The 1988 Washington Redskins were the most disappointing team of the Joe Gibbs era. One year after winning their second Super Bowl, the Redskins fell to 7-9, the only losing season in Gibbs’ first term as head coach (1981-92).
Defense was the biggest reason for the failure, as Washington ranked just 26th in the NFL in points allowed. This was in spite of a big free agent investment in explosive outside linebacker Wilbur Marshall. But there was significant decline from defensive end Dexter Manley tackle Dave Butz was an aging 38, and even the reliable Hall of Fame corner Darrell Green didn’t make the Pro Bowl. The only Redskin on defense that did have a Pro Bowl year was end Charles Mann, and even that came as his production slipped to just 5 1/2 sacks.
The running game, long the staple of success under Gibbs, lacked a big-time runner. Timmy Smith had been a Super Bowl hero, but he proved to be a one-game wonder. No one else emerged, in part because Hall of Fame left guard Russ Grimm missed most of the year with injuries. The only Pro Bowler on offense was right guard Mark May, the current ESPN college football studio analyst.
Doug Williams had made history the previous January as the first African-American quarterback to win the Super Bowl. But Williams had only become the starter very late in the 1987 season and his 1988 year was up-and-down, with the quarterback position in flux between him and Mark Rypien. The decline in production was noticeable in the numbers of wide receivers Art Monk and Gary Clark, who both ended up under 1,000 yards.
The season opened on Monday Night in the Meadowlands against the New York Giants, coming off a non-playoff year, but just two seasons removed from a Super Bowl title of their own. The Redskins quickly got on the board with two field goals and then Williams hit speedy Ricky Sanders on 29-yard touchdown pass. With a 13-0 lead, all looked well in the world of the defending champs.
Then New York tied the game up 13-13 and won it in the second half with touchdowns off a blocked punt and a fumble return. Washington lost 27-13. They barely survived a bad Pittsburgh Steelers team in Week 2, as Williams threw for 430 yards to overcome the lack of a running game. Rookie kicker Chip Lohmiller won it with a field goal at the gun, 30-29.
Smith delivered one of his few notable performances of the year the following week in a key home game against the Philadelphia Eagles. He ran for 107 yards, and along with Jamie Morris, helped put the ‘Skins up 14-0 early and they held on 17-10. But just when you thought things were back on track, Washington lost at the mediocre Phoenix Cardinals, in their first year after moving from St. Louis. Rypien started and threw for over 300 yards, but the Redskins were outrushed 185-53 and lost 30-21.
The Giants made their return visit to RFK Stadium and the Redskins played poorly, falling behind 24-9 before Rypien found Sanders with a pair of fourth quarter touchdowns to close the gap to one point (there was no two-point conversion at this time). But it wasn’t enough and a 24-23 loss dropped Washington under .500.
Rypien got churning the next two weeks as the Redskins scored 68 points combined in wins at lowly Dallas and at home against Phoenix. They also found a weapon in Kelvin Bryant, a talented back who could both run and catch the ball. He became a prime threat, the deep passing game opened up and Washington coasted to a pair of easy wins.
The Redskins went to play Green Bay at old County Stadium in Milwaukee where the Packers used to play three home games a year. Green Bay was a bad team and Washington played down to their level. Only Bryant who ran for 140 yards and caught nine more passes saved them with a 20-17 win.
The ‘Skins also got some help from their former kicker, Max Zendejas. The previous year, Zendejas missed five extra points in Washington, three of which had major impact on games. This year he was in Green Bay and he shanked a short field goal at the end that would have tied it.
There was no denying the poor play though and it came home to roost at the playoff-bound Houston Oilers. Washington turned it over six times in a 41-17 Sunday Night loss.
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Williams, now back in the lineup then led one of the season’s high moments, a 27-24 win over a 10-win New Orleans Saints team. The game went back-and-forth and ten unanswered fourth quarter points preserved the win. Williams went 20/28 for 299 yards. But even this win came at a big price. Bryant was injured, and not only lost for the year, but his effective career was ended.
Bryant’s short-lived career was, at the time, the biggest “what might have been” in the modern era of Washington Redskins history–until Robert Griffin III blew past him for the top spot.
The 1988 Redskins were still in contention at 6-4, but in an age when they were only five teams per conference in the playoffs, and the NFC was top-heavy, the ‘Skins were hanging by a thread. The Chicago Bears, on their way to the top seed in the conference were coming to town. And the results were ugly. Rypien was back in the lineup and threw four interceptions. Williams came on in relief and threw one more. The running attack garnered only 28 yards in an ugly 34-14 loss.
Washington’s last realistic stand had to come on Monday Night Football in San Francisco, where the 49ers were also struggling at 6-5. It was debatable if even one of these 1980s powers would make the playoffs and the loser was certainly going to be in serious trouble.
Williams got the start and didn’t play badly, going 27/41 for 271 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. But there was again no running game. The special teams failed, giving up a 95-yard punt return for a touchdown. The result was a 37-21 loss. The 49ers used the win as a springboard and won the Super Bowl. The Redskins were realistically finished.
Any lingering hopes were ended with a 17-13 loss to the playoff-bound Cleveland Browns, as future Redskin back Earnest Byner beat them with a 29-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Washington was now 6-7 and they were playing for pride.
The following week in Philadelphia was the season’s best moment. The Eagles were fighting the Giants for the NFC East title, a fight they would eventually win. But not because of what happened on December 4 at old Veterans Stadium.
Williams came on in relief of Rypien and went 20/32 for 206 yards. The ‘Skins trailed 19-10 after three quarters, but rallied to win 20-19 on Lohmiller’s 44-yard field goal on the final play. The normally stoic Gibbs leapt for joy on the sidelines, showing how badly this team needed a good win of any kind.
But it was the last happy moment of the season. The running game completely collapsed in an embarrassing 24-17 loss home loss to Dallas, a 3-13 team in Tom Landry’s final season as head coach.
The Redskins played hard and played well in the finale at Cincinnati the following Saturday afternoon. They nearly denied the Bengals the top seed in the AFC, but a key fourth-down stop in the final quarter set the stage for an all-to-appropriate finish. Lohmiller missed a chip-shot field goal off the upright on the final play of regulation with the game tied 17-17. Cincinnati won in overtime.
Washington wouldn’t stay down forever. They rebounded to a 10-win season in 1989, though it wasn’t enough to get them back in the playoffs. But they did return to postseason play in 1990 and won one more Super Bowl in 1991.