The 1983 Los Angeles Raiders were on a mission in their second season since relocating from Oakland. The franchise had won its second Super Bowl in a five-year period in 1980, but then slipped to 7-9 a year late. In the strike-shortened year of 1982, they were the AFC’s top playoff seed before being upset in the divisional round by the New York Jets. At a time when the Raiders were synonymous with excellence, rather than dysfunction, they were looking to get back on top.
Second-year running back and future Hall of Famer Marcus Allen was the focal point of the third-best offense in the NFL. Allen ran for over 1,000 yards and caught 68 passes for nearly 600 more. Tight end Todd Christensen was a 1st-team All-Pro, catching 92 passes over 1,200 yards. It was Allen and Christensen that mostly carried the passing game, with veteran Cliff Branch and young Malcolm Barnwell at the wideouts.
There was veteran talent on both sides of the trenches. Henry Lawrence, the 32-year-old offensive tackle, had a Pro Bowl season. So did 36-year-old defensive end Ted Hendricks. Another old-timer, 36-year-old Lyle Alzado came up with seven sacks. And there was a young buck on the defensive front named Howie Long. The 23-year-old record 13 sacks.
Talent continued to abound in the secondary, with Pro Bowl outside linebacker Rod Martin, former Defensive Player of the Year Lester Hayes having another Pro Bowl season of his own at corner, as did free safety Vann McElroy. It’s something of a mystery of why this defense only finished 13th in the NFL in point allowed, but a big November trade acquisition would have them much better by the time the playoffs started.
Quarterback was a sore spot for the first part of the season. Jim Plunkett was the 36-year-old incumbent who had been at the helm during the 1980 run and since. There was strong sentiment for Marc Wilson, as the young up-and-comer out of BYU, who then had the most cutting-edge offense in the college game. Plunkett was generally, though not always the man in charge.
The season opened at mediocre Cincinnati, and with Allen running for two touchdowns and the Raiders’ own rush defense playing well, they churned out a 20-10 win. A ho-hum win over a Houston Oiler team that was on its way to a dreadful season followed. Plunkett went 19/28 for 229 yards, but the Raiders only led 13-6 in the fourth quarter on the road before a touchdown pass to Christensen finally closed the deal.
A Monday Night game was up next with the Miami Dolphins, who had gone to the Super Bowl the previous year and joined the Raiders as the heavyweights of the AFC. Los Angeles put on a display for the national audience, with Allen rushing for 105 yards and building up a 27-0 lead. The game is a historical benchmark because Dan Marino came off the bench for the Dolphins and threw his first passes in a regular season game, but the Raiders were the easy 27-14 winner.
The winning rolled on against the playoff-bound Denver Broncos and their own rookie quarterback in John Elway. The Raiders completely shut down Elway in a 22-7 win, with the Broncos’ only points coming up on special teams, while L.A. forced four turnovers.
On the opening Sunday of October, the Raiders went on the road to play the Washington Redskins, the defending Super Bowl champion. It was a game worthy of being the Super Bowl preview that it was. The Raiders trailed 20-7 before Plunkett threw three straight touchdown passes and Pro Bowl punt returner Greg Pruitt took a punt 97 yards to the house.
But the defense could not hold the 35-20 lead. Redskin quarterback Joe Theisman, on his way to an MVP season, threw for 417 yards and rallied his team for 17 consecutive points to win 37-35. The Raiders had taken their first “L” of the season.
They may have dragged hungover into the first half of a home game with subpar Kansas City, trailing 17-7 at the half in a penalty-laden game. Allen took over with both his legs and his arm, running for one touchdown, throwing for another and leading a 21-20 win.
One week later in the old Seattle Kingdome was when the quarterback yo-yo started up. Plunkett played poorly, threw three interceptions and got yanked for Wilson. The rest of the team wasn’t a lot better—they lost five fumbles and fell behind 38-22 in spite of the defense playing a decent game against a Seahawks team that was playoff-bound. Wilson led a couple touchdown drives, but it was too late in a 38-36 loss—the NFL did not yet have the two-point conversion in 1983.
