The 1996 Washington Redskins were the team that played the franchise’s last season in the great venue of RFK Stadium. They looked poised to give the old stadium an appropriate sendoff, getting off to a strong start behind a power running game. But the muscle disappeared down the stretch and the Redskins missed the playoffs, though the 9-7 record still marked a bit of a comeback year.
Washington had slipped badly in the three years since Joe Gibbs retired for the first time following the 1992 season. The ‘Skins went 4-12 in 1993 under Gibbs’ old defensive coordinator Richie Petitbon. A coaching change was made and Norv Turner was brought in from Dallas, where had developed Troy Aikman into the quarterback who won two straight Super Bowls.
Turner had a rebuilding job and management as he went 9-23 over 1994-95. The plans for Turner to develop #2 overall draft pick Heath Shuler hadn’t worked out, but Turner found another quarterback in the less-heralded Gus Frerotte. In 1996, Frerotte started becoming a big-play passer, with a 7.3 yards-per-attempt that was decisively above the league average, and he tracked to the league norm in completion percentage and TD-INT ratio.
The offensive line was no longer the Hogs, who had anchored the franchise’s glory years from 1981-92. Ed Simmons, the 33-year-old right tackle was the only holdover from that era and Simmons was a nominal Hog at best. Even with the unheralded line, Terry Allen rushed for over 1,300 yards. Allen carried a disproportionately heavy load with the team’s running game, but still managed 3.9 yards-per-attempt, a bit over the NFL average.
Both Frerotte and Allen made the Pro Bowl. The prime receiving target was 35-year-old Henry Ellard, who finished with 52 catches and over 1,000 yards receiving. Tight end Jamie Asher was a steady target with 42 catches. Where the offense could have been better is had 24-year-old receiver Michael Westbrook developed properly.
Westbrook was a #4 overall draft choice and he finished with barely over 500 yards receiving. His Redskin career ended up being more noteworthy for a practice-field fight than for any on-field production.
Even so, Turner put the pieces together to produce the eighth-ranked scoring offense in the NFL. The defense had two Pro Bowlers, starting with the great corner Darrell Green, still going strong at age 36. Linebacker Ken Harvey was the other one, with nine sacks. The ‘Skins got further defensive production from defensive end Rich Owens, who finished with 11 sacks, and talented young corner Tom Carter who picked off five passes.
The defense ranked #13 in points allowed, and the Redskins had an added bonus in that they were able to control field position thanks to Matt Turk, the best punter in the league.
Washington opened the season at home with Philadelphia. The Eagles were coming a playoff year in 1995. The Redskins established the running game, with Allen gaining 11 yards. They forced three turnovers while taking care of the ball themselves. But Frerotte was unproductive, just 12/25 for 119 yards, while counterpart Rodney Peete threw for 269 yards and was able to get the ball to his wideouts. It was enough to send the ‘Skins to a tough 17-14 defeat.
Chicago, a mediocre opponent came next and Frerotte stepped up his game. Even though the Redskins were outrushed, the quarterback was 18/29 for 177 yards. The defensive line generated four sacks. And even though Allen didn’t rush for much, his 28-yard scoring jaunt in the second quarter was the only touchdown of a 10-3 win.
The New York Giants were on hard times and headed for a 6-10 season. The signs of that were evident when Washington went to the Meadowlands for a late afternoon kick and promptly jumped to a 17-0 lead, keyed by Frerotte’s 30-yard touchdown pass to Scott Galbraith. Allen pounded out 146 yards and the ‘Skins controlled the trenches and coasted into a 31-10 win. Another road win over a bad team followed in St. Louis, as the Redskins picked off Rams quarterback Steve Walsh three times in a 17-10 victory.
RFK Stadium was the site of Sunday Night Football on September 29 and the opponent was the New York Jets, who were headed for a miserable 1-15 season. Washington started slowly, trailing 10-3 in a game they were a (-8.5) favorite. Wide receiver Leslie Shepard turned the game around, running for the tying touchdown and later catching a 52-yard TD pass from Frerotte. The quarterback’s big-play ability was on display, 15/22 for 257 yards. The Redskins pulled away 31-16 and went into their bye week riding high at 4-1
A visit to Foxboro meant a date with a familiar foe. Bill Parcells had battled Gibbs in some great games when Parcells was with the Giants. Now he was in his fourth year as the head coach in New England and had built the Patriots from the bottom up into a team that would make the Super Bowl this season. Frerotte threw for 280 yards, getting over half those years on eight hookups with Ellard and the Redskins pulled a 27-22 upset.
The winning continued against Parcells’ old team. Allen ran for three short touchdowns and Green returned an interception 68 yards for a touchdown. The Redskins led the Giants 28-zip at halftime and even though New York made it interesting with three unanswered touchdowns, Washington prevailed 31-21. They followed it up with a decisive 31-16 win at home over an Indianapolis Colts team quarterbacked by Jim Harbaugh, as Allen rumbled for 124 yards.
