The 1989 Washington Redskins spent much of the season in the same doldrums that had caused them to post the first losing season of head coach Joe Gibbs’ tenure the year before. A strong finish wasn’t quite enough to make the playoffs, but it did serve as a launching point for a postseason return one year later.
Mark Rypien emerged as the regular starting quarterback and the strong-armed 27-year-old threw for over 3,700 yards as he made the Pro Bowl. His blind side was protected by an emerging young left tackle in Jim Lachey, a 1st-team All-Pro.
Established veterans populated the rest of the offense. The Hogs up front still had Russ Grimm, Jeff Bostic, Mark May and Joe Jacoby. The three wideouts, Art Monk, Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders were all 1,000-yard receivers.
The running game wasn’t up to usual Redskin standards, but the combo of Earnest Byner and Gerald Riggs each had their moments through the 1989 NFL season. The offense as a whole ranked 5th in the NFL in points scored.
Defensively, the ‘Skins were respectable, but not great, ranking 13th in the league. Charles Mann was a Pro Bowler at defensive end, with ten sacks and Dexter Manley got nine on the opposite flank. Future Hall of Famer Darrell Green was at corner and Wilbur Marshall led a pretty good linebacking corps.
Washington needed to be ready quickly, as they would host the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles to start the season. The Giants and Eagles had been the top two teams in the NFC East a year ago and beating them in front of the RFK Stadium crowd would send a clear message that the Redskins were back. What happened instead was absolute heartbreak in September.
The Redskins and Giants played a classic Monday Night Football game to start the year. Washington gave up a two long touchdown passes to Phil Simms and fell behind 14-0. But they were moving the football. Rypien threw for 349 yards, Riggs ran for 111 and when linebacker Monte Coleman picked off Simms in the fourth quarter and took it to the end zone, the Redskins had a 24-21 lead.
New York was able to get a game-tying field goal and on the final play, were lined up for a 52-yard try. Raul Allegre’s kick went through. As a Redskins fan then in college, I still vividly remember being in my dorm room feeling nothing short of emotionally drained. I was also drenched with sweat from the constant movement and shouting I was doing in the September heat of southern Indiana.
The Washington-Philly game was an early afternoon kick that went to most of the country, and I was able to watch that one. Much to my emotional detriment. The game started off well for the ‘Skins. Rypien hit Clark on an 80-yard touchdown strike and the early lead was 20-0. The Eagles gradually chipped their way back into the game and it was 30-28 in the fourth quarter.
Rypien connected with Monk on a 43-yard touchdown pass that appeared to ice the game. Even when Philadelphia pulled back to 37-35, the Redskins got deep into Eagle territory and were running out the clock. Then disaster struck.
Riggs had been brilliant all day long, rushing for 221 yards. He got the ball and ran into a pile. Suddenly an Eagle defender emerged with the football and almost went the distance. A quick touchdown won the game for the Birds, 42-37. Washington had played well enough to win each of their first two games, but all they had to show for it was an 0-2 record, both in the NFC East and both at home. The tiebreaker problem would bedevil them all the way to the finish.
A road divisional game awaited at lowly Dallas, struggling terribly in their first year under Jimmy Johnson’s rebuilding program. The Washington defense picked off four passes in a 30-7 rout. A tougher game followed at a pretty good New Orleans Saints team, as the ‘Skins could only get 92 yards on the ground. But the defense again forced four turnovers and a 16-14 win got them to .500.
Byner and Riggs combined to rush for 160 yards at home against the Phoenix Cardinals, then an NFC East opponent in the divisional alignment that existed prior to 2002. For the third straight game the defense produced four turnovers, with Green intercepting two passes. The 30-28 win had Washington back on track as they got set for another battle with the Giants.
It was a defensive brawl in an early kick at the Meadowlands. Rypien couldn’t get the ball downfield, but he avoided mistakes, with a passing line of 19/30 for 205 yards and no interceptions. The ‘Skins led 10-6 after three quarters, but Simms threw a pair of fourth quarter touchdown passes and the Redskins had another aggravating loss, 20-17, to the team that would ultimately win the NFC East.
Washington took out some frustration on a bad Tampa Bay Buccaneer team, holding the Bucs to one yard rushing and building a 29-7 lead before letting down in the fourth quarter and hanging on to a 32-28 win. They quickly gave that back with their worst performance of the year at the Los Angeles Raiders. Rypien threw three interceptions, including one returned for a score. The running game went for only 21 yards. The Raiders, a .500 team, led 37-10 in the third quarter before Washington got a couple garbage time touchdowns.
The record was 4-4 and the cameras of Sunday Night Football came to RFK for a game against the winless Cowboys. Washington needed to just get this win and then get ready to go to Philly for a big battle next week.
What followed was probably the most disastrous performance of the Gibbs Era. A Dallas running game led by Paul Palmer outrushed the proud Redskins 148-50. Doug Williams got the start at quarterback after Rypien’s poor showing, and while Williams played adequately–28/52 for 296 yards and two interceptions–the offense couldn’t find the end zone.
The 13-3 loss meant the team had now gone 11-15 since winning the Super Bowl following the 1987 season. That high point seemed decades away as the clock ticked down and the cameras caught Gibbs looking forlornly out at the field, being comforted by defensive coordinator Richie Petitbone.
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Just when the Redskins looked dead, they dug deep. The defense played a fantastic game at Philadelphia, forcing quarterback Randall Cunningham into a 17/39 for 177 yards performance. Williams was efficient, 14/21 for 161 yards and no mistakes. Washington ground out a 10-3 win.
The playoffs were still a longshot in a year when the NFC would end up stacked with seven teams on their way to 10-plus wins. They became a virtual impossibility when the Redskins lost 14-10 to the Denver Broncos on a windy Monday Night in RFK Stadium. Denver was on its way to the Super Bowl, but they were playing this game without John Elway. But the ‘Skins, unable to run or throw downfield, couldn’t capitalize.
Washington had to play for pride and hope they got some miraculous breaks. The latter didn’t materialize, but there was plenty of the former and it started in a home game against the Chicago Bears, another traditional NFC power having a down year. Rypien opened up and threw for 401 yards and four touchdowns. The game was tied 14-14 at half, but a pair of scoring passes to Monk broke it open and the final was 38-14.
The Redskins went to the desert and beat up Phoenix 29-10, behind a rushing advantage of 135-29 and a 59-yard interception return by rookie corner A.J. Johnson that loosened up a 17-10 game. Washington rallied at home to beat the six-win San Diego Chargers, trailing 14-0 before Rypien hit Sanders on a 45-yard TD strike. Rypien covered for the lack of a running game with 302 yards passing and a 26-21 victory.
Another rally against a bad team followed, this one at the Atlanta Falcons. The deficit was 27-10 at half, before Rypien nailed a 60-yard touchdown pass to Monk. It was the first of three consecutive TD passes for Rypien and the Redskins won 31-30.
The events of that week’s games officially eliminated Washington from the playoffs, but they were still playing for a 10-win season in Seattle on the season’s last Saturday afternoon. A dominating performance sent the team into the offseason a good note. The rushing advantage was 137-25, the defense forced four turnovers and Rypien was a sharp 22/31 for 290 yards. The 29-0 shutout ended the year at 10-6.
It was a year normally good enough to make the playoffs, but the Redskins would join the Green Bay Packers as 10-win teams left home. Washington would make it to the postseason the following year though, and in 1991 they produced one of the great teams of all time in winning Gibbs’ third Super Bowl.