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Flashback: Petitbon A Master of Adjustments

Posted Dec 24, 2011

Richie Petibon was the brains behind the Redskins’ defense under Joe Gibbs’ first coaching stint in D.C. Redskins historian Mike Richman examines Petitbon's rich legacy.


He was a master of his trade, a man who devised an assortment of creative defenses that befuddled so many opponents during the Redskins’ glory run in the 1980s and early-90s.

Richie Petibon was the brains behind the Redskins’ defense for all 12 years of Joe Gibbs’ first coaching regime in D.C., holding titles ranging from defensive coordinator to assistant head coach-defense.

While Gibbs concentrated on running the offense, Petitbon called the shots for defenses that regularly ranked among the best in the league and were key to winning a host of critical games.

It was fun to watch what he and his assistants would pull out of their bag of defensive schemes each week.

“Richie Petitbon was a very good guy,” said defensive tackle Dave Butz, one of Petitbon’s most talented players. “Very creative, very knowledgeable, very dedicated to the game. He did an outstanding job.”

“You have to give credit to Richie Petitbon,” said defensive end Dexter Manley, the Redskins’ all-time sack leader and another force during the Petitbon era. “He was the defensive man.”

In addition to assistant coaching, Petitbon played safety for the Redskins’ from 1971-72 as a member of the “Over The Hill Gang” and served as the team’s head coach in 1993.

Before excelling as an assistant, Petitbon was a four-time All-Pro during his 14-year playing career. Drafted by the Bears in 1959, he switched to safety after playing quarterback in college and earned a starting spot in the secondary.

In the 1963 NFL championship game, his late fourth-quarter interception sealed Chicago’s 14-10 over the Giants. The defensive coordinator on that Bears team was George Allen, whom Petitbon later played for with the Los Angeles Rams and the Redskins.

Petitbon retired following the 1972 season. After serving as an assistant in Houston, he became the Redskins’ secondary coach in 1978 and was promoted to defensive coordinator in 1981, Gibbs’ first season in D.C.

Thus began a stretch when the Redskins’ defense was often a model of excellence and the envy of many in the NFL. Examples of the unit’s dominance are abundant.

Case in point: In a 21-7 playoff win over the Vikings during the Redskins’ march to Super Bowl XVII in January 1983, Minnesota rushed for 79 yards against a defense that was becoming more dominant each week. The Vikings also failed twice on fourth downs deep in Redskins territory.

“Everyone knew we had a high-powered offense, but no one knew this defense could stand up and play well,” former Redskins Tony McGee said of the win over Minnesota. “Richie Petitbon and other coaches put us in the right positions, and we took pride in everything we did.”

Then, in Super Bowl XVII, Miami held a 17-10 halftime lead. Only three teams had rebounded from halftime deficits in the Super Bowl to win, but the Redskins were not in panic mode largely because of Petitbon. They rebounded to post a 27-17 victory.

“Richie Petitbon was a master at making halftime adjustments,” former Redskins linebacker Monte Coleman said. “We made the necessary adjustments (in Super Bowl XVII) and carried them out.”

The following season, 1983, a Petitbon-coached defense orchestrated perhaps its most impressive feat by forcing a phenomenal 61 turnovers. The 14-2 Redskins posted a plus-43 turnover ratio that year.

Petitbon turned in another masterpiece in the first round of the playoffs in January 1991. In a 20-6 win over the Eagles in Philly, he devised a scheme that befuddled the Eagles’ offense and its magician-on-feet, superstar quarterback Randall Cunningham, who was sacked five times.

The Redskins’ defense swarmed Cunningham with blitzing and shut down his receivers. Cunningham was eventually benched for backup Jim McMahon.

What’s more, Washington’s defense held opponents in 1991 to the second-lowest point total in the league (224) as part of a 14-2 season that ended with a victory in Super Bowl XXVI.

The Redskins’ appearance in that Super Bowl made Petitbon one of only three Redskins to have participated in all five of the franchise’s Super Bowls as a player or coach, along with long-time assistant “Torgy” Torgeson and Hall of Fame receiver and assistant Charley Taylor.

Petitbon was named was named Redskins head coach after Gibbs retired for the first time in March 1993. He went 4-12 that season and was fired.


Mike Richman is the author of The Redskins Encyclopedia and the Washington Redskins Football Vault. He also hosts “Burgundy & Gold Flashback,” which airs on Sundays from 9:30-10 a.m. on Sports Talk 570: Powered by ESPN. His web site is www.redskinshistorian.com and his email is mikerichman@redskinshistorian.com.