Our Chance To Be Great

The author, the quarterback of the Redskins, tells how a clever game plan, good execution and a bit of luck beat Miami in the Super Bowl
February 14, 1983

Looking back on it now, I don't think our victory in the Super Bowl can be taken all by itself. It has to be treated as the end of one long, incredible emotional experience. When did it begin? Well, for me, maybe it began when I first started playing football, at the age of 12. Maybe when I decided to play in Canada instead of the NFL after coming out of Notre Dame in 1971. Maybe when George Allen kept me sitting on the bench behind Sonny Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer for four years after I joined the Redskins in 1974. Maybe after we started the 1981 season 0-5. Since then we've won 20 of our 24 games.

All I know is that I didn't begin thinking Super Bowl until after our 31-17 victory over the Cowboys for the NFC championship. We knew all along that if we were going to get to the Super Bowl we'd have to beat Dallas, the only team we lost to during the regular season. After we got past Minnesota in our second playoff game, the party line among the players was, "Oh, we don't care who we play. We don't care if it's Dallas or Green Bay." But that wasn't true. Everybody wanted the Cowboys. And we beat them.

That was on a Saturday, eight days before the Super Bowl. The next afternoon, Miami played the Jets for the AFC championship. I tried to watch the game on TV at my house in Vienna, Va., but the place was a zoo. My three kids were running around and there were three television crews there to watch me watch. I sat there watching like a fan, trying to decide who I'd rather play against in the Super Bowl. Joe Walton, the Jets' offensive coordinator, was my quarterback coach for three years with the Redskins. He taught me more about the discipline of playing my position than any other coach I've ever had. I wanted to play the Jets. But I wanted to play the Dolphins, too. Miami was the team that drafted me out of Notre Dame, and my brief experience with the Dolphins hadn't been pleasant. I'd publicly promised that come hell or high water I'd be a Dolphin, but by the time Joe Robbie, the Miami owner, and I could work things out, it was too late. I'd already decided to sign for three years with the Toronto Argonauts in the CFL, and not without some regret. I have a ring that I had made when I came back from Canada. It has three small diamonds, which represent my three Super Bowls—'71, '72 and '73—that the Dolphins played in while I was in exile.

I was so charged up on Monday morning that I couldn't wait until five o'clock, when we were to meet at Redskin Park, near Dulles Airport, before flying to the Coast. Again, the house was crazy. Amy, who's 9, had to go to dancing school, and Joey, 11, had to go someplace else, and my wife, Cheryl, had to drive all the car pools and run some errands and take care of little Patrick, who's 4. She wanted to know what time I had to be out at the park. "Five," I'd said. "No, four...no, three." I was driving her nuts. By two o'clock I had two suitcases packed and ready to go, and by chance a friend of mine, who's a policeman, dropped by to wish me luck. "Hey, things are already falling into place," I said. "Can you take me out to the park?"

And so I got to ride in his black-and-white. Most kids like police cars. Now I had one to play with. I had the sirens and the horns blaring and the red lights spinning as we drove along, and my friend kept saying, "Will you stop, Joe? You're going to get me in trouble!" I said, "Hey, I'm having a ball!" As we pulled up to the park a police barricade was already in place, because a couple of thousand fans were expected for our send-off. I hit the sirens and the lights again, and my friend said, "Oh, don't do that, please. My sergeant's here." I said, "Oh, they're not going to care. We're going to the Super Bowl!"

On the plane I got my first taste of our game plan from Joe [Gibbs, the Redskin coach], who also saved me from losing my Super Bowl check in a gin game with [Tackle] Mark May. Joe said that the main thing we would do to counteract Miami's great defense would be to constantly change our offensive formations. We'd shift our tight end from one side of the formation to the other and then we'd move our wingback, who is usually a second tight end, back and forth behind the line of scrimmage. We'd send our wide receivers in different motion patterns. It was all designed to tie down the mobile Dolphin linebackers, to make them respond to our movements, rather than us respond to theirs. Miami had beaten the Jets and San Diego in the playoffs by making their offenses react to the Dolphins' defensive alignments. The plays we'd run wouldn't be new, nor would the formations we'd run them from. But it was the way we'd get to those formations that would be a problem for Miami.

We checked into our hotel in Costa Mesa on Monday night. On Tuesday, after a huge morning press conference and picture-taking session, we finally got onto the practice field, and everything seemed to be moving fast. Out of sequence. It wasn't a very good practice, but it was enough to get us going. That night I drove to Burt Reynolds' home in Holmby Hills for dinner and a movie and to meet some of his friends: Ricardo Montalban, Loni Anderson and Karen Valentine. I've had a little Hollywood experience myself. I played a bouncer in The Man With Bogart's Face, with Bob Sacchi, Michelle Phillips and George Raft, and I also had a part in one episode of B.J. & the Bear.

