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 on a week-to-week basis and other impact rookies. TheSportsNotebook.com has produced a blog compilation that tells the story of the season through the eyes of its most successful teams.
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 package, available for download on Amazon, consists of ten articles published individually on TheSportsNotebook.com and edited for the compilation. You’ll see every 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 the compilation and enjoy the story of the 1983 NFL season through how it looked to the fans of its best teams while unfolding.
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.
The Washington Redskins were the defending champs and had a powerful offense. Joe Theisman had the best year of his career at age 34 and won the MVP award. John Riggins, also 34, rushed for over 1300 yards and 24 touchdowns. Three offensive linemen, “The Hogs” made the Pro Bowl. The defense wasn’t great—Washington lost its only two games by scores of 31-30 and 48-47, but those two points were all that separated them from a perfect season.
The ‘Skins won a key Week 15 game at Dallas by a 31-10 count to seal the NFC East and #1 seed. Washington then thrashed the Los Angeles Rams 51-7 to start the playoffs, and jumped out to a 21-0 lead on the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. The 49ers rallied to tie it 21-21, but the ‘Skins got the benefit of a couple questionable pass interference calls to get the game-winning field goal.
The Los Angeles Raiders rolled to a 12-4 record, and had five defensive starters in the Pro Bowl. Howie Long recorded 13 sacks, while Lester Hayes and Mike Haynes formed the best cornerback duo in the league. Marcus Allen was an electric talent at running back and veteran quarterback Jim Plunkett had shown he had what it took to win a Super Bowl, having led the Raiders to the Lombardi Trophy in 1980.
Los Angeles coasted to the AFC West title and then easily rolled the Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks to reach the Super Bowl.
Further adding to the drama of Redskins-Raiders was that it was the matchup that probably should have taken place the prior year. Los Angeles had been the #1 seed in the AFC, but suffered a big upset loss in the second round of the AFC playoffs to the New York Jets. Thus, these were the teams that had each been the #1 seed in their respective conference for two straight years, and their one head-to-head meeting in 1983 had been a thrilling 37-35 Washington win.
So yes, by rights, the Redskins-Raiders Super Bowl, should have been a battle royal. Only, like most Super Bowls through the 1980s, especially the Dark Ages of 1983-87, it didn’t work out that way.
The Raiders blocked a punt for an early touchdown. Most of the first half stayed competitive, but the fact the Raiders led 14-3 seemed to be another indication that when defense meets offense, always bet the defense. Then disaster struck for Washington.
With just seconds remaining in the first half and the Redskins deep in their own end, they tried an ill-advised screen pass.
Theisman didn’t see linebacker Jack Squirek who stepped in, grabbed the ball and walked into the end zone.
In retrospect, it seems as though the game might as well have ended right there, but reality was different. The Redskins found the end zone early in the third quarter and even though another special teams mishap cost them the extra point, it was still a game at 21-9.
But the lesson that you can’t come from behind unless you first stop the opponent was another one learned anew today. Raider running back Marcus Allen was having a huge day, rushing for 191 yards. After Los Angeles had pushed out to a 28-9 lead, Allen made one of the great plays of Super Bowl history. Allen swept to the left, ran into traffic, reversed course, found a hole on the opposite side of the field and took off on a spectacular 74-yard run for the touchdown that eliminated any residual doubt about who would win.
Allen was named MVP, and the Raiders 38-9 win gave them their third Super Bowl championship. The Los Angeles Raiders were an organization on top of the world. It seems hard to believe that not only have they not won it all since, they’ve only even played in one other Super Bowl, that being in 2002. In 1983, they turned a hyped matchup into rubble.
We can start with the January 1984 Orange Bowl, where Nebraska came in heavily favored and ready to solidify its place as not just national champion, but one of the all-time great teams. Miami was still an up-and-coming program at this point in their history, and the Hurricanes pulled a stunning 31-30 upset.