Wilson got the start in a Sunday night trip to Dallas, where the Cowboys were an excellent team off to a 7-0 start. The matchup was marquee enough to be in prime-time in an era when Sunday night games were not the norm.
The turnover problems didn’t abate—Los Angeles lost six in this game, but they dominated on the ground, piling up 219 yards. It wasn’t even Allen that was the primary hero. Frank Hawkins powered his way for 118 yards. But Marcus still did it with his arm, throwing yet another touchdown pass and Wilson looked pretty good too—26/49 for 318 yards and only one of the turnovers was on him. The Raiders won a wild 40-38 game.
A rematch with Seattle, who was in the AFC West prior to the 2002 realignment, brought Wilson down to earth. He threw four interceptions and the rush defense fell apart in a 34-21 loss. Wilson played poorly again a week later in Kansas City, starting 11/23 for 143 yards and an interception. Facing a 20-14 deficit, head coach Tom Flores went back to Plunkett, who threw a fourth-quarter touchdown pass. Martin added a Pick-6 to clinch the 28-20 win.
The Raiders were now 7-3 and atop the AFC West, with Seattle and Denver in close pursuit at 6-4. A home game with the Broncos started poorly, with a 10-0 deficit keyed by another turnover, this one a fumble that Denver recovered in the end zone. But Plunkett got heated up and hit Christensen eight times for 114 yards. The quarterback finished 26/42 for 252 yards and the 22-20 win on a late Chris Bahr field goal coupled with a Seattle loss, gave the Raiders some breathing room.
A development in New England proved to be the key to everything about to unfold for a team that right now looked pretty good, but not really Super Bowl-caliber. The Patriots had a great cornerback in Mike Haynes who had been sitting out the season in a contract dispute. The Raiders finally completed a trade to get Haynes. They would pair him up with Hayes, it would give the two lockdown corners and lift the defense to a whole new level.
It wasn’t immediately apparent in Buffalo the following week, where the defense blew a 24-3 lead that Plunkett’s 232 passing yards staked them to. Bahr bailed him team out for the second straight week with the winning kick in a 27-24 victory.
Los Angeles hosted the woeful New York Giants and rolled to an easy 27-12 win. On a short week they played a Thursday Night game in San Diego—another rarity in the NFL world of 1983—and clinched the division. After spotting the Chargers a 10-0 lead, Allen threw his third touchdown pass of the season, connecting with Christensen on a 43-yard play. Then Plunket t hit Christensen himself for another TD pass. Then Plunkett threw two more touchdowns and the final was 42-10.
The AFC West under wraps, Los Angeles could turn its attention to seeding. The structure of the team was three divisions per conference, and the playoff format had two wild-card teams. The Raiders were 11-3 and had at least the 2-seed and a home game in the divisional round assured. They were also a game up on the Dolphins for the top seed and had the tiebreaker on Miami thanks to the Monday Night win of September.
Los Angeles could have made things easy by beating the mediocre St. Louis Cardinals at home. But they gave away the football four times in a 34-24 loss, while Miami won and kept the race alive.
The season’s final week saw the Dolphins play and win on Friday night, so the Raiders took the field at home against the Chargers knowing they had to win. It was a bit of a slow start, leading only 13-7 at the half and 16-14 after three quarters against a team that was 6-9 coming in and playing without quarterback Dan Fouts.
But the Plunkett-to-Christensen combo was too productive, as they hooked up eight times for 136 yards. Plunkett was brilliant on the day, 21/30 for 332 yards and the fourth quarter was blown open, 30-14. For the second straight year, the Los Angeles Raiders had homefield advantage in the AFC playoffs. Now they needed to cash it in.
