The Washington Redskins rode John Riggins' record-breaking 166 yards rushing today to their first National Football League championship in 40 years, finishing off this magical season by overpowering the Miami Dolphins, 27-17, in Super Bowl XVII.
Moving behind the Hogs, his surging offensive linemen, Riggins was magnificent, scoring the winning touchdown on a 43-yard run in the fourth quarter. Carrying a Super Bowl record 38 times, he disrupted Miami's No. 1-rated defense with his relentless runs, rallying the Redskins from a 17-10 halftime deficit to only their third NFL title in history.
No other back ever has run for 100 yards or more in four straight playoff games. No other back has gained more than 158 yards in a Super Bowl. And rarely has any back dominated a Super Bowl as Riggins did today.
"I'm very happy," Riggins said. "At least for tonight, Ron's the president, but I'm the king."
Joe Gibbs, who rebounded from an 0-5 start as a rookie head coach last year to become coach of the year this season, said he told his players at halftime that "this was the way it was supposed to be. If we were going to be world champions, we had to earn it by coming back."
The Redskins came back because Riggins, the unanimous selection as the game's most valuable player, gained 108 yards in the second half, 43 coming on the run that put them ahead for the first time, 20-17.
The Redskins came back because their defense shut down the Dolphins' running game, holding Miami to 34 total yards in the second half. The Redskins were so dominant in the last two periods that the Dolphins didn't complete any of 11 passes.
The Redskins came back because of a two-touchdown performance by quarterback Joe Theismann and what Gibbs proudly called "a 49-man effort that people downplayed all season. No one expected us to win today. But maybe now we'll get all the respect we deserve."
Ten years ago, Washington had its last chance at the NFL title, losing to these Dolphins, 14-7, in Super Bowl VII. But not since 1942 have Redskins fans had a chance to celebrate a league championship. After years of losing records and coaching changes and a few close calls, Gibbs and General Manager Bobby Beathard built a championship team in just two years.
This is a team of 26 free agents, of 14 players who were never drafted, of role players and rejects. It is a team that was not even considered a playoff contender at the start of this strike-marred season. It is a team that entered this game a three-point underdog. It is a team that emerged having won its final seven games and 15 of its last 16, figures unmatched.
And this is a team that won here doing what the Dolphins, the crowd of 103,667--second largest in Super Bowl history--and 100 million-plus television viewers knew they would do: run Riggins again and again.
But the Dolphins, whose defense relies more on quickness than strength, couldn't cope with the Hogs. The Hogs' surge was so steady and strong that often Riggins already had gained three or four yards before being touched by a Miami player.
Riggins ran like a man who may have played his last game, something he wouldn't refute afterward.
"I can still walk away," said Riggins, in his 10th season the NFL's seventh all-time rusher. "It's still possible. I don't have a time schedule. You guys know me, I'm like the wind. I change my mind every five minutes."
Riggins ran like the wind in the game. His 166 yards gave him 610 in four playoff games, an achievement unmatched in NFL history. Riggins, who gained 553 yards in eight regular season games, broke Franco Harris' Super Bowl records, set in Super Bowl IX, of 35 carries for 158 yards.
Once Riggins became dominant, it made Theismann's passing that much more effective. Theismann threw two interceptions, but he also completed 15 of 23 passes for 143 yards and two touchdowns, a six-yarder to Charlie Brown with 115 seconds left wrapping up the triumph and allowing the Redskins' vocal fans to begin celebrating. In addition, he prevented a Miami touchdown, knocking away a batted pass that had found its way into the hands of the Dolphins' Kim Bokamper in the second half.
"All day we ran only about four or five running plays," tackle George Starke said. "Our plan was to run the basic plays all day. We never had to go to plan B."
Still, the Dolphins came close to forcing the Redskins into alternative plans. With a 76-yard scoring pass from quarterback David Woodley to Jimmy Cefalo and a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Fulton Walker, the Dolphins were able to neutralize the Redskins' first-half offensive dominance.
Before Riggins took control, there were two plays that prevented the Dolphins from forcing the Redskins to pass more.
The first came midway through the second period. Miami had the ball at the Redskins' six, leading, 7-3. Woodley rolled to his right and had only linebacker Mel Kaufman between him and the end zone. But Kaufman held up the blockers long enough to allow safety Mark Murphy to tackle Woodley at the three. On the next down, Woodley threw incomplete, forcing Uwe von Schamann to kick a 20-yard field goal.
The second play was Theismann's touchdown saver, which came early in the fourth period with Miami ahead, 17-13, after Mark Moseley kicked a 20-yard field goal, his second of the game. Theismann rolled out from his 18 and tried to pass over defensive end Bokamper. But Bokamper tipped the ball, then was about to catch it for an easy touchdown when Theismann reached in and knocked it away.