The Final Four had been no less dramatic. Jim Valvano’s N.C. State team had pulled out multiple miracle finishes to get to the national championship game, and Valvano pulled one more rabbit out of his hat in upsetting heavily favored Houston 54-52 to steal a title of his own.
Miami’s victory became an obvious historical benchmark in the sea change of college football toward the state of Florida. The sleeping giant, that had traditionally watched other schools raid them for recruits, had started keeping players at home. Miami, along with Florida State and Florida would transform the landscape of the sport.
N.C. State’s upset was the fulfillment of nine years of the NCAA Tournament being a time for favorites to win, to being “March Madness.” Recent seasons had produced surprise Final Four teams and even entire regionals torn apart by upsets. But the ultimate national champion had always been a highly seeded team—until 1983. Read more about the 1984 Orange Bowl Read more about 1983 N.C. State basketball
College football and college basketball weren’t done—each had compelling subplots to their dramatic main narratives. On the football side, the Texas Longhorns produced a defense that was at least as good as Nebraska’s offense and if this had happened in 1994 or later, the two teams would have met in a national championship battle.
They didn’t, and Texas went to the Cotton Bowl to play Georgia. Something often forgotten about Miami’s rise is that if Texas doesn’t fumble a punt late in the fourth quarter, and turn a 9-3 lead into a crushing 10-9 loss, the Hurricane upset becomes noteworthy in that it gives unbeaten UT a national title.
Also forgotten in the 1983 narrative is that Auburn got robbed. The Tigers went 10-1, as did Miami, and won their bowl game as did Miami. While the Hurricanes’ victory was considerably more dramatic and against a much better opponent (Auburn beat Big Ten runner-up Michigan in the Sugar Bowl), Auburn had played eight bowl teams to Miami’s one during the regular season. There was no comparison in the body of work and the Tigers should have been voted national champions.
The NCAA Tournament’s Mideast Regional didn’t produce the national champ or even a finalist, but when you combine the quality of the games, the fierceness of the rivals and the locale, it made it arguably the best regional ever, at least the Sweet 16 and regional final rounds.
Louisville, Kentucky, Indiana and Arkansas all converged on Knoxville. That’s a lot of tradition, a lot of passion and a lot of fans in reasonable travel distance of the site. All three games were good, and Louisville-Kentucky in the final was a great overtime battle that had even more juice, given that UK refused to play Louisville at this time. Read more about the 1983 Mideast Regional (and other top regionals in NCAA Tournament lore)
The Stanley Cup Finals and the Super Bowl each offered compelling matchups between teams that had been circling each other.
In hockey, the New York Islanders had won three straight Stanley Cups, while the Edmonton Oilers of Wayne Gretzky were steadily rising, but a playoff upset the prior year kept them from their showdown with the Isles.
In the NFL, the Washington Redskins and Los Angeles Raiders were each the #1 seeds in their respective conferences in 1982, but it was the Raiders who were upset in the playoffs. In 1983, both teams again got the 1-seeds, and this time they both cashed it in.
Neither championship event lived up to the drama—the Islanders won in a sweep, while the Raiders won 38-9.
The NFL’s 1983 rookie quarterback class–notably John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly–is correctly remembered as the greatest QB class in history. What’s less remembered is that one team, with an undrafted quarterback and built around the running game upended two of these quarterbacks in the postseason. The Seattle Seahaws beat Elway and Marino in succession before losing to the Raiders in the AFC Championship Game. Read more about the 1983 Stanley Cup Finals Read more about the Redskins-Raiders Super Bowl Read more about the 1983 Seattle Seahawks
And finally, two veteran teams that had been knocking on the championship door finally kicked the door down in 1983.
The Philadelphia 76ers had lost the NBA Finals in 1977, 1980 and 1982, and dropped a crushing Eastern Conference Finals in 1981. The Baltimore Orioles lost a heartbreaking World Series in 1979, and tough pennant races in both 1980 and 1982. Both the 76ers and Orioles got their due in 1983. 1983 Philadelphia 76ers 1983 Baltimore Orioles