The story of the Redskins’ recovery from an 0-5 start in 1981, their first season under Joe Gibbs, is well documented.
What fueled the comeback makes it so much more impressive. Sporting an offense that resembled a Sherman tank and obliterated defenses at will, the Redskins set team single-season records in yards (5,623), first downs (334) and plays (1,081). Their point total of 347 came four short of the all-time franchise record.
A 38-14 demolition of the Baltimore Colts at RFK Stadium in the next-to-last game was one of many that exemplified the offense’s dominance. The offense amassed 486 yards, as quarterback Joe Theismann, running backs Joe Washington and John Riggins, and wide receiver Art Monk had monster days.
Theismann completed 23-of-36 passes for 339 yards, with two touchdown passes and a scoring run. Washington ran for 73 yards and Riggins, playing with a bad cold, gained 50 more on only seven carries with two touchdown runs. Washington and Riggins rotated in the single-back offense implemented by Gibbs when the Redskins stood 0-5.
Wide receiver Art Monk caught seven passes for a career-high 148 yards with one touchdown.
It must be emphasized that the Baltimore Colts were atrocious that season. They finished 2-14 with an eyesore of a defense that posted one of the worst seasons in NFL history. Baltimore set NFL records for points (533) and yards (6,783) allowed and scored only 259, less than half what they yielded. The minus-274 point differential is among the worst in league history.
After an 0-8-1 finish in the strike-shortened 1982 season and a 7-9 mark in 1983, the Colts packed their bags and moved to Indianapolis.
In the “Battle of the Beltways” on Dec. 13, 1981, the Redskins put the featherweights with the horseshoe on their helmets away early. With the game tied at 7 in the first quarter, the Redskins put on a clinic by scoring touchdowns on four straight possessions.
A 78-yard drive ended with Riggins finding the end zone from eight yards out. His tackle-breaking 14-yard scoring run gave the Redskins a 21-7 lead.
After safety Mark Murphy intercepted a tipped pass, the eighth straight game in which he accounted for a turnover, Theismann ran eight yards into the end zone to close the first-half scoring. In the third quarter, Monk leaped to haul in a 13-yard touchdown pass for a 35-7 advantage.
Following the second touchdown pass of the game by Colts quarterback Bert Jones, Mark Moseley kicked a 38-yard field goal to close the scoring.
The win marked the Redskins’ fifth straight at home.
The Redskins closed the season the week after with a 30-7 victory over the Los Angeles Rams. They piled up 502 yards that day to add to the season total of 5,623, more than 600 better than the franchise’s prior record and one of the league’s best performances.
“Once we got going in the latter part of the season, there wasn’t a question of whether we would win,” Theismann said. “The only question in our mind was how many points we’d score.”
“All the way around, it was a lot more fun to play,” said Monk, one of the Redskins’ top receivers that year. “The offense was much more flexible, wide open and exciting than under (previous coach) Jack Pardee.”
Mike Richman is the author of The Redskins Encyclopedia and the Washington Redskins Football Vault. He was on the blue-ribbon panel that played a key role in selecting the 10 new names who are part of the Redskins’ 80 Greatest team unveiled this season, also known as the “10 for 80.” His web site is www.redskinshistorian.com and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.