The 1982 NFL season was the strangest in the league’s history. A player’s strike after two games interrupted the season and it didn’t resume until November. When the league picked up on the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving, there was only time for a nine-game schedule. A decision was made to abolish divisional distinctions, expand the playoffs and just seed each conference 1 thru 8.
The result was a first round of the postseason that had a March Madness feel to it, with four games on both Saturday and Sunday, and jammed into what were then two timeslots (prime-time playoff games were still a ways off into the future).
This blog compilation focuses on the seasons of the league’s six most consequential teams, with a game-by-game narrative of each one. Each article exists individually on TheSportsNotebook.com and has been modestly edited to eliminate obvious redundancies. Playoff games are told in detail from the perspective of the team that won and treated as an epilogue for the team that lost.
You’ll read about the following…
*How the Washington Redskins, in the second year under Joe Gibbs, won the franchise’s first Super Bowl behind the running of big John Riggins.
*The Miami Dolphins made it to a Super Bowl behind a stingy defense, but were held back by offensive shortcomings that led them to draft Dan Marino the following spring.
*The Dallas Cowboys made the NFC Championship Game for a third straight year, but another loss began the gradual descent of the Tom Landry era.
*The New York Jets stepped up and made an AFC Championship Game, with a good defense and some great play from running back Freeman McNeil.
*The Raiders moved to Los Angeles and added two fantastic rookies in Marcus Allen and Howie Long. They rolled to a 1-seed in the AFC before suffering an upset to the Jets.
*The Green Bay Packers made the playoffs for the only time in the nine-year coaching tenure of Bart Starr behind an aggressive passing game led by quarterback Lynn Dickey and talented receivers in James Lofton and John Jefferson.
The NFL season of 1982 was overshadowed by labor difficulties and after two games, the season was temporarily shut down with a players’ strike. Play would not resume until November 21 with plans for a truncated nine-game schedule and divisional distinctions abandoned for playoff purposes. Nothing—not the strike, not broken momentum, not anyone in the NFL could stop the 1982 Washington Redskins, as they won the franchise’s first Super Bowl.
The Redskins had finished 1981 strong, winning eight of their last 11 after an 0-5 start. Head coach Joe Gibbs was now in his second year and there was a lot of young talent to move forward with, particularly up front.
The offensive line that would become known as “The Hogs” was in its infancy. Joe Bostic, Russ Grimm, Joe Jacoby and Mark May were all 24 or younger. The old man of the group was right tackle George Starke, at 34.
On the defensive side of the line of scrimmage, another 24-year-old was Dexter Manley, who recorded 6 1/2 sacks. Another up-and-coming talent, away from the trenches was rookie wide receiver Charlie Brown, who made the Pro Bowl.
Gibbs also had good veterans. Joe Theismann had a Pro Bowl season at quarterback, throwing for over 2,000 yards in a nine-game schedule. John Riggins keyed the running game. Dave Butz held the middle of the defensive front.
On balance though, the roster was not seen as loaded with talent. The only player to make the Pro Bowl besides Theismann and Brown was strong safety Tony Peters. Respect was hard to come by for the ‘Skins .
Washington opened the season at Philadelphia. The Eagles were two years removed from reaching the Super Bowl and had gone to the playoffs in 1981. The ‘Skins quickly fell behind 10-0 and trailed 27-14 going into the fourth quarter. Then Theismann hit Brown with a 78-yard touchdown pass and the magic of 1982 was underway.
It was a passing display on both sides. Theismann went 28/39 for 382 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Philly’s Ron Jaworski was 27/38 for 371 yards, two touchdowns and no picks. The two QBs that would each become ESPN commentators with a high regard for themselves staged a big-time duel.
Theismann won it with help from his great kicker, Mark Moseley, who booted a 48-yard field goal to tie the game 34-34 and then won it with a 26-yarder in overtime. The following week in Tampa, it was the running game that delivered. Riggins ran for 136 yards in a 21-13 win over the Buccaneers, who had made the playoffs in ’81 and would do so again in 1982.
Then the strike hit. Play would not resume until November 21, and when it did, the playoff format was completely altered. Divisional distinctions were abolished. Teams would just play out the remainder of the schedules, seven more games, and then each conference would be seeded 1 thru 8, what remains the largest postseason bracket in NFL history.
Washington visited the mediocre New York Giants on their first game back and picked up where they left off. Theismann threw a 39-yard touchdown pass to Brown, the ‘Skins opened up a 21-0 lead and ultimately won 27-17.
