Redskins running back John Riggins gained 166 yards and was named MVP of Super Bowl XVII.
January 30, 1983
Conformity and John Riggins were never meant for each other.
Riggins sings his own lyrics written to his own tempo. He hacks his own pathways while others ride the interstates.
In times past, when teammates favored the Afro hairstyle, John modeled the Mohawk or had the cue-ball look.
Shortly before Super Bowl XVII, Riggins broke a two-year moratorium on interviews. Submitting to a press inquisition four days before the game in Pasadena, Calif., he delighted jaded journalists with a sprightly sense of humor.
Two nights before the Washington-Miami encounter for the championship of professional football, Redskins Owner Jack Kent Cooke played host to a party for 350. Casual attire was suggested. Riggins demonstrated his interpretation of "casual," arriving in top hat, white tie and tails and jauntily swinging a walking stick.
On another evening, Riggins and fellow revelers returned to the hotel several hours past midnight and awakened all other teammates within earshot.
That was Riggins running in the face of convention prior to kickoff on January 30, 1983, at the Rose Bowl. Once the whistle sounded, however, the 230-pound Kansan ran into the faces of the Miami Dolphins as he led the Redskins to a 27-17 victory before 103,667 sun-drenched spectators, the second largest Super Bowl crowd (Super Bowl XIV at Pasadena drew 103,985).
In avenging a 14-7 loss to Miami in Super Bowl VII, the Redskins eroded the National Football League's top-rated defense and then humbled it. Washington posted 400 total net yards -- compared with 176 for Miami. Riggins gained 166 yards in 38 carries -- both records -- and, with 15 more yards on a pass, outgained the entire Miami offense.
The Dolphins registered only nine first downs, tying a mark for ineptitude set by the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IX, and made only two first downs in the second half. The American Conference champions invaded Washington territory only once in the last two quarters, and that was due to an interception.
Miami quarterbacks completed only four passes, an all-time low, and none in the second half. The subjugation was complete when Coach Don Shula inserted Don Strock, miracle worker of past revivals, with 2 minutes remaining. The backup quarterback contributed three incompletions to the 10 posted by David Woodley.
The victory was the Redskins' 15th in 16 games dating to the 1981 season -- marred only by a December, 1982, loss to Dallas -- and the championship was the club's first since 1942, when a Ray Flaherty team defeated the Chicago Bears in the title game.
While Riggins was romping to Most Valuable Player honors, Washington's teams-within-a-team were excelling in their own miniature arenas. The offensive line, affectionately known as the Hogs, was winning blue ribbons, opening holes and providing excellent pass protection.
The Smurfs, undersized wide receivers Alvin Garrett and Charlie Brown, caught touchdown passes that allowed the Fun Bunch, the pass-catching corps, to stage its tribal ritual in the end zone.
But the game belonged to Riggins, the former Kansas Jayhawk who might have matriculated at Colorado except that Buffalo recruiters, according to legend, were unable to locate Centralia, Kan., a pinpoint on the map near the Nebraska border.
In addition to his heavy-duty rushing, Riggins rambled 43 yards for a touchdown, the longest Super Bowl scoring run from scrimmage.
The world championship climaxed an irregular course for Riggins, a first-round draft choice by the New York Jets in 1971. After five seasons in the AFC, he played out his option and signed a five-year contract with the Redskins.
In July, 1980, Riggins reported to training camp, but left two days later when General Manager Bobby Beathard refused to renegotiate the final year of his contract. He was placed on the left camp/retired list and returned to his farm outside Lawrence, Kan.
It was there that Joe Gibbs found Riggins shortly after replacing Jack Pardee as the Redskins' coach following the 1980 season.
"I told him I wanted to help him do what he wanted to do," revealed Gibbs, the former offensive coordinator of the San Diego Chargers. "If he wanted to come back to Washington, I sure wanted him. If he wanted something else, I wanted to help him."
