Has any Super Bowl champion in recent years seemed so ready to repeat? The Washington Redskins still have John Riggins to part the seas up the middle. They still have the big-play capability of Joe Theismann and his Fun Bunch. They still have more offensive formations than your average flag football team. And on Sunday they showed they haven't forgotten how to win a very big game.
"Even with all we did last year and what we've done so far this year there's been a lot of critics of the Redskins," says Linebacker Rich Milot. "I think they better start coming around."
Now would be fine. On Sunday afternoon before a roaring SRO crowd of 54,016 in RFK Stadium, Washington scored two touchdowns and a field goal in the final seven minutes to beat the Los Angeles Raiders 37-35. That spurt capped the most rousing game of the '83 season and was sweet indeed for the Redskins, who had earlier been burned by a 99-yard touchdown pass and a 97-yard punt return. Riggins wasn't even on the field for those frantic 17 points, and in his place was a guy four inches shorter and 55 pounds lighter—and with two bad knees to boot. Along the way the Skins got help from a trick kick that they've yet to practice and from a loosely played Raider zone that went against every tenet of the hard-nosed, man-to-man Silver and Black defenses of the past. They also refused to knuckle under to the Raiders' intimidating ways in a push-and-shove confrontation that the NHL would have been proud to sponsor.
"They were surprised that we were pointing our fingers back at them," is the way Redskin Wide Receiver Charlie Brown put it. Brown pointed his fingers by catching 11 passes, a career high, and scoring a touchdown. What Washington did, ultimately, was out-Raider the Raiders, a team that has long specialized in last-ditch heroics.
The victory put Washington's record at 4-1, which means it's far too early for Redskin loyalists to book plane reservations to Tampa for the '84 Super Bowl. But a loss on Sunday could have been disastrous. The Skins blew a 17-7 halftime lead and were trailing 35-20 with 7:31 remaining in a performance reminiscent of their Monday night el foldo against Dallas in the season opener. Further, all game long the Redskins had been keeping tabs on the Cowboys' game against Minnesota and didn't find out that Dallas had rallied to win 37-24 and remain unbeaten until they were in the locker room.
"They pulled it out?" said Milot, slamming a towel down on the bench. "They have got to be the luckiest team in football."
Luck had very little to do with Washington's victory. The Skins earned it with every wrinkle in Coach Joe Gibbs's active brain and with every crinkle in Joe Washington's battered knees. The Redskins had arrived at their 35-20 deficit in one of the most demoralizing ways possible. Jim Plunkett had thrown three second-half TD passes, and then the Raiders' Greg Pruitt had returned what seemed a perfect punt 97 yards for a touchdown. Turn out the lights, right?
Theismann—that's Theismann as in Nine Livesmann—had other ideas. On the Redskins' first play after that score, from his own 12, he looked off the defense and flipped a screen pass on the right side to Washington, who under less perilous circumstances for the Skins would have been on the bench watching Riggins grind out the clock. Washington got a ferocious block on Linebacker Ted Hendricks from Center Jeff Bostic—"I just saw the big s.o.b. coming and decided I'd take half of him and Joe could have the other half," said Bostic—and skirted 67 yards down the sideline for a first down at the Raider 21.
"In retrospect, that may have been the biggest play of the game," said Theismann afterward. "If we take a lot of time there to score, we're dead." After one in-completion, Theismann threw a 10-yarder to Tight End Don Warren and an 11-yarder to Brown for a touchdown. Los Angeles 35, Washington 27—and 6:15 left.
Redskin Special Teams Coach Wayne Sevier conferred with Gibbs and decided against a standard onside kick that could have put the Raiders in instant field-goal position. Instead, they opted for what Sevier terms a "power kick," which means Jeff Hayes tries to make a low kick over the first line of the return team. "We had it on our list of kicks to try, but somehow we never got around to practicing it," said Sevier. "But Jeff sure knew how to do it." And Free Safety Greg Williams sure knew how to recover it, outwrestling Dokie Williams of the Raiders for the ball at the L.A. 32. After the Redskins couldn't move, dependable Mark Moseley kicked a 34-yard field goal that made the score 35-30 with 4:28 left.