On November 28, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, it was time for the home opener at RFK Stadium. The Eagles were making the return visit and this time the pass defenses were ready and conditions were wet. Cornerback Jeris White intercepted two passes, and the team as a whole picked off Jaworski five times. Washington won it 13-9 and were rewarded by being on the cover of Sports Illustrated with a “Hey, Look Who’s 4-0” headline on the magazine article.
The tone of the headline showed how much the Redskins had to prove if they were going to get respect and the best way to do it was to beat the Dallas Cowboys, who came into RFK for a late Sunday afternoon national TV appearance. But Washington was unable to run the ball, Theismann threw three interceptions and they lost 24-10. It appeared there was still a gap between them and the league’s elite.
WATCH THESPORTSNOTEBOOK’S VIDEO DISCUSSION OF THE JOE GIBBS ERA WITH THE REDSKINS
But the team quickly got back on track and with a lot of help from Moseley, won their final four games. In a road game at the St. Louis Cardinals, the Redskins offense got inside the red zone four times, never found the end zone, but four Moseley field goals and great defense produced a 12-7 win.
The kicker came up even bigger the following week at home against the Giants. On a day when Theismann played poorly, with four interceptions, the defense kept the team in the game, trailing 14-9. Moseley drilled two fourth-quarter field goals, the last one a 42-yarder with nine seconds left to win 15-14.
In a decision that underscored Moseley’s clutch performances, his record 21 consecutive field goals made and the strange nature of the 1982 NFL season, the kicker was voted the MVP award. Suffice it to say, no kicker since has been so honored.
Washington went to New Orleans for the season’s penultimate game, tied with Dallas atop the conference standings, but losing the tiebreaker battle. Theismann threw a 57-yard touchdown pass to Brown to get the ball rolling against the Saints. It was part of a 14/23 for 264 yards performance for Theismann, and Brown caught three more passes, ultimately getting to 156 receiving yards.
The 27-10 win combined with more good news from Big D–the Cowboys had lost at home to the Eagles and the Redskins controlled their fate for the #1 seed in the NFC playoffs. They took care of business with an efficient 28-0 home win over St. Louis (who was a division rival prior to the realignment of 2002), scoring a touchdown in each quarter.
Postseason football was in D.C. for the first time since 1976. The Redskins opened up with the #8 seed Detroit Lions. White put the ‘Skins on top early by intercepting an Eric Hipple pass and taking it 77 yards to the house.
It was a vivid example of the role defense would play for the Redskins in this postseason. While Theismann engineered an efficient passing game, and the receivers–starting with Brown and Alvin Garrett–were being called “The Fun Bunch”, for their choreographed end zone celebrations, and Riggins and the newly nicknamed Hogs were getting attention, the defense continually shut down top running backs and made big plays. The early interception was one of two White picks in this game, Lion running back Billy Sims was held to 19 yards and the final score was 31-7.
Minnesota was next up and the ‘Skins offense struck quickly. A short TD pass from Theismann to tight end Don Warren along with a short run by Riggins made it 14-0. After the teams traded touchdowns in the second quarter, the scoring was done. Riggins rolled up 185 yards, while the Vikings had no ground game to speak of.
The Cowboys won two games on the other half of the bracket and came to RFK Stadium for the NFC Championship Game, hungry to show who was still boss in this rivalry.
Dallas got an early field goal, but Theismann quickly countered with a touchdown pass to little Charlie Brown, Riggins plunged over from a yard out and it was 14-3 at half. Not only that, but Washington had knocked Dallas starting quarterback Danny White out of the game and the visitors would turn to Gary Hogeboom for a rally.
Hogeboom came closer than many might have thought. He threw two touchdown passes in the third quarter, but they were sandwiched around another scoring run by Riggins, so the ‘Skins still led 21-17. A field goal stretched the lead to seven. Dallas got the ball back deep in its own territory in the fourth quarter with a chance to go the distance and tie it up.
Defensive end Dexter Manley and defensive tackle Daryl Grant bore down on Hogeboom, whose pass was tipped up in the air. It landed in the hands of Grant who took a few short steps to the end zone. His dramatic spike got the team another Sports Illustrated cover, this one saying “Wham! Bam! It’s the Redskins!”
The game was all but over and it ended 31-17. Washington had their first trip to the Super Bowl since 1972 when they had the misfortune to run into the undefeated Miami Dolphins.
Ironically the Dolphins were waiting again this time, although they weren’t quite as fearsome. The running game was suspect and David Woodley didn’t scare at anyone at quarterback. The Fish did play defense though and veteran coach Don Shula was still at the controls, as he’d been back in ’72.