Wednesday's press conference was even bigger, and it ran a little late. Some of us—I'll mention no names—didn't make the bus to the practice field and drove cars over to it. Joe was upset. I mean ticked. The man was flat PO'd. He was walking up and down outside the locker room, and you could see smoke coming out of his ears. He came inside, slammed down his clipboard and said, "I want everybody in this organization on the buses. Everybody's going to take the buses. Nobody drives cars. This isn't a party. We're here to do something, and we've got to take it seriously."

Joe definitely got his point across. He's not a yeller, so we knew he meant what he said. In fact, what he did in that meeting could have been one of the most significant things that happened all week. Everybody's concentration came back just like that. To give you an idea of what kinds of characters we have on our football team, [Tackle] George Starke walked over to Joe as practice was ending and said, "What time's the bus leaving, Coach?" Joe just smiled.

Predictably, everybody made the buses on Thursday. I was beginning to realize that during Super Bowl week, the only sane moments come in our meetings and on the practice field. Everything else—the press conferences, the TV attention, the crazy fans clogging the hotel lobby day in and day out—is fantasyland. That morning at our quarterback meeting, Joe had this extra little twinkle in his eye. You just knew that he had something special, like a kid with a new toy. Our coaches called it the Explode Package. It was a series of four plays in which we've got everybody in the world moving. The tight end moves from split to tight, the wingback moves from the right side to the left side, the halfback moves from behind me to behind the tight end, the two wide receivers shift out and one of them goes in motion. All this happens when I say, "Set." It looks like a Chinese fire drill.

And it fit right in with our game plan, because it was another way to confuse the Dolphins. Defense works by recognition. And when you inhibit that recognition by getting everyone moving around, you get the defense saying, "Now wait a second. Where is everybody?" This particular package was designed for what we call the Red Area—inside Miami's 20-yard line. But even if we never got close to the goal line all day, Joe said he wanted to use it anyway, just to hear what the TV announcers would say when they saw everybody moving.

During that day's workout I was in the huddle when all of a sudden this bee landed on me. Freddie Dean, my right guard, said, "Joe, you got a bee on you!" We were well aware of all the talk about the Killer Bees, which was what everyone was calling the Miami defense. So I swatted the bee onto the ground and Freddie smashed it with the back of his hand. I don't believe in omens, but I liked the look of this one.

Friday was our dress-rehearsal practice and things were looking good. That night Jack Kent Cooke, the owner of the Redskins, threw a party, and it was the best. A classic. What was so special about that night was that John Riggins entered in white tie and tails, with top hat, white gloves and a cane. People always ask me about J.R. and all I can say is he's one of a kind. He dances to his own drum. There's not much more I'm able to say about him. He just doesn't talk much. In fact, John broke his 18-month silence with the press only after our playoff game against Minnesota. And you had to see that press conference to believe it. You'd have thought you were at one of Ronald Reagan's. Everybody in our organization, from the coaches to the players to the equipment men, was there just to hear him talk, as well as more press than I'd ever seen at Redskin Park.

So everybody thought John's entrance to Mr. Cooke's party was spectacular. He got a standing ovation. J.R. is here! And seeing him so loose, having so much fun, took everybody's edginess away just like that.

Saturday night we had an 8 p.m. meeting before moving from Costa Mesa to another hotel closer to the Rose Bowl. Joe got up and gave us a pep talk, prefacing it, as he always does, by saying, "Guys, you got to put up with me. I've got some things I have to say." And then he said that we had accomplished a lot as a football team, and that some people are content to just be a part of something. "But," he went on, "there are other people who want to be great. And tomorrow is going to be our chance to be great." That night I had the best night of sleep I'd had all week.

Next morning I couldn't believe that Super Bowl Sunday had finally arrived. I got myself dressed for breakfast and I didn't shave. I never do on a game day. It gets me into the right disposition. It makes me feel like it's time to get down and get dirty. I ate with George Starke, Tommy Owen and Riggo, and we talked a little bit about the game, a lot about everything else. John swallowed a huge mouthful of food and said, "I think I'll carry the ball about 40 times and run for about 204 yards." I said, "That would be O.K. with me, J.R." He was off by only two carries and 38 yards.

I went into my routine in the Rose Bowl locker room. I laid a whole stack of towels on the floor in front of my locker, propped my feet up on a chair, and read PEOPLE magazine for about 40 minutes, just like I do before every ballgame. I had to finish every article. I never want to leave anything incomplete, because that leaves your mind incomplete. And that makes your passes incomplete.

You could sense that the guys were starting to get restless. A lot of them were watching the pregame show on television. There were many visits to the bathroom, where our trainer, Bubba Tyer, had taped to the wall a large color photograph of the 17-diamond gold ring the 49ers received for winning last year's Super Bowl. About 15 minutes before we went out for warm-ups, Tony McGee, one of our defensive linemen, decided to turn the TV off—by pulling the plug.

