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 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.
The 1983 Washington Redskins were a defending Super Bowl champion that came into the season lacking in respect. The ‘Skins didn’t repeat as champions, but they produced an MVP, a high-powered offense, a ballhawking defense and NFC title and earned plenty of respect along the way.
Joe Theismann had the best year of his career at age 34. The quarterback threw for over 3,700 yards and posted a 29/11 TD-INT ratio, excellent in that era. Theismann won the MVP award and had plenty of support on offense. John Riggins, also 34-years-old, ran for over 1,300 yards. Joe Jacoby and Russ Grimm manned the left side of the line and joined Theismann and Riggins as 1st-team All-Pro.
Other Pro Bowlers included wide receiver Charlie Brown, a shifty little target that accumulated 1,225 yards, along with center Joe Bostic. With head coach Joe Gibbs orchestrating the attack, the Redskins averaged 34 ppg, the best in the NFL.
The defense wasn’t as dominant, but they were still pretty good and the absolutely excelled at taking the ball away. Free safety Mark Murphy made the Pro Bowl with nine interceptions. The secondary also benefitted from the addition of a rookie named Darrell Green, who would one day make the Hall of Fame.
Up front, the Redskins got a career year from 33-year-old defensive tackle Dave Butz, who recorded 11.5 sacks. With Butz coming up the middle, opposing offensive lines couldn’t key on the edge, where Dexter Manley came for 11 more sacks.
The defense finished 11th in the NFL in points allowed, but more important, they set an NFL record with a stunning (+43) turnover margin.
When the season began the Redskins were still seen as mostly a fluke team that had come out of nowhere to win the Super Bowl in the strike-shortened year of 1982. They were actually a home underdog in the first game of the season, on Monday Night against the Dallas Cowboys.
Washington spent the first half looking ready to prove everyone wrong. They built a 23-3 lead and Theismann, who would throw for 325 yards, was rolling. Then it all came apart in the second half–the biggest flaw of the defense over the season would be giving up the deep ball, and they allowed two long touchdown passes from Cowboy quarterback Danny White. Dallas scored four successive touchdowns and won 31-30.
The highlight of the night from the Redskins’ perspective was an electric moment when Green showcased his speed by coming from across the field to chase down Dallas’ fast running back Tony Dorsett, a play that lives on in Redskins lore today. But Washington was still searching for respect.
Oddsmakers made the defending champs a pick’em in Week 2 at the Philadelphia Eagles, a team that had not made the playoffs the prior year and would finish 5-11. The game was tied 10-10 after three quarters before a 14-yard touchdown run by Riggins broke the tie. He finished with 100 yards, while the defense held Philly to 35 yards rushing. Washington won 23-13.
Another sluggish start against a bad team followed at home against Kansas City. The Redskins played poorly in the first half by repeated red zone stops kept the halftime score at 12-0. In the second half, Theismann got going and found his tight ends, Clint Didier and Don Warren, for touchdown passes and Washington pulled away 27-12.
The ‘Skins played their best game of the season at Seattle, holding a good running back in Curt Warner to 34 yards rushing and Washington was in control throughout in a 27-17 win. The Seahawks would make the AFC Championship Game by season’s end. The other future participant in the AFC title game was the Los Angeles Raiders, and the more heralded opponent was coming to D.C. on October 2.
An offensive shootout was on tap. Theismann threw for 417 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. He repeatedly connected with Brown, who caught 11 balls for 180 yards and with running back Joe Washington, who caught five passes for 99 yards.
One of the passes to the shifty Washington was a swing pass that went a long way. Its success would later come back to haunt the Redskins.
For today, all was good. While Raider quarterback Jim Plunkett threw four touchdowns, including a 99-yarder, the Redskins also got four interceptions and preserved a 37-35 win. They followed it up by going to a decent St. Louis Cardinals’ team and winning 38-14 behind 115 yards from Riggins.
The Monday Night stage awaited again, this time at Lambeau Field. The Green Bay Packers had made the playoffs for the first time in a decade the prior year and were hungry to get back. They had a high-powered passing attack of their own and on this night, Theismann and counterpart Lynn Dickey put on a amazing display.
Theismann threw for 398 yards, spreading the ball among all his receivers. Dickey threw for 387. An early defensive touchdown scored by the Packers proved to be huge, and they eventually won the game 48-47 on a late 20-yard field goal.
The Redskins were 5-2, with both losses by one point. But from a standpoint of getting respect, they had come on their only forays to prime-time. What’s more, Dallas was 7-0. But the ‘Skins were about to really take off.