When Woodley threw an out pattern to Jimmy Cefalo who turned it into a 76-yard touchdown pass Miami had the early lead. After the teams swapped field goals and Theismann found another one of his diminutive wide receivers, Alvin Garrett for a tying touchdown, Miami’s Fulton Walker returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown.
If you’re going to give up special teams touchdowns and let simple short passes turn into long scores and still win a football game, you better find ways to dominate everywhere else and that’s what Washington did. The defense, having shut down Sims and Dallas’ Tony Dorsett, was overwhelming a mediocre Miami running game. Woodley would complete only four passes for the entire game.
In the meantime, Riggins and the Hogs were controlling the game up front. Miami still clung to a 17-13 lead early in the fourth quarter when the play for which this game is remembered finally swung the tide.
Washington faced 4th-and-1 on the Miami 43-yard line. Gibbs decided to go for it. Everyone knew the ball was going to Riggins. He powered off left tackle, aqua and orange jerseys hanging all over him. Riggins broke through the pile and pulled away, outrunning the rest of the Miami defense to the end zone.
With the ‘Skins defense in lockdown mode a 20-17 lead seemed insurmountable, but when the Washington offense got the ball back, Theismann led them down the field and on third and goal hit Brown in the corner of the end zone for the score that sealed the deal. The 1982 Washington Redskins had given their crazed fan base its first Super Bowl title.
It was easy in the moment for outside observers to think the 1982 title run was a fluke, a byproduct of an entire season that was off-kilter. Gibbs and his team proved everyone wrong. It turned out, the winning was just getting started.
Major league baseball produced some of the best moments in the year of 1982 sports, but it wasn’t from a team en route to a title. The St. Louis Cardinals were the team that won the 1982 World Series, but with due apologies to the great baseball fans of St. Louis (and perhaps giving away that I grew up in Milwaukee in the early 1980s), it was the 1982 Milwaukee Brewers that produced the most lasting memories of a baseball season that is underappreciated by history.
Milwaukee staged a winner-take-all battle with the Baltimore Orioles for the old AL East title on the final day of the season, only the second time in history that such a game has ever been played within the natural schedule (not counting one-game playoffs). The Brewers then became the first team to lose the first two games of what was then a best-of-five League Championship Series round, and rally to win three in a row. It was always done with a flair for the dramatic.
Alas, the Brewers’ dream season came to an end in an excellent seven-game World Series against the Cardinals, two teams that have since become strong division rivals with Milwaukee’s move to the National League sixteen years later. St. Louis won their first World Series title in fifteen years. Milwaukee made the first (and to this date only) Fall Classic in their history and authored a season to remember. Read more about the 1982 Milwaukee Brewers Read more about the 1982 St. Louis Cardinals
Redemption was a key theme in the NBA, the Final Four and New Year’s Day in college football. The Philadelphia 76ers had blown a 3-1 series lead to the Boston Celtics one year earlier, and were on the verge of doing it again before they won a Game 7 in the Garden. The Sixers wouldn’t get a championship though—Magic Johnson, after being injured much of 1981 and blamed for getting head coach Paul Westhead fired early in this season, turned around and won the Finals with Pat Riley.
North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith had made six trips to the Final Four, but never won the ultimate prize. He was within one possession of coming up empty a seventh time, but the Tar Heels survived a thriller against Georgetown and won Smith’s first title.
UNC’s win took place in the New Orleans Superdome and ten months later, Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was at this same locale for the Sugar Bowl. Paterno was after his own first national title, having been denied by the voters with unbeaten teams in 1968, 1969 and 1973, and denied at the goal line in an epic Sugar Bowl clash with Alabama in 1978. This time, against Georgia, Paterno got it done and finally got that elusive #1 ranking. Read more about the 1982 NBA playoffs Read more about 1982 North Carolina basketball Read more about 1982 Penn State football
The best teams prevailed in both the NFL and the NHL, though each had quite different pedigrees when the postseason began. The Washington Redskins had never won a Super Bowl and hadn’t made the playoffs since 1976. With head coach Joe Gibbs in his second year, the Redskins put it all together.
In a season marred by a strike that wiped out seven games, Washington went 8-1 and earned the top seed in an expanded 16-team playoff format. They won the first two playoff games decisively, won a good NFC Championship Game with the Dallas Cowboys and then pulled away from the Miami Dolphins in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, as the power running of John Riggins made the difference.
The New York Islanders were a dynasty, having already won two straight Stanley Cups and then posting the best record in the NHL for the 1982 season. But the Isles were pushed to the brink in the first round and needed a miracle rally to survive a monumental upset. From that point forward, New York took over and made it three Cups in a row. 1982 Washington Redskins 1982 New York Islanders