Riggins was 31 and in no shape for the rigors of pro football.
"All I did the whole year was paint my house," Riggins said. "I'm a slow worker."
But John liked Gibbs' pitch and he rejoined the Redskins. Before long, however, Joe wondered if he had made the right move.
"We took it easy on him the first year," said the coach. "We felt he'd turn it on during the regular season, but he didn't play well in our first two games and in the fourth, against Philadelphia, he played poorly. All of us, including John, wondered if he was through."
Nevertheless, Riggins gained 714 yards in 1981.
The strike-shortened 1982 season offered some encouragement. In nine games, Riggins gained 553 yards as the team posted an 8-1 record, best in the National Conference.
Before the start of the playoffs, Riggins thought his hour had arrived, that he was ready to demolish defenses -- provided he had enough opportunity to carry the ball.
"Gimme the ball 20 to 25 times a game," he told Gibbs, a disciple of the passing school, "and we'll do it."
Gibbs consented and John delivered handsomely. He gained more than 100 yards in victories over Detroit, Minnesota and Dallas before detonating against Miami. He totaled 610 playoff yards in 136 carries.
"I thought he could do it all year long," said tackle Joe Jacoby, one of the Hogs. "All he needed was to get the ball."
Riggins, who thought Gibbs "might have been carried away" by his request for action, was busiest against Miami in the fourth quarter when he carried the ball 13 times, three more than in the first period. His number was called seven times in the second quarter and eight in the third.
The Dolphins, seeking their third world title in four Super Bowl appearances, gave early indications that they merited their role as three-point favorites. On Miami's second possession, from a second-and-six at its 24-yard line, Woodley passed to wide receiver Jimmy Cefalo, who caught the ball at the Dolphins' 45 and outraced safety Tony Peters to the goal line.
"I was watching to see how far Jimmy would go," explained Woodley. "If the defensive back played off him, he would stay close to the line. But the defensive back came up and Jimmy ran right by him. They should have been in double coverage with a cornerback backing up, but the corner was frozen by the fake quick pitch."
Miami's stout defense checked the Redskins on the next possession, after which the Dolphins ran off two first downs before Washington right end Dexter Manley crashed into Woodley, who fumbled. When tackle Dave Butz recovered, the Redskins had the ball at Miami's 46.
The possibility of trying to advance the fumble never occurred to Butz, a 10-year veteran.
"My job is not to run with the ball, just secure it," Butz said. "In a game as important as this, running with the ball is something I wouldn't think of trying. Securing it was my only thought."
With Riggins carrying on four consecutive plays, the Redskins moved to Miami's 14, from where Mark Moseley kicked a 31-yard field goal two plays into the second quarter.
Fulton Walker's 42-yard return of the ensuing kickoff gave the Dolphins fine field position at their 47, from where Woodley launched a 14-play, 50-yard drive featuring the running of Tony Nathan and Andra Franklin. When the Washington defense stiffened at the 3, Ewe von Schamann booted a 20-yard field goal, restoring the Dolphins' seven-point advantage.
The clock showed 5 minutes, 55 seconds remaining in the first half when the Redskins started their next offensive series from their own 20. Ten plays, including a 15-yard swing pass to Riggins and a 12-yard scramble by quarterback Joe Theismann, brought up a third-and-one at the Miami 4. It was time to call on the Smurfs.
Wide receivers Garrett and Brown dashed to the right, where Brown made a pick that freed Garrett to catch Theismann's soft pass over the head of cornerback Gerald Small.
"They were in tight coverage and I just beat my guy off the line," said Garrett, who started in the playoffs only because of injuries to Art Monk.
Only 1:51 remained in the half when Moseley's conversion kick knotted the score at 10-10.
