The Last Old School Team
Cold, Hard Football Facts for May 25, 2010
(Ed. note: this story originally ran on May 20, 2008 ... brings back great memories of our youth as budding little smashmouth football-loving Trolls.)
The Redskins of the early 1980s have always held a special place in the otherwise frigid, empty heart of the Cold, Hard Football Facts.
Perhaps it was because we were still in our pigskin pre-pubescence during their heyday. But even then, when we were budding young, little Trolls still with hopes and dreams, the mighty Hogs, the Diesel and Dave Butz stood out as members of a uniquely charismatic team. Watching the Redskins just felt different than watching any other pro football team of the time, and certainly any other pro football team since.
And we never quite knew why.
But light dawned on Marblehead last week, while watching a 1982 Redskins highlight film on NFL Network. And it suddenly became all so crystal clear, like an icy vodka martini without an olive or a twist. "Please, sir, may we have some more?"
We loved those Redskins teams for primal pigskin reasons. We loved those teams because they were – pay close attention, folks – The Last Old School Team. That's right, men, Old School Football enjoyed its last sparkling twilight of gridiron glory with the mighty Redskins teams of 1982 and 1983, the early powerhouses of the Joe Gibbs empire.
Now, Old School, of course, means different things to different people. To young kids these days, Dan Marino is Old School. To those like the Cold, Hard Football Facts, with a healthy respect for those who built the Great American Game, Pudge Heffelfinger is Old School.
The 1982 Redskins are hardly Old School by comparison to historic 19th-century gridiron stalwarts like Heffelfinger, the first pro football player.
But, still, those Redskins stood out even in their time, in the early years of the Live Ball Era, the period when offenses first emerged from the ancient oceans and awkwardly learned to walk on the land of, and fly through the air over, a primitive pigskin Pangea. And those Redskins teams definitely stand out today, in the era of cheap offensive air travel.
When we watched those tapes of the Redskins of the early 1980s the other day, they looked much more ancient than a quarter-century old: They looked like historic relics of the mud-and-spittle football of a bygone era, a game of the 1950s when the battle on the field was more important than the image it projected on television. Those Redskins treated us to classic Elvis rockabilly during the era of A Flock of Seagulls. The only thing missing was an introduction by Ed Sullivan.
God, if we had emotion, we'd love it so.
After great review and consideration, here's why the Redskins of the early 1980s stand unchallenged as The Last Old School Team.
An ability to win with smash-mouth football
Teams today still talk about the need to play smash-mouth football. But these days, they rarely ever live up to the talk. And, even if they do, they rarely win in the modern pro game playing smash-mouth football.
The Redskins of the early 1980s, however, were the last run-first offense to dominate the NFL. The Super Bowl champion 1982 Redskins ran the ball 315 times in the strike-shortened nine-game season, an average of 35.0 attempts per game (APG). To put that into perspective, in 2007 we watched a team (the Lions) run the ball just 324 times in a 16-game season (20.3 APG).
Since those 1982 Redskins, only the 1985 Bears ran the ball more regularly (610 attempts, 38.1 APG) and still won a Super Bowl. Even the 2005 Steelers – the most recent team to win a title playing what amounts to smash-mouth football in the modern game – attempted just 549 rushes, a paltry 34.3 APG.
(You might cite the Cowboys of the 1990s as a run-first offense that dominated the NFL. But you'd be wrong. Those Cowboys actually enjoyed a very healthy run-pass balance and, in their three championship years, peaked at 500 rush attempts, or just 31.3 APG, well below the standards of the 1982 and 1983 Redskins.)
But the best was yet to come for Joe Gibbs & Co., with their smash-mouth bloodlust. The Redskins set an NFL record with 541 points scored in 1983. Sure, quarterback Joe Theismann won MVP honors that year – but the Redskins set the all-time scoring mark on the strength of smash-mouth football, as Theismann handed off the pigskin 629 times, a trench-pounding average of 39.3 APG on the ground. In the 24 seasons since then, only one team has rushed the ball more often: The 1984 Bears kept the ball on the ground for 674 attempts (42.1 APG).
Several teams since have challenged or surpassed the record 541 points of the 1983 Redskins, including the 2000 Rams (540 points), 1998 Vikings (556) and 2007 Patriots (589). But all were modern passing teams in which the run was nothing more than a pleasant diversion from the true work at hand. The 2007 Patriots, for example, rushed the ball just 451 times – nearly 200 attempts fewer than The Last Old School Team of 1983.
Put most simply, those Redskins were the last great offensive juggernaut in which the run was the weapon of choice, a stilletto in the boot when every other team was learning to fight with handguns.
A dependence upon the fullback
Consistent with smash-mouth football, the Redskins were last team to build its offense around a fullback, in this case Hall of Famer John Riggins. Yes, the one-back offense Gibbs employed was revolutionary at the time. But at the end of the day, the offense consisted primarily of handing the ball off to a cornfed Midwestern behemoth.
Riggins stands as the last fullback to lead the league in touchdowns (24 in 1983, 14 in 1984) or to lead his team, typically up the middle or off-tackle, to a Super Bowl championship.
Every TD leader or champion ballcarrier who has followed has been a halfback or its neutered descendant, the running back. The Redskins proudly carried on the Old School fullback tradition of Alan Ameche, Jim Brown and Jim Taylor, among so many others.
The last hurrah of the white running back
The Diesel wasn't just a fullback ... he was (gasp!) a white fullback!
