The 1978 Washington Redskins were starting a new era in franchise history. The had a new coach in Jack Pardee and were moving forward with Joe Theismann as their quarterback after going on-again, off-again between Theismann and veteran Billy Kilmer in 1977. The first year of Pardee & Theismann got off to a fantastic start, but it had an all-too-familiar ending.
Washington was, as they had been under George Allen (1971-77), a defense-first team. The Redskins ranked 10th in the NFL in points allowed. They still did it mostly bereft of talent. Strong safety Ken Houston was the only Pro Bowler, and the lineup was included aging vets like Chris Hanburger, Diron Talbert, Jack Scott and Coy Bacon, all 33-years or older and all having seen better days.
The offense modestly improved, jumping from 21st to 17th in the league. The running game was led by John Riggins and supported by Mike Thomas. Theismann threw for over 2,500 yards. But while the offense might have been younger than the defense, they lacked the old-school savvy of the D—not a single offensive player made the Pro Bowl.
Washington opened the season against the New England Patriots, a team on their way to an AFC East title. The Redskins trailed 14-9 in the fourth quarter in Foxboro when Washington linebacker Brad Dusek scooped up a fumble and returned it 31 yards for the winning touchdown. The offense then exploded in consecutive wins over NFC East rivals, the Philadelphia Eagles and St. Louis Cardinals (the Cardinals were in the NFC East through their move to Arizona and through the 2001 season).
In Week 4 against the New York Jets, the Redskins spotted the Jets a 3-zip lead, then Theismann threw two touchdown passes, while Riggins ran for 114 yards in a 23-3 win. Now it was time for the Dallas Cowboys to come to town.
Dallas won the Super Bowl in 1977 and the bright lights of Monday Night Football came to old RFK Stadium. Riggins ran for 96 yards in a defensive slugfest. The ‘Skins survived in a 9-5 victory. They came back the following week and rallied to beat the Detroit Lions 21-19 when Theismann threw a pair of fourth quarter touchdown passes. Washington was 6-0 and on top of the world.
The armor came at Philadelphia, when the Redskins lost four fumbles and a close game 17-10. Theismann then threw three interceptions a week later in New York, a 17-6 loss to a bad Giants team. It marked the third straight game over two years that Washington had lost to New York, with a win in any of them meaning a playoff berth.
Was it time to hit the panic button, even at 6-2? 1978 was the first year the NFL allowed two wild-card teams per conference (five overall) in the playoffs, so there was a little more room than normal. But Kilmer got the start the following week against what was a lowly San Francisco 49ers team.
The Redskins were a ten-point favorite, but fell behind 10-0 early. Kilmer rallied the troops, played mistake-free football and the defense produced three interceptions, as the worm turned in a 38-20 win.
For the second straight year, a Monday Night road trip to the Baltimore Colts loomed. And for the second straight year it ended in a loss. Kilmer threw an early touchdown pass, but then later threw two interceptions, the Colts rallied to win 21-17 and Theismann got his job back.
Theismann threw for 270 yards against those pesky Giants, as the quarterback lifted an offense that couldn’t produce a running game on this day, and Washington pulled out a 16-13 win. With an 8-3 record, it would still a big collapse to deny the Redskins the playoffs.
But a big collapse is exactly what was going down. Washington dug a 24-0 hole at home against St. Louis and lost. They went to Dallas on Thanksgiving Day and were smashed, 37-10. They hosted the Miami Dolphins, on their way to an 11-5 wild-card season.
The Dolphins defense shut down the Redskins even more thoroughly in this game than had been the case with the two teams met in the Super Bowl following the 1972 season.
Now 8-6, the Redskins were in a three-way fight for two berths with the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia. A head-to-head battle in Atlanta was next. Just win this one, and the playoffs would be secure.
Washington’s battle with Atlanta’s attacking “Grits Blitz” defense didn’t go well. Theismann was erratic, completing just 12/33 passes. There was no running game. While the Washington defense played well, they couldn’t force turnovers and Atlanta ultimately won 20-17 on a late field goal.
Even after all this, even at 8-7, Washington still just needed to beat the Chicago Bears—the team Pardee had coached into the playoffs one year earlier, ironically at the Redskins’ experience. If Washington did that, they could join Atlanta in the first-ever NFC wild-card game. Even failing that, a Philadelphia loss to the Giants would back the ‘Skins in.
Washington failed one more time, losing to non-playoff Chicago 14-10, a game where it look a fourth quarter touchdown from the ‘Skins to even make it look close. For the second straight season, the Redskins were left hoping that the lowly Giants could pull off a win that would put Washington in.
One year earlier, New York lost to Chicago. This year, the Giants continued to show their ability to torment the Redskins, losing 20-3 to the Eagles and ending Washington’s misery.
The 1978 Washington Redskins spent most of the first two months looking like a Super Bowl team. They ended the year by missing the largest playoff field the NFL had ever hosted. If nothing else, they at least had found a quarterback that would eventually help them reach the Promised Land.