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In the big picture, the Redskins’ 24-22 win over the Patriots in 1981 seemed void of major significance.
The Redskins improved to 2-6 in an already tumultuous season in which the playoffs had become a distant thought.
They captured eight of their last 11 games in all, even rising to playoff contention, and generated momentum heading into their 1982 Super Bowl-winning season and beyond in the Gibbs-I glory era.
But the 1981 season began inauspiciously. The Redskins lost their first five games, snapped the streak with a 24-7 win over Chicago, and fell to 1-6 with a 13-10 loss to Miami.
They were dominating teams statistically on offense, only to let turnovers, penalties and other mental errors dictate the outcome of games.
Compounding the problem was a rash of injuries that had prevented them from developing consistency.
“We were just dropping like flies,” said running back Joe Washington, who missed four games that season due to injury.
New England, which had averaged nearly 450 yards of offense in its previous four games, resembled the Redskins’ early season futility on a rainy day at RFK Stadium on Oct. 25, 1981.
The Patriots, 2-5 coming into the game, topped Washington in yards (409-230), first downs (23-15) and time of possession (32:02-27:58). But they committed nearly twice as many penalties, totaled four turnovers and failed to convert a series of gorgeous scoring opportunities into touchdowns. They also missed a potentially game-winning 53-yard field goal with about a minute left.
Joe Washington, a jitterbug back known as “Go-Go,” sparked the Redskins’ offense that day, rushing for 47 yards and catching nine passes for 97 more with a touchdown.
A former Heisman Trophy candidate at Oklahoma who had gained nearly 4,000 yards, rushing and receiving, through three seasons with the Baltimore Colts, he came to D.C. for a second-round pick before the 1981 season. The trade proved to be one of the marquee acquisitions of famed Redskins general manager Bobby Beathard.
New England took a 6-0 lead on two first-quarter field goals. But a 13-yard scoring pass from Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann to “Go-Go” and Mark Moseley’s conversion created a 7-6 game.
The Patriots scored nine consecutive points to go up, 15-7, but the Redskins tallied 17 straight of their own.
First, Mike Nelms, one of the greatest kick return men in Redskins history, fielded a punt, sprinted up the middle and evaded two defenders to complete a 75-yard run back for a score. In the third quarter, an interception by Redskins safety Mark Murphy set up Moseley’s 34-yard field goal. Washington later recovered a fumble by running back Tony Collins, and Theismann snuck in from one-yard out for a 24-15 game.
The Patriots battled back. Running back Sam “Bam” Cunningham ran four yards for a touchdown, and New England regained possession on its 19 with 2:33 left and the Redskins clinging to a 24-22 lead.
Quarterback Steve Grogan completed three passes to move the ball to the 25. But the Patriots lost 10 yards on a holding call and failed to advance any further than the 35. On came kicker John Smith, whose career-best was from 50 yards.
His 53-yard attempt fell way short, allowing the Redskins and their 50,000-plus faithful at RFK to breathe easier.
“I think we were all sweating those final few minutes,” Mark Murphy told The Washington Post after the game. “We were just hoping we could come up with a play, or do something to stop them. They are so dangerous.”
The next day, a headline in The Post read: “Washington: A Better-Than Average Joe.” It referred to Joe Washington, who was instrumental in the Redskins’ resurgence in 1981.
Alternating for most of the season with John Riggins in a one-back offense, he led the team in rushing and receiving with some 1,500 yards. He also caught 70 passes, two shy of the Redskins’ record at the time.
He played four seasons in Washington, gaining nearly 3,300 all-purpose yards, and is today one of the 80 Greatest Redskins.
Mike Richman is the author of The Redskins Encyclopedia and the Washington Redskins Football Vault. He hosts a podcast called “Burgundy & Gold Flashback.” His web site is redskinshistorian.com. Check out his Facebook Friend and Fan pages and follow him on Twitter.