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Even with Riggins missing the following week’s home game with Detroit, the ‘Skins got 147 rush yards from Joe Washington, shut down the Lion running game and won 38-17. A Monday Night visit to San Diego–Gibbs’ first return to the place he built his reputation as an offensive coordinator–produced a 27-24 win, as the Redskins picked off backup quarterback Ed Luther six times.
The defense kept making plays at home against the Cardinals, with Vernon Dean and Mel Kaufmann each scoring defensive touchdowns, the team forcing five turnovers and winning 45-7. The following week on the road against the New York Giants, the ‘Skins held the Giants to 25 rush yards, led as much as 33-3 and won 33-17. Another blowout followed on November 20 at the Los Angeles Rams. This time it was interceptions–the ‘Skins picked four, two of them by linebacker Rich Milot in a 42-20 win where the lead had been as high as 42-6.
Washington finally got a tougher game when Philadelphia came to RFK Stadium. Theismann and counterpart Ron Jaworski each played well, but Theismann had a running game–Riggins went for 99 yards and the Redskins escaped 28-24. They got back into blowout mode in a home game with the Atlanta Falcons, with defensive back Anthony Washington picking off two passes, the team getting four picks and rolling to a 37-7 lead. The defense gave up its usual garbage-time points and the final score was 37-21.
When December 11 rolled around, the Redskins were 12-2. The Cowboys had lost a couple games by now and the NFC East race was tied. Washington was going to Dallas for the regular season’s penultimate game. The division title and the #1 seed in the NFC playoffs hung in the balance.
The Redskins and Cowboys traded momentum in the first half and Washington led 14-10. The big play came in the third quarter when Theismann threw a 43-yard touchdown pass to Monk. The avalanche started and Washington pulled away to a 31-10 win.
Butz got 2 1/2 sacks. Defensive back Greg Williams intercepted two passes. Theismann was both efficient and explosive, completing 11/17 passes and getting 203 yards out of them. And most of all, the running game dominated, with the ‘Skins holding a 166-33 edge.
Washington still wasn’t out of the woods. They would lose a tiebreaker, so they needed to win the next Saturday at home against the Giants. The Redskins looked like they were still in celebration mode for three quarters, trailing a three-win team 19-7. They finally got it together in the fourth quarter and took a 24-22 lead when Theismann threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to Didier. The final was 31-22. For the second straight year, the Washington Redskins were the NFC’s top playoff seed.
They looked every bit the part on New Year’s Day against the Rams, who had upset the Cowboys in the wild-card game. The Redskins had a 24-0 lead by the second quarter. Theismann hit Monk for a 40-yard touchdown pass. Washington scored on their first five possessions, and another Theismann to Monk scoring play made it 31-7.
Theismann finished 18/23 for 302 yards. Brown and Riggins had 100-yard days receiving and rushing respectively. And Green put the finishing touches on the 51-7 rout when he took an interception 72 yards to the house.
The San Francisco 49ers of Bill Walsh and Joe Montana were the last hurdle to returning to the Super Bowl. After a scoreless first quarter, Riggins ran for two touchdowns, part of a 123-yard performance. When Theismann connected with Brown for another touchdown and the Redskins took a 21-0 lead into the fourth quarter, it looked over.
Montana threw one touchdown pass, but Theismann led the Redskins back into field goal range, reaching the San Francisco 24. But Mark Moseley missed what would have been an insurance field goal. One play later, Montana threw a 76-yard touchdown pass and suddenly we had a game.
The 49ers got a third touchdown pass from Montana to tie it. The Redskins drove to the 49er 45-yard line. Theismann threw a pass to Monk that went over his head. A flag was thrown for interference. The 49ers went crazy, believing the ball to be uncatchable and they had a gripe. Another interference call, with the same dispute happened again during the drive, though not nearly as consequential. Moseley got another opportunity and he made it count, booting the field goal that sent the Redskins to the Super Bowl with a 24-21 win.
The controversy surrounding the end of the NFC Championship Game gave way to the anticipation of the Super Bowl with the Los Angeles Raiders. The Raiders were the clear best team in the AFC, just as the Redskins had been all year in the NFC. A reprise of their great early October meeting was anticipated.
What happened was a complete disaster for the Redskins. They allowed an early blocked punt and fell behind 7-0. They trailed 14-3 and had the ball deep in their own end in the closing moments of the first half.
The swing pass to Joe Washington, that had worked so well in October, now blew up in their face. Theismann didn’t see Raider linebacker Jack Squirek who swiped the ball and walked the few yards into the end zone. The game ended 38-9.
The ugliness of the ending couldn’t overshadow the majesty of the season though. The 1983 Washington Redskins were one of the most explosive offenses of all time. And in spite of their disastrous game in Tampa Bay to end the year, they were most certainly respected as a perennial contender by the time it was over.