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One thing about Joe Gibbs, he knew how to keep his team together when so much else was falling apart.
During his first stint in Washington, Gibbs won not one but two Super Bowls in strike-torn seasons. Some fans even joked before he took the team to the 1992 NFL championship game after a full schedule that maybe Gibbs needed a players' walkout to win again.
“I don't think it matters how many games,” Gibbs said with a smile. “Whatever they tell us the season is going to be and where and when we will play, it's the same. We plan to win.”
Gibbs and Don Shula faced off in the 1983 Super Bowl at the Rose Bowl. Both coaches were headed for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and Shula's perfect Dolphins had defeated Washington under George Allen, another Hall of Famer, in the Los Angeles Coliseum a decade earlier.
Washington was a power team, using running back — more like a fullback — John Riggins to batter defenses behind the original “Hogs” offensive line. Gibbs had no pretention about fooling opponents when his side had the ball that season. Riggins was his Mack truck, and the coach was going to ride it.
Riggins had abruptly retired in training camp in 1980 and Gibbs had to persuade him to return to football. The coach knew he had his man when the always over the top Riggins proclaimed: “I’m bored, I’m broke and I’m back.”
Riggins' performance against Miami — 38 carries for 166 yards, and a 43-yard fourth-quarter touchdown for the winning points that is among the more memorable plays in Super Bowl history — came just as the NFL was beginning to morph into a passing league. Not like it is today, but an embryonic form.
Wisely, Gibbs understood what he had, and it wasn't a go-for-broke makeup in Washington. During his other two Super Bowl-winning seasons, Gibbs opened up the attack. Not with this group.
“It’s the blockers that make us go,” Riggins noted. “It’s no surprise to the defense as to who is going to carry the ball. You say it’s tough on me but it’s just as tough on the guys up front because the defense knows we’re coming.”
The 27-17 victory over Miami had a profound impact on the Washington franchise. Although it lost in the next season's Super Bowl to the Raiders, Washington had built a base to work off. The Hogs were the foundation on offense, and playmakers would come along on both sides of the ball, such as receiver Art Monk and cornerback Darrell Green, both enshrined in Canton.
Washington won the title again in the strike-interrupted 1987 season, and Gibbs' final one came four years later. The franchise has not been close to a Super Bowl since, not even when Gibbs, after retiring following the 1992 campaign, returned to coach from 2004-07.
Like Washington, Miami was built around a stingy defense that shut out the Jets in a soggy 1982 AFC championship game. But the Dolphins didn't have the offense to rely on to bail it out, and wouldn't until Dan Marino was drafted a few months after the Super Bowl loss.
In fact, Shula seemed a bit surprised his team emerged from the mess of a season that consisted of only nine games.
‘I think that after the strike ended, we were really a one-dimensional team," he said. “Now we’ve started getting ourselves together and we’ve been getting some good balance. Before the playoffs, we had enough trouble getting a first down, much less a touchdown.’ ”
Shula was in the midst of the winningest coaching career ever, and Marino would contribute to many of those triumphs. But they would only get to one Super Bowl together, for the 1984 season, and Shula never could find the balance on defense or in the running game to go with the mastery of his quarterback.
Still, Shula wound up with 328 victories and four Coach of the Year honors, and even without any more Super Bowl rings, his Dolphins went 127-80 after the 1982 season concluded with the loss to Washington.
“If there were a Mount Rushmore for the NFL,” current Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said, "Don Shula certainly would be chiseled into the granite.”
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