Washington was soaring at 7-1 and even though the Dallas Cowboys were the defending Super Bowl champs, with three titles in the previous four years, it was the Redskins who were setting the pace in the NFC East.
A visit to Buffalo started the downward spiral. The Bills were three years removed from their run of four straight AFC titles, and still were a good team, one that won a division title in 1996. They mauled the Redskins in the trenches, winning the rushing battle 266-75 and the game 38-13.
When Allen rushed for 124 yards the following week at home against the Arizona Cardinals, and the defense intercepted Boomer Esiason four times, it looked like the winning would resume. Washington led 34-20 in the fourth quarter.
But Esiason, a former MVP quarterback in Cincinnati and trying to extend his career in the desert, kept gunning away. He attempted 59 passes, completed 35 and threw for over 500 yards. The ‘Skins surrendered two late touchdown passes that tied the game and then lost 37-34 in overtime.
Frerotte played a solid game in Philly a week later, 17/33 for 212 yards and found Asher on a 12-yard touchdown pass that helped build a 10-0 lead. Frerotte connected with Asher again in the third quarter to hold off the Eagles in a 26-21 win.
The win covered up the fact that Allen had a poor game running the football. In the moment, it seemed like one bad game against a good team. In reality, it was the beginning of a decisive downward trend.
Allen was locked down again the following week at home against San Francisco, a playoff team on their way to a 12-4 season. Frerotte nearly compensated again, with an 18/26 for 294 yards performance. But Steve Young was too able an opponent and the 49er quarterback answered by going 33/41 for 295 yards. The Redskins lost in overtime, 19-16.
The division lead was slipping away and Dallas was coming. Washington paid a Thanksgiving Day visit to Big D and even though they were a game up on the Cowboys, it was the Redskins who were a nine-point underdog. Frerotte connected with Shephard on a 26-yard touchdown pass for a 10-7 lead that held into the second half. But Allen was again going nowhere and a 201-46 deficit in rush yardage was not going to be overcome. The fourth loss in five games came by a score of 21-10.
In spite of the slump, the Redskins, Cowboys and Eagles were still in a three-way tie atop the NFC East. And if you looked ahead on the schedule, the final game of the season was the home rematch with Dallas. Could there be any better ending for RFK Stadium than to host that battle? Washington just need to recover and they had two losing teams, Tampa Bay and Arizona, up next.
The ‘Skins promptly went to Tampa and fell apart. The Buccaneers were under the leadership of Tony Dungy, just a year away from making the playoffs and they made a late-season statement here. Allen was completely stuffed and Washington was not competitive in a 24-10 loss.
Dallas moved into first place, though Philadelphia also lost that week. If the division title slipped away, there were still a couple wild-card berths available. The format prior to 2002 had three divisions per conference and there were three additional wild-card spots. San Francisco was running away with one of those, but the two runner-ups in the NFC East would joust with Minnesota—also 8-6—for the final two berths.
The Redskins’ dilemma was that they did not fare well in the tiebreakers and the events leading up to their 4 PM ET kickoff in Arizona (an NFC East rival in the pre-2002 days). On Saturday, the Eagles beat the Jets. In the early Sunday afternoon window, the Cowboys clinched the NFC East and the Vikings won. Washington now had to beat Arizona just to stay alive.
An early 14-3 deficit didn’t augur well, but defensive back Scott Turner recovered a fumble in the end zone to turn the tide. Washington moved ahead 23-14, but it should have been more—on two occasions they reached the five-yard line and settled for field goals. It was as byproduct of another poor outing running the football. Perhaps Allen was worn down from running behind an offensive line that wasn’t loaded with talent. Whatever the reason, it cost the Redskins one more time in this game.
The Cardinals rallied to take a 24-23 lead. The Redskins got a field goal and looked like they might survive and make RFK’s final game a meaningful one. But a late field goal from Arizona beat them 26-24. The playoff bid was over.
It made for a finale built more on nostalgia than on impact. The Cowboys were locked into the 3-seed and neither Aikman nor Emmitt Smith played. Allen finally got some traction, with 87 yards, even if it was too late. Frerotte had a big game, 22/31 for 346 yards and Ellard caught seven of those passes for 155 yards. Washington left RFK with a 37-10 win over their hated rival.
Missing the playoffs was a disappointment, and saying goodbye to RFK was sad. But if nothing else, the franchise appeared headed back in the right direction with a winning season. It would take three more years, but Turner would eventually win an NFC East title in 1999, one of only two playoff years the Redskins have had since 1981 that didn’t involve Joe Gibbs on the sidelines.