It has been 40 seasons since the Washington Redskins last won a National Football League championship. They will try to end that streak Sunday in Super Bowl XVII by getting another ride on John Riggins' playoff bandwagon.
"We'd be dumb to do anything else but get on that wagon and let John hitch up and pull us along, just like he's done the last two weeks," said Joe Bugel, the Redskins' offensive line coach.
That is Super Bowl XVII reduced to its simplest terms. If Riggins, who has hinted he could retire after this game, can become the first NFL player to rush for more than 100 yards in four straight playoff games, the Redskins think they will win.
If Miami, which has the league's best defense, can stop Riggins and disrupt Washington's offense, the Dolphins think they will win, living up to their role as a three-point favorite.
As many as 104,000 in Pasadena's Rose Bowl, and another 100 million-plus television viewers, will witness this most basic tactical struggle, which begins at 6:17 p.m. EST.
The weatherman is optimistic the game will not be disrupted by the rains and high winds that have wreaked havoc in California all week. The National Weather Bureau is forecasting a 30 percent chance of rain and temperatures in the low 60s on Sunday. League officials say the Rose Bowl field, which has been covered all week, is in excellent condition.
In a season already blighted by an eight-week players' strike, Super Bowl XVII has been the subject of criticism by some sportswriters and columnists since this matchup was determined last weekend. Although the Redskins have won 14 of their last 15 games and the Dolphins 14 of their last 17, some feel the teams lack glamor, even though the Hogs, Smurfs and Killer Bees have been a hit here.
"I don't know how anyone can predict what will happen Sunday," said Redskin Coach Joe Gibbs, who is in his first Super Bowl (and Washington's first in a decade), only one full season after losing his first five games as a rookie coach in 1981. "We are not going to play to avoid losing. We are going to be aggressive, just like we have all season."
"We found we have played better since our offense has become more aggressive," said Miami Coach Don Shula, who is 2-1 in previous Super Bowls, including a 14-7 victory over the Redskins in Super Bowl VII, but hasn't been in this game since 1974.
"We are going to take our shots downfield and we are going to go after them. We found we couldn't win earlier by being one-dimensional."
The Dolphins have Shula, one of the league's most respected coaches. They have the Killer Bee defense, the league's stingiest, especially against the pass. They have 35 draft choices on the club; a talented young fullback named Andra Franklin; a tradition of shutting down big-game players such as Riggins, and the confidence that comes from beating two very good offensive teams, San Diego and the New York Jets, in consecutive playoff games.
Washington also is on a roll. With Riggins running for 444 playoff yards; with the Hogs, their young offensive line, dominating up front; with their defense holding opponents to less than 100 rushing yards each of the last three weeks; with their special teams, led by Mike Nelms and Mark Moseley, the Redskins are relaxed, and confident and pleased to be underdogs.
"Why not be underdogs--we've filled that role all year?" safety Mark Murphy said. "We know what we are capable of doing and how well we can play. If other people don't, there isn't much we can do about it."
Questions swirl around the Redskins: Can they be emotionally ready for Miami after that draining victory over Dallas last Saturday in the NFC title game? Can this mostly young, inexperienced, patchwork team (26 free agents) hold up against a carefully constructed (through the draft) opponent? Can quarterback Joe Theismann, stung this week by local media criticism of his ability, solve the complexities of the Miami defense, something Dan Fouts and Richard Todd (five interceptions each) couldn't do the last two weeks?
Theismann, a 69 percent playoff passer who has thrown only one interception in his last 127 passes, will benefit if his receivers can neutralize the Dolphin cornerbacks' bump-and-run tactics, which so disrupted San Diego's timing patterns. "We don't rely on timing patterns as much and that will help," receiver Alvin Garrett said.
Theismann will benefit if the Hogs can adjust to the Dolphins' constant movement up front, in which end Kim Bokamper sometimes becomes a pass-covering linebacker and linebacker A.J. Duhe turns into a rushing lineman, coming from unpredictable angles. Miami wants to generate a rush from its three-man front, so linebackers can help out in the secondary.
Theismann will benefit if speedy Joe Washington, who had one of his ailing knees drained this week, can play enough to become an effective receiver out of the backfield.
And Theismann will benefit if Riggins, who desperately wants a Super Bowl ring, has the kind of day he experienced the last three games.
"We know they are going to come out and go after us," Bokamper said. "The Hogs are big and they do a lot of pushing, just trying to get in your way so Riggins can read the hole. He's quick to react. We just aren't going to let him do what he wants. It will be our quickness against their power."
If Riggins can run successfully, Miami's secondary can't spend as much time shadowing receivers and Theismann won't face as many second-and-long and third-and-long passing situations, where the Dolphins are so good. The Killer Bees also rely on forcing turnovers (12 the last two weeks), but the Redskins don't make many mistakes. They've committed only one turnover in the playoffs, their offense hasn't lost a fumble the last 300 plays and Riggins has fumbled once in 275 carries this season.
Gibbs, who calls this game "the biggest challenge of my life," and his staff have put in long hours this week on a game plan that is almost certain to have some unusual twists, just as last Saturday's Dallas plan included new run-blocking schemes.
The Dolphins' offensive plans mirror the Redskins'; only the names are different. Miami wants to set up everything with the running of Franklin, who is quicker than Riggins. Halfback Tony Nathan will try to have more success than Tony Dorsett did running outside sweeps against the Redskins, who haven't allowed a runner to gain more than 100 yards in 10 games.
When the Dolphins beat Washington, 13-10, last season in the Orange Bowl, Miami had success throwing deep. But the Redskins would welcome that approach again from David Woodley, the youngest quarterback to play in the Super Bowl. Washington's blitzing, aggressive tactics, which have been effective against young quarterbacks late in the season, work best if opponents are in a lot of long-yardage passing situations.
"This is the kind of game everyone dreams about playing," guard Russ Grimm said. "We won't have stage fright; we want the (Super Bowl) ring too badly. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. No one wants to blow it. Besides, we want to show everyone, once and for all, that we belong here."