When we came back inside after warmups, Joe drew up the first play we would run—50 Gut, which is a run off left tackle by John. That was the play we would run most of the afternoon. It was our best matchup, Riggins running behind Jeff Bostic, Joe Jacoby and Russ Grimm vs. Kim Bokamper, Earnie Rhone and Larry Gordon. And that one play would set the tempo for the rest of the game. We wanted to run the football. We didn't want to get into a lot of third-and-longs.

The locker room was really wired now, and all the guys were worked up. I sat down and looked around and took in moments that will live forever in my mind: Ricky Walker pumping his fist and saying, "Come on. We can do it!" Neal Olkewicz yelling, "This is what football's all about!" Riggo was seated five chairs to my right, quietly getting ready. The next quarter-hour was the most anxious time for all of us, because everyone was dressed with no place to go. Then Bill Hickman, the coach's administrative assistant, started giving us the countdown. He'd walk through the quiet locker room and say, "Twelve minutes to go." Then, "Ten minutes to go." Then, "Five minutes to go." Then, with two minutes to go, Joe stood up in front of us and said, "This is the moment we've all been waiting for." We knelt down, clasped hands, and all said the Lord's Prayer. And I'm sure every man in the room had a little something extra to say. I know I sure did. We all came up with a roar and started out of the locker room. As usual, I was the last to leave. I had to make my one last nervous trip to the bathroom—and take one last look at that ring. Then the impact of what was taking place really started to hit me. As we walked out of the tunnel, the noise really started to build.

I was named a captain for the game, and although I've never been a regular captain on any of my teams, every time I've participated in the coin toss, my team has won. Bob Kuechenberg, one of the Dolphin captains, called heads and it came up heads, but Jerry Markbreit, the referee, signaled that we'd won the toss. Kooch said, "No, no. We won the toss." Jerry said, "O.K., what do you want to do?" Kooch said, "We'll receive." So Jerry lines us up and pats us on the shoulders and signals that we'll receive and Kuechenberg says, "No, no. We'll receive." We're out there in front of 100,000 people and 111 million more watching on TV, and the referees are nervous.

When we get the ball we run Riggins right at them. During our first several plays I evaluate their coverage. Joe calls the plays from the sidelines, and Don Breaux, our backfield coach, signals them in to me. My job is to execute them; I never change the plays. Still, I have to know what the defense is doing out there. I can see that Miami's in a two-deep—and they stayed in it all afternoon—which means that the two safeties stay in the middle of the field in the deep zone and the two corners press our wide receivers; that is, they bump them and go face to face with them right from the line of scrimmage. That makes it difficult for our receivers to go down the middle and difficult to go outside, too, but we know that they can't stop our running with half their defenders back in the passing zones. That means the difference between John's gaining three yards and five yards each time he carries. And five yards is about what he's getting.

After their touchdown pass to Jimmy Cefalo in the first quarter, we're down 7-0, but it doesn't matter. We're moving the ball. If we'd gotten behind by more than a touchdown it might have been different. But we get a field goal from Mark Moseley early in the second quarter and it's 7-3. Then they get a field goal and it's 10-3, and I don't feel badly at all. We're running John at them all day, but we've also shown them our flea-flicker reverse pass, and our flanker screen, and even a screen pass to John, who hardly ever practices that play. We've let them know that they could never be sure where our offense would be coming from. And now that we've moved the ball into the Red Area, we come with our Explode Package for the first time. I'm really charged because I've been dying to try it out. All it gets us is a touchdown. After everybody shifts, Charlie Brown and Alvin Garrett are split together on the right. Charlie comes in motion and runs inside, Alvin runs outside, I put it up for Alvin in the corner of the end zone and it's a TD, and I almost jump out of my shoes. So it's 10-10 for about 15 seconds, or until Fulton Walker goes 98 yards with our kickoff for a touchdown.

Now I get stupid. We move the ball down to their 16-yard line with 14 seconds left in the half and use our last timeout for a sideline conference. I say, "Let me take one more play. I'll throw it away if it's not there." So we call a drop roll to the left. Alvin gets open, but he's too far from the sideline. I shouldn't have thrown it to him, but he catches it and time runs out. I said to myself, "Darn! It would have been 17-13 with the field goal. We would have had the momentum. Instead they had the momentum because they kept us from scoring." When we get inside the locker room nobody says anything, but I know I let a scoring opportunity get away.