White running backs are seen these days about as often as CHFF readers at yoga class (as the recent controversy over Minnesota 2010 draft pick Toby Gerhart can attest). But back in the Old School football of the 1950s and 1960s, there was nothing unusual about a white guy carrying the football. Ameche scored the winning touchdown in the 1958 championship game. The mighty Packers of the early 1960s were led by a fleet of white guys, and even one Golden Boy, from Hall of Famers Paul Hornung and Taylor in the early days, to Donny Anderson and famous 1967 mid-season acquisition Chuck Mercein.
Today, the white running back is more endangered than the albino elephant.
But The Last Old School Team gave us the last great hurrah for the white running back in 1983, when Riggo ripped off 1,347 rushing yards – the second most ever by a white guy and the top of the white-guy rushing list since Taylor's 1,474 in 1962 (according to ProFootballReference.com).
The white running back twisted in its death throes in 1985, when New England's Craig James rushed for 1,227 yards and led his team to Super Bowl XX.
But, from Taylor in 1963 to today, no white guy ever lugged the leather farther or more effectively than The Diesel did in 1983.
The base 4-3
Sure, most NFL teams still run the 4-3 defense. But defenses in football today switch formations and packages so frequently that the type of defense being utilized is often just a formal designation, with little correlation to the talent actually on the field at any given time.
Now, admittedly, this is more an observation than a Cold, Hard Football Fact, but it seems the Redskins of the early 1980s sat in their base 4-3 far more often than 4-3 defenses do today, in the era of super-specialization.
It seems you could always depend on the fact that the Redskins would line up with four guys on the line and three guys at linebacker, and that one of those guys in the middle of the defensive line would be Dave Butz, bearing his very Old School helmet with deep gouges and scratches across the forehead, and half the paint missing.
He'd get fined in today's NFL, for not sporting the appropriate glitzy equipment that projects well on TV. But as a member of The Last Old School Team, Butz and his battle-scarred helmet made for a distinctive figure ripping a swath through opposing offenses.
Linemates Dexter Manley and Darryl Grant also played signature roles for The Last Old School Team. Manley knocked Dallas quarterback Danny White out of the 1982 NFC championship game and then late in the contest tipped a Gary Hogeboom pass at the line of scrimmage. Grant picked the ball out of the air and rumbled into the end zone for a thunderous touchdown that capped one of the biggest victories in Redskins history.
A few weeks ago we wrote about our favorite football nicknames. Naturally, most of them were Old School teams because, as we pointed out in the article, the pigskin nickname has gone the way of the flying wedge: it's a relic of a game gone by. Back in the day, we needed nicknames to paint pictures of players and teams when nobody saw the games except those in the stands. These days, with every game available to every fan almost whenever they want, the allure of the nickname is gone. We can form our opinions of players and teams.
The Redskins, however, stand as the last team of great nickames. Their offensive line was the incomparable Hogs, the most famous offensive line since Fordham's Seven Blocks of Granite back in the 1930s. Riggins was the unstoppable Diesel. Their pint-sized receivers were the Smurfs or, if you included the tight ends, the Fun Bunch.
The Redskins got plenty of national TV exposure. But it's no coincidence that this last great team blessed with a multitude of great nicknames existed when cable TV was in its infancy, before ESPN had an NFL broadcasting contract, before the existence of the NFL Network, and before the web put football at our fingertips whenever we wanted. You watched The Last Old School Team play only for three hours on Sundays, if you were lucky.
These nicknames are a trait that truly sets the Redskins apart from every team that's played pro football since, and further validates their status as The Last Old School Team.
As far as memory and research can tell us, Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann was the last offensive or defensive player to step on an NFL football field with his face protected by only a single-bar facemask. (If we're wrong, please let us know.) Nothing short of the leather helmet screams Old School Football like the quarterback stepping back into the pocket, in a maelstrom of unrelenting pressure, protecting his pretty-boy face with nothing but a single thin little strip of steel. If it was good enough for Unitas and Starr, dammit, it was good enough for Theismann, who proudly carried this badge of Old School honor into the digital age.
He was not alone on that Redskins team. Kicker Mark Moseley also sported the minimalist look for face protection. In today's NFL, even kickers wear elaborate facemasks protected by multiple stakes of steel. Not Our Man Moseley. Like Theismann, he was perfectly fine with the single strip of steel posing as a protective cage.
The straight-ahead kicker
Moseley earned another distinction with the Redskins. He was the last of the Old School straight-ahead kickers, before the side-winding soccer-style wussies who invaded from Europe ultimately took over the game with their pesky little "much better accuracy rates." Today, even kids from Middle American football oases like Nebraska kick like wussy European soccer players.
But they would have been laughed off The Last Old School Team.
Thanks to Moseley, the straight-ahead kicker went down in a blaze of gridiron glory, all guns a-firing and grenades strapped to his chest. In 1982, Moseley nailed a then-record 23 consecutive field goals and became the only kicking specialist in history to earn league MVP honors. Minnesota's Rick Danmeier retired at the end of the 1982 season, allowing Moseley to go down in the history books as the last straight-ahead kicker in 1983. He responded in triumph: that year, Moseley led the league with 161 points, the most any single player had scored since Paul Hornung's 176 back in 1960. And, more importantly, Moseley made a brash statement to the wussy European-style soccer kickers entering the league. It went something like this:
Moseley's moment of triumph didn't last long. He was out of football by 1986, after hitting just 65.6 percent of the field goals in his career, a rate that side-winding kickers hit in Pop Warner football.
But, then again, the twilight of The Last Old School Team didn't last long, either. In 1984, Dan Marino tossed a Ruthian 48 TD passes and flinging the ball became all the rage. Old School Football died that year.
The game has never looked, or felt, the same as it did when it was played by The Last Old School Team.
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