The 1983 NFL season is remembered by history for the infusion of rookie quarterbacks, namely future Hall of Famers in Dan Marino, John Elway and Jim Kelly. But the season offered much more than that—there great storylines throughout the league unfolding…
For the second straight year, the Los Angeles Raiders and Washington Redskins were the #1 seeds in the playoffs. The Redskins were the defending Super Bowl champs, while the Raiders were out to avenge a playoff disappointment. The two teams played a dramatic regular season game in October, stayed on a collision course all year and ultimately met in Tampa Bay.
Washington was the most explosive offense in the NFL and produced both the Coach of the Year in Joe Gibbs and the MVP in Joe Theisman. They spent the regular season on a collision course with the Dallas Cowboys, as both teams raced for both the NFC East and the #1 seed. The Redskins won a head-to-head battle in the regular season’s penultimate week and took the momentum on to the Super Bowl. The Cowboys faded and lost the wild-card game.
The Raiders weren’t as dominant as the Redskins through the regular season, but Los Angeles peaked at the right time. They went through a mini-quarterback controversy, when Marc Wilson briefly took over for Jim Plunkett, but Plunkett got his job back and the Raiders pulled away from the AFC West.
A November trade with the New England Patriots proved to get the missing piece—the Raiders acquired disgruntled holdout, corner Mike Haynes. They paired Haynes, already a lockdown corner and future Hall of Famer, with standout corner Lester Hayes and the Raiders peaked and they blasted through the playoffs, including a 38-9 demolition of the Redskins in the Super Bowl behind a huge day from running back Marcus Allen.
Marino was the best of the rookie quarterbacks in 1983. While Elway made the playoffs, he was not always the starter in Denver, and in fact did not start the wild-card game that his team ultimately lost. Marino got the starting job in Miami five games into the season.
He inherited a team that had a strong defense, led by Defensive Player of the Year Doug Betters, and was fresh off a run to the Super Bowl in 1982. With a new passing dimension, they won 12 games, got the #2 seed and looked on a path to play the Raiders before an upset playoff loss.
Miami was upset in the playoffs by Seattle, one of two teams to break in outstanding running backs. Curt Warner, the third overall pick in the draft, was the focal point of a power offense that put the Seahawks in the playoffs for the first time and they reached the AFC Championship Game.
The other rookie running back was even better—Eric Dickerson went second overall and led the Los Angeles Rams, and new coach John Robinson, into the postseason where they upset Dallas.
Only the league’s best could stop Dickerson and Warner and it was the Redskins and Raiders who eliminated each from the playoffs. This great running back class deserves more attention from the history books than it’s gotten. Warner was a top back for several years before ripping up his knee and Dickerson was merely one of the greatest running backs to ever play the game.
Other stories from the 1983 NFL season include…
*The San Francisco 49ers rebounded off a losing season to reach the NFC Championship Game. There were no standouts in the running game or at receiver, yet Joe Montana put up big numbers. Even though I’m a hard-core Redskins fan, I think Montana probably should have been the MVP over Theisman, who had an offense that was locked and loaded with weapons everywhere.
*The Detroit Lions, led by a stingy defense and great back of their own in Billy Sims, won an NFC Central race that was jam-packed with mediocrity, going to the final week to get into the playoffs.
*The Pittsburgh Steelers made the playoffs with a new quarterback in Cliff Stoudt, but the old one—the legendary gunslinger Terry Bradshaw—made one last glorious appearance. With his team’s season in the brink of slipping away in December, Bradshaw came back from elbow surgery and led his team to an early lead against the New York Jets on national television. His elbow popped and he never played again, but his play for this short period of time put the Steelers over the hump and into the playoffs.
The series of articles below will take you through the high and low of each playoff team, every moment when it seemed a season might slip away to those bounce-back times that ultimately got them into the playoffs. Read how the season looked to the fans of its best teams while unfolding.