The 1985 Washington Redskins were a “bridge” team in the Joe Gibbs era. After the success of 1982-84, with three straight NFC East titles, two NFC crowns and one Super Bowl trophy, the ’85 Redskins missed the playoffs. But they finished the season strong and set the stage for a renewal that would soon result in another Super Bowl victory.
Joe Theismann was still at quarterback, but the 36-year-old was nearing the end of the line–an end that would arrive in hideous fashion later this year. Theismann struggled in the 11 games he did start, throwing 16 interceptions against just eight touchdown passes.
John Riggins was the same age and the big running back suffered the same decline and end of his career, albeit without the injury. Riggins struggled to a 677-yard season and George Rogers emerged as the primary running back.
The Pro Bowlers on offense were steady wide receiver Art Monk, who caught 91 passes for over 1,200 yards, along with the reliable left side of the offensive line, Joe Jacoby and Russ Grimm. The ‘Skins also incorporated a feisty rookie receiver in Gary Clark into the mix. But in the end, none of it was enough to keep Washington’s offense dropping from being one of the league’s best, to ranking just 20th in the NFL in points scored.
Defensively, Washington ranked 11th in the league in points allowed, just as they had each of the previous two years. There were good players, particularly future Hall of Fame corner Darrell Green, in just his third year, and defensive ends Charles Mann and Dexter Manley, who combined for 29 1/2 sacks. But there were no Pro Bowl seasons from anyone.
Washington opened the season on Monday Night in Dallas, and it quickly became clear that these weren’t the same Redskins. Theismann threw five interceptions and the Cowboys coasted to a 44-14 win. The ‘Skins bounced back with a 16-13 win over the Houston Oilers, but it was an unimpressive win over a bad team. On the positive side, Gibbs at least got the running game going, with Riggins and Rogers keying an attack that got 240 yards on the ground.
More problems went down at home against the Philadelphia Eagles. The ‘Skins were two-touchdown favorites against a team that would finish the season 7-9. Washington lost 19-6, with Theismann struggling to 15/34 for 124 yards.
The start of the season hit rock bottom in Chicago, against the Super Bowl-bound Bears. The Redskins lost 45-10, and the game became infamous for Theismann being forced into punting duty and delivering a one-yard punt deep in his own end.
Struggling at 1-3, Washington had to return to Monday Night, as the St. Louis Cardinals came to town. In 1984, the Cardinals and Redskins had fought a thrilling battle for the NFC East crown on this field. This year’s St. Louis team would finish 5-11 and they proved to be the antidote for the ‘Skins. Riggins and Rogers each rolled for over 100 yards in a 27-10 rout. Riggins kept rolling at home against Detroit, for 114 yards in a 24-3 win.
Washington went to the Meadowlands to face the rising New York Giants. They had made the playoffs for the first time under Bill Parcells the previous year and were better in 1985. The Redskins couldn’t run and while Theismann threw for 272 yards, he also threw three interceptions in a 17-3 loss.
The next two weeks saw the ‘Skins get over. 500. They won a tough game against a Cleveland Browns team that was only .500, but was just starting the physical style of play under Marty Schottenheimer that would make them a serious contender the rest of the decade. Riggins ran for 112 yards and churned out a 14-7 win.
Riggins missed the following week at lowly Atlanta, troubled by the ailing back that would lead to his retirement at the end of the year, but Keith Griffin took his place and along with Rogers, the Redskins didn’t miss a beat. They rolled up over 300 yards on the ground in a 44-10 blowout.
The Cowboys came to RFK Stadium for a late Sunday afternoon national TV game and Riggins was back in the lineup. But he, and everyone else, was shut down, while Theismann threw three interceptions. The 13-7 loss dropped the ‘Skins to 5-5, two games back of the Cowboys and Giants. It made the coming Monday Night visit by Parcells, Lawrence Taylor and New York, all the more important.
It proved to a great game and one that no one who saw it will ever forget. But the latter was for the wrong reasons. Theismann, after throwing an early touchdown pass to tight end Don Warren, dropped back to pass off a flea flicker early in the second quarter. No one was open and he was crushed by Taylor. He went down, and his leg snapped behind him in a terribly awkward manner. His season was over, as was his career and he received an ovation from both Redskins and Giants players as he was wheeled off in a stretcher.
The Redskins turned to untested Jay Schroeder, who had thrown eight passes in the season to date. Tonight he went 13/20 for 221 yards, including a big 14-yard TD pass to tight end Clint Didier that gave Washington a 23-21 lead in the fourth quarter. It stood up and they were still in contention, even as Theismann was on everyone’s mind and heart.
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A 30-23 win over the mediocre Pittsburgh Steelers, keyed by three interceptions from the defense followed, and Washington was now within a game of first place, as Dallas suffered their own humiliation at the hands of Chicago the same day.
On December 1, another big late Sunday afternoon national TV home game awaited with the San Francisco 49ers. Both teams were 7-5, and the loser would really be up against it in the push for the playoffs, at a time when only five teams per league qualified. The Redskins again laid an egg in a big spot. They allowed the opening kickoff to be returned for a touchdown, turned the ball over five times and lost 35-8.
Washington needed to win three in a row and hope for a break. And it almost worked out for them. Rogers rumbled for 150 yards at Philly and they rallied from 12-3 down with two second half touchdowns. Another rally came against the mediocre Cincinnati Bengals. Trailing 24-7, Schroeder repeatedly found Monk, who caught 13 passes for 206 yards and the Redskins won 27-24.
The Redskins were 9-6, as were the Giants and 49ers. Two of them would make the playoffs, and with the tiebreakers as they were, the ‘Skins were the one standing without a chair. They needed to win at St. Louis and get one break.
On a Saturday doubleheader, the Giants won the early game and clinched their spot. The Redskins played the late game and Rogers took it over, racking up 206 yards on the ground and Washington won 27-16. Now they were in an odd spot–they needed to root for the Cowboys, who were in San Francisco.
Dallas had clinched the NFC East the prior week, and they led 16-10 at the half. But desperation mode kicked in for San Francisco and they dominated the second half, winning 31-16. The string of making the postseason under Joe Gibbs had ended in Washington.
It was the end of the era in a lot of ways, as Theismann and Riggins gave way to Schroeder and Rogers. One year later though, the Redskins would be a 12-win playoff team. And two years later, they would be hoisting another Super Bowl trophy.