1983 Washington Redskins (The Season of the Defending Super Bowl Champions)

With the Super Bowl having just been played, I wanted to take a look back at a team that many fans assumed was going to win the Superbowl but didn’t. Some may have forgotten just how good the 1983 Washington Redskins were, but they were one of the most dominant teams of the 1980s, up until that fateful day on Jan.22, 1984.

Going into the 1983 season, the Redskins were the defending Superbowl Champions, having lost only one game in a strike-shortened 1982 season.

1983 NFL Season Begins

The 1983 season kicked off with a Monday Night showdown against their hated rivals, the Dallas Cowboys. Dallas was hungry for revenge as Washington had denied them a chance to play in their sixth Superbowl, defeating the Boys 31–17 in the 1982 NFC Championship game. It was a hot and humid Labor day evening at RFK Stadium, and the Skins were out to prove that their 1982 season was no one-year wonder.

Washington stormed out to a 23–3 halftime lead, but the second half was all Dallas. Tony Dorsett ran for 151 yards, and receiver Tony Hill gained 133 yards receiving, and the Skins lost 31–30. The one bright spot in the loss was that quarterback Joe Theismann played brilliantly, completing 28 of 38 passes for 325 yards and two touchdowns. Ten of those completions were caught by receiver Alvin Garrett who gained 101 yards.

The Skins traveled to Philadelphia in week two and beat the Eagles 23–13 as John Riggins ran for 100 yards. The team got off to a slow start in a week three game against the Chiefs at RFK, trailing at halftime 12–0. But they scored 27 unanswered points in the second half to win 27–12. Washington gained 180 yards on the ground while holding KC to just 33.

Moving Into Week 5 of 1983 Season

Washington traveled to Seattle for a week four victory against the Seahawks. The Redskins kept the ball on the ground for most of the game, as Theismann threw only 16 times but with a passer rating of 130.7.

Week five saw an offensive shootout as Washington defeated the Raiders 37–35 at RFK. Joe Theismann had another big day, completing 23 of 39 passes for an astounding 417 yards and three touchdowns. Receiver Charley Brown caught eleven of those passes for 180 yards and a touchdown. The team traveled to St. Louis for an easy 38–14 week six win over the Cardinals, and John Riggins rushed for 115 yards.
After five straight wins, the Redskins suffered a 48–47 loss to the GB Packers on Monday Night Football at Lambeau Field.

The two teams combined for over 800 yards in passing; to this day, it is the second-highest-scoring game on Monday Night Football. Receiver Art Monk had a big game with five catches for 105 yards, and Joe Theismann continued his outstanding play, going 27 for 39 with 398 yards and two touchdowns.

Art Monk and Joe Theismann football cards
Photo Courtesy of Mark Morthier's private collection of an Art Monk and Joe Theismann football card

Final Push To The Playoffs

The Skins returned home with an easy week eight win beating the Lions 38–17. Washington outgained Detroit 441 yards to 147, as running back Joe Washington ran for 147 yards on 22 carries. Joe Theismann had another great game with a 130.2 passer rating. In week nine, the SD Chargers gave Washington all they could handle at Jack Murphy Stadium, but the Skins came out on top 27–24. Charlie Brown caught eight passes for 101 yards.

A week ten matchup against the Cardinals at RFK was no contest, as the Skins gained over 200 yards on the ground and ran away with a 45–7 victory. Washington had another relatively easy win in a week 11 game against the Giants at the Meadowlands, outgaining the Giants on the ground 140 yards to 25 and coasting to a 33–17 win.

Washington continued their winning ways against the Rams in week 12 at Anaheim. The Skins outgained the Rams 467 yards to 191 while holding running back Eric Dickerson to just 37 yards. Charlie Brown had another big game, gaining 140 yards on eight catches.

The Eagles gained over 300 yards passing, but it wasn’t enough as Washington upped their record to 11–2 in a week 13 win. Charlie Brown continued his outstanding play gaining 147 yards on seven catches, while Joe Theismann had another game with an over 100 passer rating. The final was 28–24.

The Redskins won again in a week 14 game at RFK, beating the Falcons 37–21.

Theismann finished the game with a 121.3 passer rating. The Redskins avenged their week one loss to the Cowboys with a 31–10 thumping at Texas Stadium in week 15. Art Monk had six catches for 119 yards, while Theismann once again had a 120 passer rating. The Skins’ defense held Tony Dorsett to just 34 yards rushing.

Mark Morthier and Frank Reading share memories of the great Redskins vs. Cowboys rivalry of the 70s and 80s.

Having already clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, Washington trailed the Giants in the 4th quarter 22–17. It might have been Joe Theismann’s only poor performance of the year, as he threw four interceptions. Meanwhile, the Redskins defense allowed over 300 yards passing for the eighth time this season.

