The 1986 Washington Redskins were a team in transition. The ’85 team missed the playoffs, ending a three-year run atop the NFC East and by the end of that year the ‘Skins had a new quarterback and new featured running back. The transition was a resounding success–Washington returned to the postseason in 1986 and had success when they got there.
Jay Schroeder had taken over at quarterback in the latter stages of 1985, after Joe Theismann’s career was ended by a horrific leg injury. Candor requires one to point out that Theismann had been playing poorly prior to the injury and was 36-years-old, so it’s possible that ’86 would have been Schroeder’s year anyway.
The same was true at running back. The great John Riggins, the same age as Theismann, had retired, but by the end of 1985 Riggins’ back problems meant that George Rogers was the main man in the backfield and he was playing well. Rogers would have surely opened the 1986 season as the featured back regardless of what Riggins had done. Injuries had given both Schroeder and Rogers a running start on 1986.
And both took full advantage of their opportunity. Schroeder threw for 4,100 yards and was a Pro Bowler. Rogers rushed for over 1,200 yards behind a line that included a Pro Bowl left side, with tackle Joe Jacoby and guard Russ Grimm. Schroeder had two solid receivers in Gary Clark and Art Monk, both of whom went over 1,000 yards and were Pro Bowl-bound. The offense, after ranking just 20th in points scored in 1985, shot up to ninth in 1986.
Washington’s defense was also ninth-best in the NFL. The D was keyed by pressure from the edge, with ends Dexter Manley and Charles Mann collapsing pockets. Manley recorded 18.5 sacks and was 1st-team All-Pro, while Mann got to the quarterback ten times. And if an opposing QB wanted to get rid of the football quickly, there was a lockdown corner in the secondary to prevent that–future Hall of Famer corner Darrell Green had a Pro Bowl year of his own.
The Redskins opened the season at home against a bad Philadelphia Eagles team, but one that was still drawing great interest due to first-year head coach Buddy Ryan, the architect of the devastating Chicago Bears’ defense that won the Super Bowl in 1985. Ryan would eventually win in Philadelphia, but not this year and not this day. Rogers keyed a ground game that piled up 159 yards and the Redskins blew open a close game to win 41-14.
A defensive battle followed against the Los Angeles Raiders, who had fallen into mediocrity since they beat up on the Redskins in the Super Bowl following the 1983 season. Washington’s running game staggered, but Schroeder was able to complete 12/19 for 203 yards and finally led a touchdown drive in the fourth quarter of a 10-6 win at home
Schroeder was erratic at San Diego, completing only 16/36, but he made his completions count. They went for 341 yards, almost exclusively to Monk and Clark and the Redskins turned a 21-3 second quarter deficit into a 30-28 win. The winning streak continued at home against Seattle, with Rogers running for 115 yards and the ‘Skins getting a 19-14 win over a team that would win ten games.
The calendar flipped into October and Rogers kept rumbling, going for 110 yards in a 14-6 win down in New Orleans. Then the win streak came to a crashing halt in Dallas, not coincidentally because the rushing attack failed. The ‘Skins generated just 71 yards on the ground and were blown out by the Cowboys 30-6.
Washington came home to host a bad St. Louis Cardinals team and led 28-7. But when Neil Lomax was quarterbacking the Cardinals, they always found a way to rally against the Redskins. The game got close. But the Redskins, as usual, managed to find a way to hold Lomax off at the end. They won 28-21 with Rogers enjoying another 100-plus yard game.
The stage was set for a Monday Night visit to the New York Giants, who were poised for a breakthrough year under head coach Bill Parcells. The same night was Game 7 of the World Series, also in New York, as the Mets would celebrate over the Red Sox. This was at a time when the seventh game of a World Series could still outdraw an NFL game, even a big one, so the Redskins-Giants was on the backburner.
But the game was a good one. It was tied 20-20 in the fourth quarter when New York finally got a touchdown run from Joe Morris to win it. The difference was that Washington was unable to run the football, getting only 32 yards, while the Giants piled up 202.
The Redskins had now lost two of three, and to the two teams they would fight with much of the year for the top of the NFC East. They needed a win and a decent Minnesota Vikings team was coming to RFK Stadium.
It proved to be a wild game. Schroeder threw for 378 yards, while Vikings’ quarterback Tommy Kramer gunned for 490. Washington’s running game made up the difference, but they still trailed 38-26 in the fourth quarter. Two straight touchdowns should have given the ‘Skins the game, but they flubbed both extra points. And no, extra points were not necessarily more difficult in this era.
The extra point issue would bedevil the Redskins, as rookie kicker Max Zendejas missed five on the year. Fortunately, it didn’t cost them in this game, as Washington pulled out a 44-38 overtime win.