The playoffs started over New Year’s weekend and the Raiders were in the final team in action, hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers on late New Year’s Day afternoon. Los Angeles was a solid (-7) favorite over a team that had won ten games, but faded at the end of the season and now had Cliff Stoudt at quarterback, rather than Terry Bradshaw.
Pittsburgh drove inside the 1-yard line to start the game, but on fourth down opted for the field goal. The Raider defense went to work the next time the Steelers got the ball, as Hayes picked off a pass and took it 18 yards for the first L.A. touchdown. In the second quarter, Allen, who would gain 121 yards on 13 carries, added a touchdown and Bahr kicked a field goal for a 17-3 halftime lead.
This game was really all but over. Hayes and Haynes weren’t letting anyone get open and Alzado’s 2 ½ sacks led the team-wide effort of five. Allen galloped in from 49 yards out in the third quarter, the highlight of extending the lead to 31-3 and the game ended 38-10. Plunkett had been simply efficient, 21/34 for 232 yards and no interceptions.
Seattle had upset Miami the previous day, so for the second straight year there would be no Raiders-Dolphins AFC title game in spite of those teams holding the 1-2 seeding spots each year. Instead, Los Angeles would have to show their late-season surge meant they were a different team than the one that had lost to the Seahawks twice in three weeks.
Oddsmakers believed in the Raiders and they were a (-7) favorite over a team that was also playing some of its best football at year’s end. The Raiders were more than worthy of that confidence.
A mostly quiet first quarter ended with Los Angeles ahead 3-0. For the second straight week, the second quarter was takeover time. Hawkins muscled for two touchdowns, Bahr kicked a field goal and it was 20-0 by halftime.
The game never got closer. When Allen had won the Heisman Trophy at USC two years earlier, he had faced off with Seattle running back Curt Warner in the Fiesta Bowl, when the latter was at Penn State. Warner completely outplayed Allen that day, but the Raider back got his revenge today. Allen outrushed Warner 154-26 and Allen caught seven more passes for good measure.
Los Angeles’ lead got as high as 27-0 and they won 30-14. It was time for a rematch of one of the regular season’s best games anywhere, as they faced Washington.
The Redskins were 14-2 and a (-2) favorite to win a second straight Super Bowl. The Raiders struck quickly with Derrick Jensen blocking a punt and recovering it in the end zone for a quick 7-0 lead. The offense again started gradually, not scoring until a 12-yard Plunkett-to-Branch TD pass extended the lead to 14-0. The score was 14-3 when one of two plays for which this game is remembered went down.
Washington had the ball deep in their own end in the waning seconds of the first half. They tried a swing pass to shifty running back Joe Washington. In the regular season meeting, this play had worked for a big gain. This time, linebacker Jack Squirek sniffed it out. He stepped in front of the back, grabbed the football and waltzed into the end zone, the ball held aloft in triumph, in a pose that would appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
The Redskins were still the most explosive offense in the league and it wasn’t forgotten they had rallied from 15 down in the regular season game from a much later starting point than halftime. And they immediately drove for a touchdown in the third quarter, though a missed PAT kept the score at 21-9.
But this was a different Raider team and the Haynes-Hayes combo just made comebacks to hard. Allen, who finished the day with 191 yards, scored a TD from five yards out to make it 28-9. And then he, towards the end of the third quarter, he made the other play this game is remembered for.
The play was for Allen to sweep left, but everything was blocked. He completely reversed course, went back all the way right and somehow ended up running all alone down the middle of the field. The result was a 74-yard touchdown run and this Super Bowl was all but over.
Allen was named Super Bowl MVP and correctly so. The defense deserves a major shout-out for holding his counterpart, John Riggins, to 64 yards, and Theisman to 16-for-35 passing. Six different Raider defenders each recorded one sack, as they were free to attack from all angles and just let their great corners lock down the outside.
The playoff run of the 1983 Los Angeles Raiders was one of the most devastating in NFL history and whatever turmoil they went through on the way, but season’s end, they were a truly great team.