The 1979 Washington Redskins: When Building Anguish Found Its Peak

The great fan base of the Washington Redskins had endured some heartache in both 1977 and 1978. Each season saw the Redskins miss the playoffs on the final week of the season, in the latter case after giving away a 6-0 start to the year. What the fans couldn’t have guessed, nor would they have wanted to, was that the 1979 Washington Redskins would lift the season-ending anguish to a new level.

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1979 was the second year under head coach Jack Pardee, and the offense continued to improve, as Pardee and his quarterback Joe Theismann grew together. A unit that ranked 21st in the NFL two years earlier was up to 10th in points scored for 1979. Theismann threw for nearly 2,800 yards and his 20-13 TD/INT ratio was pretty good by the standards of the time.

John Riggins ran for over 1,100 yards and gave the team a real running game, even though Riggins ran behind a pedestrian offensive line that had none of the players who would make up the legendary “Hogs” three years later when the Redskins won the Super Bowl. In fact, to the great credit of Pardee and offensive coordinator Joe Walton (soon to be head coach of the New York Jets), the offense produced in spite of not havin a single Pro Bowl player.

The defense was still the veteran unit that George Allen had built through the 1970s and leading up to his departure after 1977, but there was some infusion of youth. Rookie middle linebacker Neal Olkewicz and 24-year-old free safety Mark Murphy were inserted into the lineup. The strength was still a veteran secondary that had thirtysomething Pro Bowlers in Ken Houston, Lemar Parrish and Joe Lavender, but the ‘Skins were getting younger.

Washington opened the season against the Houston Oilers, who had made the AFC Championship Game in 1978 and would do so again this year. After building a 27-13 lead in the fourth quarter, the Redskins lost 29-27 in a beginning that looks even more ominous with the benefit of hindsight.

The Redskins turned it around quickly and won three straight games over mediocre opposition in the Detroit Lions, New York Giants and St. Louis Cardinals. Then the ‘Skins went to Atlanta. The Falcons had delivered a big blow to Washington’s playoff hopes the prior year with a win in the season’s penultimate game. Atlanta wasn’t as good this time around, and Theismann hooked up with receiver Danny Buggs ten times for 134 yards in a 16-7 win.

Over the next three weeks, Washington played the Philadelphia Eagles twice, with the Cleveland Browns sandwiched in between. It was a tough stretch. The Eagles had made the playoffs the previous year, the first time they had done so in the Super Bowl era and were a team on the rise. Philadelphia would end the year 11-5 and in the postseason again. Cleveland wouldn’t make the playoffs in 1979, but they would go 9-7 and had the core of a team that a year later would win a division and produce the league MVP in quarterback Brian Sipe.

Washington met the challenge. They got a split with the Eagles, and won in Cleveland when Theismann founded Clarence Harmon on a fourth –quarter touchdown pass that pulled out a 14-9 win. The two games against the Eagles had seen Riggins go over 100 yards both times against a good defense. With a 6-2 record, Washington had validated itself as a contender again.

But one week later, the ‘Skins gave a little bit of the good will back with a home loss to the New Orleans Saints. It wasn’t a terrible loss—the Saints would finish 8-8, but it’s also the kind of home defeat that had haunted the Redskins the previous two years. It might have gotten worse a week later at home against St. Louis—the Cardinals turned a 27-7 fourth quarter deficit into a 28-27 lead. Fortunately, Washington kicker Mark Moseley bailed his team out with a late kick to win it.

The Moseley game-winner gave way to a huge home win over the Dallas Cowboys. The Redskins shut down the run, holding the Cowboy’s star running back Tony Dorsett to 43 yards. Washington took care of the ball on offense and forced five turnovers on defense. It added up to an easy 34-20 win as a four-point underdog and at 8-4, life was good in Washington.

But it would not have been the late 1970s Washington Redskins if they didn’t mess things up against the Giants. To keep this in perspective, New York was a bad team through the decade, and that wouldn’t turn around until two years from now. Yet they went 4-2 against the Redskins from 1977-79, and every single year Washington fans could look back on a New York loss that effectively cost the ‘Skins a playoff spot. This year, it was an ugly 14-6 loss in the Meadowlands.

It threatened to get worse when the mediocre Green Bay Packers came to old RFK Stadium and jumped out to a 21-7 lead. But Theismann saved the day—three of his four touchdown passes came in the second half, he threw for 256 yards, he spread the ball around and Washington pulled away 38-21. A victory over the Cincinnati Bengals in the team’s final home game had the Redskins at 10-5 and in first place in the NFC East.

Now it was time to go to Dallas.

The NFC was a packed race, and all five playoff teams (at the time there were three division winners and two wild-cards) would finish either 10-6 or 11-5. The consequence was this—the Redskins were in first place and in fact a victory in Dallas would also lock up the #1 seed in the NFC. Yet Washington could also miss the playoffs entirely.

It was the Chicago Bears that were the immediate issue. They needed to beat the St. Louis Cardinals by 31 points. A win by any smaller margin would at least clinch a wild-card spot for the Redskins. But if the Bears won by 31 or more, then it would be all-or-nothing: Washington would play to be either the #1 seed or to miss the party entirely.

Chicago-St. Louis played an early afternoon game from Soldier Field and to everyone’s disbelief, the Bears won 42-6. All the money was on the table in Big D for the nationally televised late afternoon game.

Washington got a big game from Riggins who ran for 151 yards. They had a 17-0 lead and let it slip away, falling behind 21-17. But the Redskins bounced back, and after a 66-yard touchdown run by Riggins, led 34-21 with just under seven minutes to play.

Roger Staubach was Dallas’ legendary quarterback, known for his fourth quarter comebacks. This was his final year and as it turned out, this would be his final comeback. Dallas scored twice in the final seven minutes and led 35-34.

Theismann led the Redskins down the field in a furious attempt to get into field goal range. They reached the Cowboy 40-yard line and Theismann whirled to the official to signal timeout. Moseley’s range reached into the high 50s, so a field goal was at least doable. But the officials allowed the last second to tick off. It was an understandable mistake in the heat of the play, though under today’s replay rules, Washington would have been granted another play. In the world of 1979 though, their season was over.

It was the bitterest of all all endings in Washington and even today, it stands as the most consequential regular season loss since the NFL expanded the playoffs to four rounds in 1978. Furthermore, Pardee pointed out after the game that the Redskins had declined to run up the score in the Green Bay win, not taking the chance for a late touchdown in the closing seconds when the Redskins were inside the 10-yard line. They ended up five points short of the playoffs.

Changes would come to the NFL tiebreaker system as a result. Common opponents was elevated in importance and net points took its appropriate place near the very bottom of the list.

By the replay standards of today, the 1979 Washington Redskins would have gotten a chance at a last-play field goal in Dallas. By the tiebreaking standards of today, the 1979 Washington Redskins would have at least been a wild-card team. But by the standards of 1979, all they and their fans got was another cruel dose of last-week anguish, the kind of which made 1977 and 1978 look benign by comparison.