Some of that can be attributed to teams’ inability to run against them, but it was a bit of a concern going into the playoffs. Nonetheless, Washington pulled out the victory 31–22 as John Riggins ran for 122 yards.

Washington finished the regular season with 14 wins and only two losses. Joe Theismann won the NFL MVP award, and Joe Gibbs won the coach of the year award. Charlie Brown gained 1,225 yards receiving, while John Riggins gained 1,347 rushing.

Theismann and Riggins were named first-team All-Pro as were offensive linemen Joe Jacoby and Russ Grimm. On defense, free safety Mark Murphy and defensive tackle Dave Butz were also named first-team All-Pro. The team scored a record 541 points, and that record stood until 1998. The team also had a +43 turnover differential, a record that still stands.

Russ Grimm and John Riggins football cards
Photo Courtesy of Mark Morthier's private collection of Russ Grimm and John Riggins football cards

1983 NFL Playoffs

Now it was on to the playoffs. On New Year’s day 1984, the Redskins annihilated the Rams 51–7 at RFK. The Skins’ defense held Eric Dickerson to 16 yards rushing while John Riggins ran for 119 yards and scored three touchdowns. Joe Theismann completed 18 of 23 passes for 302 yards with two touchdowns and zero interceptions. Six of those completions were caught by Charlie Brown, who gained 171 yards.

The following week the Redskins played the SF 49ers in the NFC Championship game at RFK. The 49ers had won the Superbowl two years earlier, but they had struggled in 1982, and 1983 was not a great year for them either. They finished 10–6 in the regular season and barely got by a very average Detroit Lions team in the playoff game. Most people thought Washington would have no trouble defeating the 49ers.

Those predictions seemed accurate when the Skins took a 21–0 lead in the third quarter. But 49ers quarterback Joe Montana, who had not been having a good game, suddenly got hot, and before you knew it, the game was tied 21–21. Mark Mosley, the Redskins kicker, was having the worst game of his career, going 0 for four on field goal attempts, but he made good on his fifth attempt, giving Washington a 24–21 victory.

As had been the case for most of the season, the Redskins defense did an excellent job of stopping the run, but they allowed 347 yards through the air. John Riggins gained 123 yards against the 49ers’ defense, but it took him 36 carries to do it. Receiver Charlie Brown had another outstanding performance, catching five passes for a whopping 137 yards.

Some felt the 49ers were robbed because of some questionable defensive pass interference calls. Interference penalties are usually the most controversial plays and biggest game changers. On a personal note, I’d like to see a rule change that would make an interference penalty a maximum of 20 yards unless it is blatant.

As the rule stands now, it is a penalty at the spot of the foul, which means there is an assumption that the receiver would have caught the ball. That hardly seems like a fair assumption to make. But assuming that the 49ers would have won the game if not for these controversial penalties hardly seems fair, either.

Super Bowl XVIII

The Redskins marched into Superbowl XVlll with an impressive eleven-game winning streak, and their 16–2 record was not the result of a weak schedule, as only 7 of their 18 opponents had a losing record. Their opponents were the Los Angeles Raiders, and the Redskins had narrowly defeated LA in a week five matchup.

While the Raiders were undoubtedly a good team, finishing the regular season with a 12–4 record, they were not what one would consider a dominant team. However, they had handled their two playoff opponents relatively easily, beating the Steelers 38–10 and the Seahawks 30–14. Still, most had predicted a Redskins victory in the Superbowl.

No one who played on that Redskins team can explain their poor performance on that fateful day. Perhaps the team had lost its confidence after almost blowing a 21–0 lead against the 49ers in the championship game. Whatever the reason, the Raiders completely dominated the Skins in every phase of the game, winning 38–9.

The Redskins defense, which had done an excellent job of stopping the run all season, allowed rookie running back Marcus Allen to run wild. Allen finished the game with 191 yards on 20 carries, scored two touchdowns, and was named MVP. John Riggins, who had gained 1,347 yards during the regular season and broke an NFL record with 24 rushing touchdowns, was a non-factor, gaining just 64 yards on 26 carries.

League MVP Joe Theismann finished the game with a 45.3 passer rating and was sacked six times. It was a disappointing end to an otherwise great season. On a positive note, the Redskins, under the leadership of Head Coach Joe Gibbs, would win two Super Bowls in the next eight years.

Mark Morthier is the host of Yesterday’s Sports, a podcast dedicated to reliving memorable sports moments from his childhood days and beyond.  He grew up in New Jersey just across from New York City, so many of his episodes revolve around the great sport’s teams of the 70s for the New York area. 

He is also an author of No Nonsense, Old School Weight Training (Second Edition): A Guide for People with Limited Time and Running Wild: (Growing Up in the 1970s)

Mark Morthier headshot - host of Yesterday's Sports podcast on the Sports History Network

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