Suddenly, the "Hail to the Redskins" fight song boomed with extra zest, and just as suddenly it went flat as Walker gathered in Jeff Hayes' kickoff at the 2. Walker, a second-year backup cornerback from West Virginia, raced to the left and broke through a large hole in the coverage wedge. At midfield he encountered Hayes, whom he faked into a turnaround. Hayes attempted a leg tackle that merely brushed Walker, who galloped all the way with the first scoring kickoff return in 17 Super Bowls. For the third time, the Dolphins enjoyed a seven-point lead when von Schamann converted.
"We had a wedge set to the left," said Walker. "I baited their guy to go to the right, then I cut back to the left as hard as I could. That's when the alley opened up, and when Hayes turned his back I knew he wasn't going to catch me."
Walker's electrifying dash put scarcely a dent in the clock and 1:34 remained when the Redskins started from their 7 with Riggins' three-yard smash up the middle. Aided by a 30-yard interference call against Lyle Blackwood on a pass intended for Nick Giaquinto, the Redskins moved to the Miami 16 with 14 seconds left.
A low-risk pass into the end zone seemed in order, but Theismann, with no timeouts remaining, passed to Garrett, who was tackled inbounds by Glenn Blackwood as time expired.
Explaining the surprise call, Gibbs said, "We called a dash that got Theismann outside. The formation gives us one guy on the sideline and another in the end zone. If Joe has nobody, he can throw it away. He went to the guy who was supposed to be on the sidelines, but
wouldn't let him get out of bounds."
Theismann was more harsh. "I made a stupid play," he muttered. "I thought we could get the play off with time to try a field goal."
"I didn't see Blackwood behind me," said Garrett. "I thought I could score by going to the side, but he cut me off."
Trailing by seven points where only moments earlier his team was even, Gibbs reminded the Redskins at halftime that they had rebounded from greater deficits to win and could do so again by continuing to do what they do best.
"I told 'em a lot of things hadn't gone right for them in the first half and that they'd turn around," Gibbs said. "I said I had a good feeling about the game and they said the same thing."
Gibbs' euphoria translated into three points in the first 7 minutes of the second half. On Washington's second possession, from its 47, Garrett ran a reverse on a handoff from Riggins and raced 44 yards to the Miami 9 before he was stopped by Small.
"That's our 'X-Reverse,'" said Garrett, a ninth-round draft choice out of Angelo (Tex.) State by San Diego in 1979 who was subsequently cut by the Chargers and New York Giants. "The last time we ran it I think I lost two yards. It was the perfect time to call it (first-and-10). It was wide open and perfectly executed."
On third down, Theismann tried the same play that had produced the Redskins' first touchdown, but he overshot Garrett and Washington settled for a 20-yard Moseley field goal that cut Miami's edge to 17-13.
Action stalled for the next 4 minutes, until a Theismann pass intended for Don Warren was intercepted by linebacker A.J. Duhe at the Washington 47. An offsides penalty and a five-yard run by Woodley netted the Dolphins their ninth and last first down of the game before Woodley attempted a long pass to Cefalo. The ball was tipped by cornerback Vernon Dean and intercepted by safety Mark Murphy, who batted the ball with one had and pulled it in with the other as he fell to the ground.
Three plays later, Theismann dropped back from the 18 intending to pass to Brown. The ball had scarcely left his hand when it struck the outstretched palms of Kim Bokamper. For a split second Miami's defensive end teetered on the brink of an interception, but as he was about to clasp the ball, Theismann charged forward and slapped it to the ground.
"That was the biggest play of the game," said Theismann, not immodestly. "And I did hit the ball, I'll be honest. I had visions of Duhe last week (three interceptions in the AFC title game against the New York Jets, including a touchdown return), and I didn't want to be in Richard Todd's shoes."
"It was a great play," Shula agreed. "It could have put us in pretty good shape, but Theismann broke it up."
Bokamper, crestfallen over his failure to make the interception and score an easy touchdown, said, "I just came upfield on my guy (tackle George Starke) and got an opportunity to get my hand up and tip it. The ball went straight up. Theismann wasn't anywhere in sight. Then just as it came down in my hands he punched it right through."
