It's not often a team gets booed on its way to first place.
But such were the spoils last night for the Washington Redskins, who defeated the Atlanta Falcons, 27-14, before 51,301 at RFK Stadium, despite allowing Atlanta's Gerald Riggs to rush for 134 yards and two touchdowns, and despite their own team-wide inconsistencies.
Now, the Redskins are in a four-way tie for first place in the NFC Eastern Division with St. Louis, Dallas and the New York Giants, all with 6-4 records. If the season ended today, the Cardinals would win by virtue of possessing the best record in head-to-head games among the four, but that matters little with six weeks remaining in the regular season.
Victory was achieved last night primarily because fullback John Riggins ran for 100 yards and two one-yard touchdowns in 32 carries, tying a few more records on his busy, brutish way. And quarterback Joe Theismann had an evening of accuracy with 19 completions in 25 attempts for 170 yards.
Riggins, 35, had been hammered so unmercifully all game that he said he might need time to rest.
"We'll sit down or maybe lay down on Wednesday and talk things over. There's a very good chance I won't play Sunday (against Detroit). This is going a bit too far," said Riggins, who tied former Redskin Larry Brown's club record with the 21st 100-yard game in his career with the team and tied Don Hutson for third place on the league's all-time list with 105 touchdowns, behind Lenny Moore (113) and Jim Brown (126).
Most of all, though, this was an escape victory for the Redskins. Theismann described it by saying, "We couldn't have gotten our backs too much farther to the wall or we'd be part of the building."
The Redskins had lost their last two games and, although they had been favored by 12 points in this one, found their way to victory only late in the third quarter, with the score tied at 14.
That's when linebacker Mel Kaufman forced quarterback Mike Moroski to fumble when his arm was cocked to throw. Linebacker Neal Olkewicz recovered at the Atlanta 32.
Shortly thereafter, Riggins ran for his second touchdown and, even though Mark Moseley missed the extra point (he kicked Theismann's left, nonthrowing hand), the Redskins led by 20-14 with 1:42 left in the quarter, with the lead about to get bigger.
The Falcons (3-7) were finished for good when Theismann hit wide recevier Calvin Muhammad, curling over the middle, with a seven-yard scoring pass with slightly less than nine minutes to play. That made it 27-14, Redskins.
And so, after seemingly chasing last-place Philadelphia for nearly three quarters last night, the Redskins righted themselves back into first. The rest of November, they will play three last-place teams -- Buffalo, Minnesota and Philadelphia -- plus Detroit, now a pedestrian 3-6-1.
"This was critical. We had lost two games in a row. We had been hammered," said Coach Joe Gibbs. "I felt we needed this. We fought and scratched for everything we got. And finally we got out of a game with no injuries."
After the Falcons had lost quarterback Steve Bartkowski early in the second quarter to a knee injury (the severity was unknown last night) and then lost their fourth consecutive game, Atlanta Coach Dan Henning seemed a frustrated wreck.
Henning issued a brief statement in the postgame media conference, then walked away from the press, saying curtly, "That's it. See you later."
The Redskins seemed ready to say the same thing to the Falcons midway through the second period. Riggins had ended a 10-play, 84-yard drive with his first touchdown with 12:25 left in the half to make it 7-0.
Nearly five minutes later, Theismann astutely changed the play sent in from the sideline on fourth and goal from the Atlanta one. His change turned into a Redskins jackpot.
Riggins had failed to score on third and goal from the one before Gibbs consented with the wishes of the RFK sellout, which was screaming, "Go for it!"
Gibbs said the Redskins planned to run "70-Chip," with Riggins going to the left side, following the block of tight end Clint Didier. But Theismann changed the call to "Bootleg-right."
As the Atlanta defense shifted to the left, Theismann faked a handoff to Riggins, tucked the ball in his own midsection and ran to the right, where the only person within 15 yards was a television cameraman beyond the end zone. It was 14-0 with 7:22 left in the half.
At this point, though, Moroski (eight of 15 for 199 yards) replaced Bartkowksi and led the Falcons back into contention. A coolly operated 83-yard, 14-play drive was highlighted, of course, by Riggs.
Riggs became the first running back to run for more than 100 yards against the Redskins since the Los Angeles Raiders' Marcus Allen rushed for 191 in the Super Bowl.
"The Redskins were still keying to stop the run, but they were going to cut off the outside and I had a lot of cutbacks," Riggs said.
On third and one from the Atlanta 26, Riggs busted around the right side for 25 yards, to the Washington 49. The only thing that kept him from scoring a 74-yard touchdown was cornerback Darrell Green, who raced across field to make the tackle.
"That guy Green, whew!" Riggs marveled. "A couple of times, I thought I had broken one, but he came out of the pack to catch me."
Of course, Riggs would score a touchdown on the drive, anyway. His one-yard score brought Atlanta to 14-7 with 42 seconds left in the half.
The Redskins failed to budge on the first drive of the third quarter. And Atlanta came bursting back, following the explosive Riggs.
The Falcons drove 79 yards in eight plays to tie the score. The key gain, again coming on third and one (this time from the Atlanta 30) was achieved by Riggs. He ran 32 yards, to the Redskins' 38. And, sure enough, it was Green who raced from the pack to catch him.
Next, Moroski hit tight end Cliff Benson for 16 yards, then the quarterback scrambled for 10 yards. Riggs finished off matters with a 10-yard touchdown run, carrying strong safety Ken Coffey over the final three. With 8:41 left in the third quarter, the game was tied and RFK Stadium was full of boos.
Several minutes later, Kaufman crashed through the Atlanta line to force Moroski's fumble. As the crowd ceased its booing, Moroski pleaded with officials that the play should have been ruled an incompletion, not a fumble, that his arm was in forward motion when Kaufman hit him.
"My last thought was not to throw," he said. "My arm was going forward like a pump fake. It's a tough call, like splitting hairs."
To no avail. This was the call that made Henning say, in his brief postgame remarks, "I think there was probably too much judgment in the game."
It mattered little that the Falcons had outgained the Redskins (272 net yards to 255) and even outrushed them, 148-126, mostly due to Riggs.
For the second straight week, the Redskins' defense recorded seven quarterback sacks. Usually, the team figures three sacks in one game is solid production. Kaufman was credited with 2 1/2 sacks and defensive end Charles Mann was credited with 1 1/2.
Throw out all of the numbers and all of the boos to find the bottom line, though: the Redskins are back in first.
"Atlanta's been criticized all week and they responded with a good effort," Gibbs said. "I thought it wouldn't be pretty but that somehow we would win."
In that respect, he was right.
"I said two games ago that we're starting all over in the (division) race. But here we are two weeks later and we're starting all over again. It's going to be big every week, but this one was especially critical."