WATCH THESPORTSNOTEBOOK’S VIDEO DISCUSSION
OF THE JOE GIBBS ERA WITH THE REDSKINS
A poor performance at lousy Green Bay followed, with the ‘Skins getting just 87 rushing yards against a terrible team. Washington still survived 16-7. They won another survival game against the future NFC West champion San Francisco 49ers on Monday Night Football.
The Redskins shut down the San Francisco running game and Joe Montana was forced to throw 60 times. He got his yards, 441 of them, but Washington also intercepted three passes. The Redskins played much cleaner football, committing just three penalties while the 49ers were flagged 15 times. The combination of controlling the line of scrimmage and playing mistake-free produced a 14-6 victory.
Washington was riding high at 9-2, tied with New York for first place and Dallas chasing at 7-4. The Cowboys would come to RFK Stadium for a late Sunday afternoon national TV game that would shape what the Redskins were playing for down the stretch.
Gibbs’ team sent a loud and clear message that they were more than just a borderline playoff team. The tone was set in the first quarter, as Rodgers ran 14 yards for one touchdown and Schroeder threw a 71-yard strike to tight end Clint Didier. Schroeder threw for 325 yards on the day and the points came like an avalanche. It was 34-0 by halftime and it ended 41-14. The Cowboys were finished, and the Redskins were in the discussion with the Giants and Bears for the best in the NFC.
The following week in St. Louis was a “sandwich game”, stuck between the Cowboy and the impending visit from the Giants. Washington didn’t play well, but the defensive line bailed them out, sacking Lomax five times, three of them by Manley. Zendejas hit a fourth-quarter field goal for a 20-17 win.
First place was on the line against the Giants, a game that stayed in the 1 PM ET TV window rather than being moved to late afternoon. It was a disaster for the Redskins. Schroeder threw six interceptions and Washington lost 24-14, a game not as close as the score makes it sound.
Being swept by the Giants meant that Washington had virtually no shot at the NFC East title the last two weeks of the season and they were still set up to host the wild-card game. They dropped a game at future AFC champion Denver, losing 31-30 because of a missed extra point.
Then the ‘Skins fell behind 14-0 at Philly and turned the ball over four times before Schroeder rallied them to a 21-14 win that gave some momentum going into the playoffs. The more important note of the final week of the season was that Gibbs brought in a new kicker, Jess Atkinson for the playoffs.
Washington hosted the Los Angeles Rams, with a potent running attack of their own led by Eric Dickerson. The Redskins got off to a good start, recovering a Dickerson fumble, and getting inside the LA 10-yard line before settling for a field goal. Another drive ended with a touchdown when Schroeder found Kelvin Bryant, a running back who excelled in the passing game for a TD. The Rams had a drive of their own stopped when Dickerson lost his second fumble.
The Redskins defense kept getting the turnovers in the second quarter. Linebacker Monte Coleman forced a fumble, Washington drove to the 3-yard line and settled for another field goal. By the end of the third quarter, Atkinson booted another field goal for a 16-0 lead. The ‘Skins inability to put the game away with touchdowns was frustrating, but at least they had a kicker who was putting points on the board.
Los Angeles threatened to get back into it, when a 65-yard run by Dickerson helped set up a touchdown. But before the age of the two-point conversion, the Rams had to settle for being within two scores at 16-7. Washington would drive for a fourth Atkinson field goal, Dickerson would lose another fumble past midfield and the Redskins would win 19-7. On the day, the Washington defense collected six turnovers.
The Redskins went to Chicago, to face a team that had knocked them out of the playoffs as an underdog in 1984. Washington was a decided (+7) underdog this time on what was then the artificial turf of Soldier Field.
Schroeder found Monk on a 28-yard touchdown pass for a 7-0 lead in the first quarter, but the Bears controlled the second quarter. Doug Flutie, playing in place of the injured Jim McMahon threw a 50-yard touchdown pass to Willie Gault and a Schroeder interception set up one of two Chicago field goals. Washington went to the locker room down 13-7.
The second half was all ‘Skins, in one of the many impressive displays of the Gibbs era. Green intercepted Flutie, and Schroeder quickly hooked up with Monk, a 23-yard touchdown pass to give Washington the lead and they never looked back. A Bears’ drive was halted by a Walter Payton fumble. Rogers ran for a touchdown and Atkinson kicked two field goals. The Redskins pulled away to a 27-13 win.
A return to the Super Bowl wasn’t meant to be this year. The Giants were just too good. The Redskins returned to the Meadowlands for the NFC Championship Game, and in a game where the winds were blowing so hard that offenses could only move when it was their back, it was no contest. New York won the toss, took the wind and got a 10-0 lead. Washington’s offense couldn’t do anything and the game ended 17-0.
The 1986 Washington Redskins were still arguably the second-best team in the NFL. New York blasted all comers on its way to a Super Bowl trophy. More important, the Redskins had put themselves back in the league’s upper crust. And one year later, they would be the team hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.