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.