 blowout at lowly Indianapolis. It set up a visit from Dallas.
A year earlier the Redskins and Cowboys had battled all year for both the NFC East and homefield advantage. Dallas was also slipping this year and the division would end up as a four-team race. In this late afternoon game from RFK Stadium, Washington kept rolling. Riggins piled up 165 yards, the rush defense stayed stout and the result was a 34-14 win.
Just when it seemed like the Redskins were back in Super Bowl form, a bad road swing within the division took place. They went to the St. Louis Cardinals and after leading 24-17 in the fourth quarter, gave up an 83-yard touchdown pass to Neil Lomax. Even after the Cardinals blew the extra point, the ‘Skins allowed Lomax to drive for the winning field goal.
The following week in the Meadowlands, the improving Giants of Bill Parcells simply blasted the Redskins. Simms threw for 339 yards, the final score was 37-13 and with a 5-4 record, Washington was now in serious trouble.
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Dallas and St. Louis were tied atop the NFC East at 6-3, with Washington and New York sitting on 5-4. The Redskins hosted a poor Atlanta Falcons team on Monday Night Football and got back on track. It was tied 14-14 in the third quarter, as the Falcons hung in the game behind the running of Gerald Riggs–who would eventually wind up in Washington later in his career. But Riggins got 100 yards, the defense recorded seven sacks and the ‘Skins chiseled out a 27-14 win.
The Redskins blew out the lowly Detroit Lions 28-14, a game they led 28-0 after forcing five turnovers and only allowed some garbage time points. Washington needed to survive a November 18 trip to Philadelphia, turning it over six times and allowing a special teams touchdown. The defense bailed the team out and the Redskins won 16-10.
Theismann delivered at home against the two-win Buffalo Bills, throwing for 331 yards and completing 11 passes to Monk in an easy 41-14 win. Theismann kept it rolling against another league doormat in the Minnesota Vikings, going 19/24 for 223 yards, starting the scoring with a 68-yard strike to Calvin Muhammad and leading a 31-17 win–a game the ‘Skins led 31-3.
Washington was now 9-5 and in a three-way tie atop the NFC East along with Dallas and New York, while St. Louis was still in pursuit at 8-6. The Redskins would visit Dallas and host St. Louis to end the season.
The Redskins-Cowboys game was in the late Sunday afternoon national TV window, and it started terribly for Washington. They surrendered three first half touchdown passes to Dallas quarterback Danny White and fell behind 21-6.
Green turned the tide in the second half when he picked off a White pass and took it 32 yards to the house, cutting the lead to 21-13. Theismann hit Muhammad on a 22-yard touchdown pass. Even though White threw another scoring pass, the Redskins finally took the lead midway through the fourth quarter on a 1-yard plunge from Riggins.
Riggins finished the day with 111 yards, Washington won the turnover battle four-zip and they got the victory, 30-28. On showdown day in the NFC East, the Cardinals beat the Giants and Washington was alone in first place at 10-5.
There was still no scenario in which the Redskins could lose to the Cardinals and still win the NFC East. Washington could still make the playoffs as a wild-card with a loss, though that was far from assured. The Redskins could range as high as the 2-seed that would be theirs with a win, to out of the playoffs entirely. For ‘Skins fans, it was all to reminiscent of the 1979 finale in Dallas when the worst-case scenario materialized.
Theismann threw two early touchdown passes to Monk, although a missed extra point kept the score at 13-0. It didn’t look it would matter as Washington built up a 23-7 lead in the third quarter. The Theismann-to-Monk combination was clicking, as the quarterback threw for 298 yards and Monk caught 11 balls, breaking the single-season reception record in the process.
But something happened along the way to a day of celebration. St. Louis turned it around. Lomax threw for 468 yards on this day and he led the Cardinals all the way back to a 27-26 lead–with a missed extra point now looming as a season-wrecker.
Washington had a rally of their own though, with Theismann driving the team to the St. Louis 20-yard line and Mark Moseley hitting a 37-yard field goal with 1:42 left. Lomax still made the ending interesting. He got the Cards to the Washington 33, and kicker Neil O’Donoghue came out for a 50-yard attempt. It sailed wide and the Redskins were NFC East champs for the third year in a row.
The playoffs ended early. Even with homefield advantage, Washington did not play well against the improving Chicago Bears, who were emerging under Mike Ditka into the team that would win the Super Bowl in 1985. The ‘Skins only mustered 93 rushing yards and they lost 23-19 in a game that didn’t feel that close.
Washington’s step back from Super Bowl level continued with a non-playoff year in 1985, though they did win ten games that season. In 1986, Gibbs had the team trending back upward and by 1987 they were Super Bowl champs again.