Joe Gibbs only missed the postseason in consecutive years one time in his storied coaching career. Those years were 1988 and 1989. The 1990 Washington Redskins got Gibbs and the franchise off the schneid, as they returned to the playoffs, won a game and set the stage for future greatness.
The Redskins dealt with injuries at the quarterback position. Mark Rypien, after making the Pro Bowl the year before, missed six games. It didn’t stop the offense from ranking fourth in the NFL in points scored. Earnest Byner was a 1,000-yard rusher and Gary Clark cleared 1K in receiving yards, both making the Pro Bowl.
Washington’s fabled “Hogs” on the offensive line underwent some transition that worked out well. Even though Mark May and Joe Jacoby were out, Raleigh McKenzie and Ed Simmons moved in. Meanwhile, Russ Grimm, Joe Bostic and Jim Lachey were reliable holdovers, and Lachey made the Pro Bowl at left tackle.
Hall of Fame cornerback Darrell Green was the key to the defense, the only Pro Bowler on the 13th-ranked unit in the league. The Redskin defense suffered from a down year by defensive end Charles Mann. The defense had plenty of savvy though–free safety Todd Bowles and middle linebacker Greg Manusky had futures ahead of them as successful defensive coordinators when they were playing days were done.
In their pursuit of the playoffs, the ‘Skins, along with every other team in the league would benefit from one significant change. The NFL expanded its postseason from 10 teams to 12, with one additional team per conference.
The season began at home with the Phoenix Cardinals, a welcome change from the Monday Night dates with the New York Giants that had begun each of the previous two years with losses. Rypien went 17/31 for 240 yards and threw three touchdowns to three different receivers in a 31-0 win.
Washington traveled to San Francisco to play the two-time defending Super Bowl champion 49ers. Rypien made some big plays, but was mostly erratic in a 17/37 for 241-yard performance. Meanwhile, Joe Montana carved up the Redskin defense for 390 yards and Washington was handled rather easily in a 26-13 game.
The ‘Skins came back to win a pair of NFC East games, beating Dallas at home and Phoenix on the road on a Sunday night (the Cardinals were in the East prior to the realignment of 2002). The defense dominated the Cowboys, sacking Troy Aikman eight times. But the 19-15 win came at a price–it was when Rypien got hurt. Stan Humphries stepped in and led a 38-10 rout of Phoenix. Humphries hit Clark on a pair of 42-yard touchdown passes to turn the tide after Washington trailed 10-7 at the half.
Along with an extra team in the playoffs came another change that we take for granted today. The league instituted the bye week, and the Redskins took theirs the first week in October after the Sunday Night win in Phoenix. At 3-1, they were in position to contend in the NFC East and had two weeks to get ready for a home game with the New York Giants.
Bill Parcells brought the Giants in for a late Sunday afternoon national TV game. Washington led 3-0 after the first quarter, but then mistakes on both sides of the ball did them in. The secondary allowed an 80-yard touchdown pass by Phil Simms. Humphries threw three interceptions. In spite of outrushing the physical Giants 162-75, the Redskins dropped a tough 27-20 decision.
It was the first game of a five-week stretch when the ‘Skins would play their four toughest NFC East games–the two with the Giants and two more with the Philadelphia Eagles. Reggie White and the Eagles came to RFK Stadium next. The Washington defense stepped up with five sacks of athletic quarterback Randall Cunningham and they won a grinding 13-7 decision.
The ‘Skins had lost five straight games to Parcells and the Giants, and if they wanted to win the division, this one was necessary. But they didn’t run the ball. They gave up a pair of second-quarter touchdown passes to Simms. Humphries threw three interceptions, the last a Pick-6 deep in his own end that was the final dagger in a 21-10 loss.
After the three physical games, and a visit to Philadelphia ahead, the Redskins played like a team that wasn’t all there in Detroit. Humphries threw three more interceptions, and Gibbs pulled the trigger on a change early, going to third-stringer Jeff Rutledge.
Washington trailed 35-14 in the third quarter, but Rutledge had an amazing game, throwing the ball 42 times and completing 30 for 363 yards. The trio of receivers, Clark, Art Monk and Ricky Sanders combined for over 400 yards receiving, including from Humphries. Rutledge rallied the ‘Skins into overtime where they won 41-38.