Instead of having substantial leads after both plays, the Dolphins instead found themselves still trying to combat Riggins' running and the Redskins' reliance on brute strength.
The Dolphins finally broke on a fourth-and-inches play at their 43. Gibbs, who was aggressive in his play calling all game, decided to go for the first down, in part because his defense was playing so well. The Dolphins, surprised, called a timeout, but Gibbs didn't change his play call: 70 Chip.
Running from the short yardage formation, Riggins lined up behind Otis Wonsley. "The play hits off tackle and Riggins had one guy to beat," said guard Russ Grimm, who teamed with tackle Joe Jacoby and center Jeff Bostic to open holes all game.
Riggins took the ball from Theismann and started to his left. Cornerback Don McNeal, who had slipped trying to follow man in motion Clint Didier, came up fast to make the tackle at the 40. Riggins broke that and took off down the sideline in front of the Dolphins' bench. Safety Glenn Blackwood couldn't catch him.
It was the longest touchdown run from scrimmage in Super Bowl history, and when Moseley kicked the point-after, the Redskins had a 20-17 lead with 10:01 left.
That was the end for Miami. Woodley, who had played so well earlier in the playoffs, was powerless to solve the complex defensive coverages. He missed on 10 straight passes before Don Strock replaced him at the end of the fourth quarter.
The Redskins' defense, which did not allow any of its opponents to gain 100 yards rushing in the playoffs, shut down fullback Andra Franklin, the basic goal of Washington's game plan. Franklin gained 49 yards and his team 96.
Unable to run, the Dolphins had to pass much more than they wanted. The Redskins blitzed and threw combination defenses at Woodley, who rarely came close to a receiver in the last two quarters.
"If they didn't change anything during the game, we felt we could really manhandle them," safety Tony Peters said. "They just weren't that complicated on offense. If we could force Woodley to pass, it was all over."
Said Woodley, "When nothing works, it's completely frustrating. When it looked like we would complete a pass, one of their guys would come in and knock it down. They were able to shut down our backs (Woodley's favorite targets in most games) because they blitzed and we had to keep the backs in to block."
Miami finished with a woeful 176 total yards, only 80 passing. This was an offense that the San Diego Chargers and New York Jets couldn't control, that was averaging 242 yards in the playoffs.
And this was a Dolphins' defense that forced 10 turnovers in helping beat the Chargers and Jets. But the Redskins were convinced if they went right at the heart of that unit, middle guard Bob Baumhower and ends Bokamper and Doug Betters, they could win the game.
The result: 400 yards, 24 first downs--to Miami's nine--36 minutes of possession--to Miami's 24. In the second half, the Dolphins had only two first downs.
Yet, earlier in the game, the Dolphins operated as if they might score at will on the Redskins. On only their fifth offensive play, Woodley caught the Redskins in a zone and passed to Cefalo, who had gotten behind Jeris White in the short zone area. Cefalo caught the ball before Peters could recover and finished off the 76-yard play by running the remaining 55 yards untouched. It was the second-longest touchdown pass in Super Bowl history.
Later, the Dolphins drove to the Redskins' three, before settling for the field goal by von Schamann. And then Walker negated Theismann's four-yard touchdown pass to Garrett, which tied that game at 10, by returning the ensuing kickoff 98 yards for a score. It was the first time a Super Bowl kickoff had been returned for a touchdown.
"The coaches were more shook than we were at halftime," Starke said. "We knew we were moving the ball in the first half. We just weren't scoring."
The Redskins did have their chances in the first half. They got to Miami's 15, but Riggins couldn't pick up a first down on third and three, so Moseley kicked a 31-yard field goal. After Walker scored, they moved from their 10 to Miami's 15, thanks in part to an interference call on Lyle Blackwood. But they had no more timeouts left and, when Garrett caught a pass from Theismann inside the 10, he couldn't get out of bounds and the last 14 seconds ticked off.
But the Redskins knew they could handle Miami's defense, especially after driving 80 yards on 11 plays to set up Garrett's touchdown. Theismann, who relied mostly on short passes and screens throughout the game instead of testing the secondary with deep throws, completed four straight passes in that possession--for 50 yards--and scrambled for 12.
The Redskins could get only another field goal early in the third quarter, but it was nevertheless clear that the game was swinging their way. Then Riggins took over.
"One thing that is underestimated in football is the chemistry of a team," Gibbs said. "We play as a group. As a group, we are hard to believe."
"John Riggins is Mr. Universe," said Miami's Betters. "He is all-world. Their offense was no secret. Give it to John."
They did. And he gave them the NFL championship.