Chief among the concerns of the Redskins these days is their pass defense. Even during their recent two-game winning streak the opposing passing game has put a scare into the team and its fans. While the Skins are playing with fire, it is possible to have a successful season without anything resembling a shut-down pass defense.
The 1983 Redskins went 14-2. The team scored 541 points, which at the time was the NFL record for the most points scored in a season. They had the Smurfs, a group of diminutive wide receivers. The Hogs had grown from being a group of large, sweaty linemen into a certified pop culture phenomenon. The Fun Bunch, which had some Smurfs as part of its membership, celebrated touchdowns.
There was one other group with a nickname, one that wasn’t particularly cute or complimentary. The defensive backfield came to be known as the Pearl Harbor Crew as it was getting bombed with alarming frequency.
It started in the opening game when Danny White rallied the Cowboys from a 23-3 halftime deficit with three second-half touchdown passes. Two of them were to Tony Hill covering 75 and 51 yards. In the fifth game against the Raiders, they got hit with the ultimate bomb, a 99-yard touchdown pass from Jim Plunkett to Cliff Branch. A couple of weeks later Green Bay’s Lynn Dickey got into the act, throwing for 387 yards in a Monday night thriller that the Packers won.
After that game, the Redskins were last in the NFL in pass defense. Nobody was all that worried, however, since they were 5-2. In fact, they finished the season allowing an average of 273 yards a game through the air; they ranked 28th out of 28 teams in pass defense but they were able to joke about it because they were 14-2.
There were a few reasons why the team put up such poor stats. One was that teams almost always found themselves trailing the high-scoring Redskins in the early going, forcing them to put the ball up early and often. Also, it was very difficult to run against the Washington defense; they finished the year ranked #1 against the rush. “Running at them is like throwing popcorn at a battleship,” commented former Eagles coach Dick Vermeil at the time.
Another was that the Redskins had a lot of new faces in their secondary. At cornerback Joe Lavender had retired and Jeris White sat out the year in a contract dispute. Taking their places were rookie Darrell Green, who was talented but very raw, and second-year player Vernon Dean. At safety, Tony Peters, a Pro Bowl performer the year before, was out serving a drug-related suspension, leaving Curtis Jordan, a veteran much better suited for special teams duty, to start alongside Mark Murphy, who was a savvy veteran but one who was slow afoot.
The current Redskins aren’t quite as low as their ’83 counterparts in the NFL rankings against the pass after four games this year. The 232 yards per game they have allowed so far puts them 26th in the 32-team league. Certainly, you can’t look at the team having large leads as the reason for the high opposition totals. The Redskins have trailed or have had a single-digit lead for the vast majority of the time this year. They have, however, been solid against the run, giving up an average of just 79.3 yards a game, fourth in the NFL. If I’m an opposing offensive coordinator, I’m probably going to be throwing it all day, too.
While the original Pearl Harbor Crew did get blasted for some big plays, they also made a lot of their own. Washington picked off 34 opposition passes that year, a theft pace that this year’s group will be hard-pressed to match. If they keep up their current rate of one every two games they’ll have eight picks by the end of the year.
Rich Tandler is the author of The Redskins From A to Z, Volume 1: The Games. This unique book has an account of every game the Redskins played from when they moved to Washington for the 1937 season through 2001. For details and ordering information go to http://www.RedskinsGames.com