The Monday Night visit to Philly was a disaster. It didn’t start out badly and was tied 7-7 at the half. But it became known as “The Body Bag” game. Rutledge was knocked out. Humphries was knocked out. All in all, nine Redskin players were knocked from the game. Running back Brian Mitchell finished the game at quarterback in a 28-14 loss.
Rypien returned just in time for a home game with the New Orleans Saints, who would make the playoffs, albeit at 8-8. Rypien showed no signs of rust–26/38 for 311 yards and four touchdown passes in a 31-17 win. But a Thanksgiving visit to Dallas went badly. The Cowboys were in their second year under Jimmy Johnson and started to mold into the team that would eventually win three Super Bowls. A rookie running back named Emmitt Smith ran for 132 yards and the ‘Skins lost 27-17.
With a record of 6-5, Washington was in serious trouble of missing the playoffs and the schedule wasn’t going to get a whole lot easier. December would open with a pair of home games with the Miami Dolphins and Chicago Bears, teams that would each make the playoffs with double-digit wins.
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Gibbs always excelled at having his teams ready down the stretch and they came up big here. The running game crushed Miami, with Byner going for 157 yards and three touchdowns on 32 carries. Rypien repeatedly hooked up with Monk, who caught ten passes. The final was 42-20.
It was the defense that delivered against the Bears. They made key red zone stops in the first half, and even though the Redskins were being beaten, the only trailed 9-0. Rypien had a bad day, throwing five interceptions, but he found Clark on a third quarter touchdown passes. Byner ran for 121 yards and the defense completely shut down Chicago in the second half. Washington rallied for a 10-9 win.
Just like that, the Redskins were in great shape to wrap up a playoff spot. All they needed to do was win in New England, the worst team in the NFL. On a Saturday afternoon, the ‘Skins took care of business against an inept team. Linebacker Kurt Gouveia returned a fumble 39 yards for a score. A bad snap by the Patriots gave Washington a free two points on a safety. Rypien only needed to throw the ball 11 times, as Byner carried 39 times for 149 yards. The 25-10 win ended the playoff drought.
Washington was still in position to rise as high as the #4 seed (in the old three-divisional format, the top wild-card held the 4-spot) if they could win out. They played the Indianapolis Colts on a Saturday night. I was in attendance. A Redskins fan then in college, I took the helmet I used to wear trick-or-treating as a kid, jammed my head into it and went to the game with a few friends.
We sang “Hail To The Redskins” after every score amidst a stadium of fans that couldn’t have cared less about the NFL until Peyton Manning came to town almost a decade later. But we were the ones who left the Hoosier Dome unhappy. Despite leading 28-21 late in the game, the ‘Skins allowed Jeff George to lead a late drive to tie the game. Rypien then threw an awful interception in the flat that was easily returned for the touchdown that beat us.
Washington dropped to the 5-seed, and they were locked in there for the season finale at home with the Buffalo Bills. The Bills were going to make the Super Bowl and were resting quarterback Jim Kelly. The Redskins played starters and won 29-14 to cap a 10-6 season.
Now it was time for the playoffs and to return to the scene of the crime. Philadelphia was the 4-seed and the talk all week long was the Redskins going back to the old Vet after The Body Bag Game.
Washington played sloppy football early in the game. They allowed tight end Keith Jackson to get loose for an early 66-yard reception. But the defense recovered to hold the Eagles to a field goal. When the Redskins got the ball back, they fumbled. Again, the defense held the Eagles to a field goal. Rypien threw an interception. The defense forced a punt. Despite doing everything wrong, Washington only trailed 6-0.
The game then turned. Rypien threw a 16-yard touchdown pass to Monk. Washington drove inside the 5-yard line twice, although now it was their turn to settle and two field goals made the score 13-6. But the Redskin defense was locked in. They got to Cunningham five times, just as they had in the regular season game at RFK. Two sacks came from defensive tackle Tim Johnson. Despite only getting 93 yards rushing, the ‘Skins won 20-6.
A return visit to San Francisco had the same result as the one in September. There was no running game, inconsistency from Rypien and brilliance from Montana. Washington lost 28-10.
Even with the playoff loss, the Redskins were trending back upward. And one year later they would trend completely off the charts, with a dominating run to the third Super Bowl trophy under Gibbs.