We have about 10 minutes to ourselves to get a drink and towel down. Then Joe comes in from the coaches' conference with a chalkboard containing the plays we're going to use in the second half. And the only thing we do to our game plan is move a few pass plays we normally run on second down to first down, because they had changed a few things in their defensive coverages as a concession to our running game. Just before we go out for the second half, Joe tells us, "We've been down by more than seven points before. We were down 11 points to the Giants and we beat them. Champions can come back and win."

We start the third quarter atrociously, but then we really open things up. On first down, we go with a tight-end screen to Donnie Warren. Then comes the big reverse that Alvin Garrett runs for 44 yards. Again, everything stems from John. I hand the ball to John, John hands it to Alvin and there are all the Dolphins still chasing John. Pretty soon we're at the goal line with third down. We go back to the Explode Package again with a little different play. But now I just overthrow Alvin in the same place where he had caught the touchdown. We end up with another field goal, it's 17-13, and we're back in it.

Now we come to a very interesting part of the football game. We take over the ball after a punt, and on first down we run a bootleg pass that's been open against everybody we've run it on. I fake a toss to John—again, notice that everything stems from action off John—and Donnie Warren, one of our tight ends, is open over the middle. I don't throw it high enough, and A.J. Duhe intercepts. I go jogging off the field and I can see the offensive linemen are upset. I can see it on their faces.

Mark Murphy intercepts right back for us, and two runs later Joe sends in another first-down pass, from our own 18. It's another complex shift package, in which Charlie Brown actually changes positions with Rick Walker, the tight end. I wanted to throw to Ricky on the right side, but he was covered. I swing back around to my left and see Charlie open. I throw it under pressure, and Bokamper knocks the ball up in the air. I see him about to grab it right near our goal line and I'm struggling to keep my feet. Just as the ball settles in his hands, I manage to swat it away.

I see where Bob Baumhower, their nose tackle, said after the game that Joe Theismann is probably the luckiest man in the world. In all honesty. Bob, you may be right. If Bokamper takes that ball in for a touchdown it's 24-13. Needing two touchdowns to win with a quarter and change to go, we'd have had to abandon our running game. That would've taken John Riggins out of the game for us. And without John, winning would've been a lot tougher.

A few moments later we're still losing 17-13, and we need John to get us a first down on fourth-and-one at the Dolphins' 43. We call 70 Chip, which is John off left tackle behind Otis Wonsley throwing a "chip block" on any blue jersey in front of him. Clint Didier is the motion man this time, and he moves from the left wing toward the middle, then back again. Their cornerback, Don McNeal, follows Clint, and when Clint turns back, McNeal falls down right in front of me. I hurry the count when I see that and get John the ball. Otis does his job, John gets a hole, and we've got the first down. That's important. And then, all of a sudden, I see John break loose for a touchdown and I'm in ecstasy. I can't believe it, 20-17! Our defense is playing like gangbusters and we're starting to feel like we have a real chance to win.

Anything can happen before that clock runs down. That's why we needed that last touchdown. We have third-and-goal at the two-minute warning, and a field goal won't be enough to lock it up. We decide to use the Explode Package, and I suggest we try the drop roll that we used before halftime, when the clock ran out. Only this time I said to Joe, "I'll look for Alvin and Charlie, and if they're not open, I'll have the option to run it in." Joe okays it. So I sprint right, and Nick Giaquinto and Freddie Dean make some great blocks to get me free outside. I was going to run, but at the last second I see Charlie in the end zone and I drill it to him. As Charlie catches it he's knocked out of bounds. I thought to myself, "Oh gosh. It's incomplete." But then the referee throws his hands into the air and that's it. Pandemonium. The next thing I knew I was rolling around on top of Charlie in the end zone.

I would have loved to give the ball to John to kill the clock in our last series, but he was out of the game, so Clarence Harmon did the job for us. And then I had the pleasure of calling the final play. It was the absolute greatest thrill I've ever felt in an athletic event in my life. Ordinarily, in the huddle I'd call "save-the-game formation"—that's where I just fall down and everyone protects me while the clock runs out. But this time I leaned in there with my heartbeat echoing in my helmet and I called "winning Super Bowl formation on red."

I never looked across the line of scrimmage. I never saw a Dolphin's face. I bent over and took the snap from center and as I knelt down with the football, I looked up and all I saw were the beautiful backsides of my Hogs.

TWO PHOTOSWe got our best matchups and set up the rest of our attack by running Riggins left. PHOTOThe daily press sessions were part of the fantasyland atmosphere at the Super Bowl. PHOTORiggo was the top hit of Mr. Cooke's party. PHOTOOn this play I tipped the ball—and maybe the game—out of Bokamper's hands. PHOTOThe first time we used the Explode Package I threw a four-yard scoring pass to Garrett. PHOTOThe only two times I had to take off and run I was lucky enough to get first downs. PHOTORight after Super Bowl XVII, I got to fly off into a Hawaiian sunset with my wife.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)