Miami nose tackle Bob Baumhower had his own version. "Theismann's gotta be the luckiest guy in the world on that play," he snorted.
Having dodged the Bokamper bullet late in the third quarter, Theismann led the Redskins to the Miami 43 where Gibbs, who had promised he would be aggressive and "do the things we do best," dipped into his pouch of tricks.
On a first-and-10 in the early moments of the final period, Theismann handed off to Riggins, who lateraled back to the quarterback -- whose pass intended for Brown was picked off by a diving Lyle Blackwood at the 1. After two plays netted only three yards and a Woodley pass fell incomplete, the Dolphins gave the ball back to Washington at its 48.
Three line smashes gained nine yards and placed Gibbs squarely at the crossroads of a major decision: Go for the first down or punt the ball away.
Gibbs was thinking of a specific play on third down.
"We knew if we didn't make it then," he said, "it would be a risky field goal. We decided to take our best play and go at them. We didn't want to lose a Super Bowl by not being tough enough. The play was a fake zoom. I think they thought we were slanting one way and got caught when we went the other way."
The play started with Washington tight end Clint Didier in motion. Across the line of scrimmage, Miami cornerback Don McNeal kept pace until the end, as Didier wheeled and headed back from whence he had come. Attempting the same move, McNeal lost his footing, but only briefly. It was, however, long enough.
To McNeal's horror, he saw Riggins heading for the area he had vacated. McNeal arrived a fraction too late. He got a hand on the runaway Riggins, but it was no contest as the Washington back ran 43 yards for a touchdown. With 4:59 elapsed in the fourth quarter, the Redskins had their first lead of the game. Moseley's conversion made it 20-17.
"The play is called 70-Chip out of the I formation," said Riggins. "It's something we've used all season. We must have run it seven or eight times against Dallas (in the NFC championship game)."
Ten minutes still remained, ample time for the Dolphins to countercharge, but the Redskins would have none of it. When Woodley threw an incompletion that terminated the next series, his futility was full-blown. His passing record for the second half was 0-for-8.
Washington was now in position to play the clock. Eight running plays consumed nearly 4 minutes. On third-and-nine at Miami's 18, Theismann rolled left and tossed to Brown at the 9. Three plays later, the same pair teamed up on a six-yard scoring play. Moseley's toe accounted for a 10-point lead at the 2-minute mark.
At that point, Theismann felt like "we were in RFK Stadium. We felt the vibrations coming from the East."
When the Dolphins began their next possession, Strock was at quarterback. But a lack of time and a hounding Washington defense made the old magician as ineffective as Woodley. A four-yard end-around and three incomplete passes represented the Dolphins' last gasp.
"I had thought about using Strock late in the third quarter," said Shula. "But when he got in he really didn't have a chance."
Of Theismann, once the property of the Dolphins, Shula said, "He was outstanding. He was going against a tough defense, yet came up with big plays. On designed rollouts, he came out of the pocket and continually made big plays."
Another candidate for big-play honors was Rick Walker, one of 26 free agents (14 of whom were not even drafted by NFL teams) on the new world champions. It was Walker's block that sprung Riggins loose on his scoring jaunt.
"I didn't see much of the run," said Walker, a member of the Hogs. "I was in the dirt as usual, blocking Larry Gordon (linebacker). When I looked up, I saw the big diesel rolling along."
Diesel or train (McNeal's description) or sycamore (Theismann's expression), it made little difference to Riggins.
"Reagan may be President, but today I'm king," exulted John to his subjects in press interview quarters.
But the crown head reverted to character in the final scene. Richer by $70,000 than he had been a month before -- as were all the world champions -- Riggins slipped into a pair of camouflage pants and slipped out the back door of the Rose Bowl locker room.
Perched on his head where a crown should have been was a cap proclaiming, "Ducks Unlimited."