So ESPN’s NFL blogs all appear to be doing something called “Flash Points”, where they look at the crucial, formative moments in a franchise’s history. Each team gets a few possible Flash Points offered up for a vote, and the results will be revealed on May 27. For the Redskins, ESPN’s choices are:
- Trading for Sonny Jurgensen in 1964
- Hiring George Allen in 1971
- Hiring Joe Gibbs in 1981
- Daniel Snyder purchasing the team in 1999
Or, of course, “Other.” Here’s ESPN writer Jeffri Chadiha’s explanation for those choices:
The Redskins were defined by shrewd personnel decisions, such as the deal that brought quarterback Sonny Jurgensen to town in 1964. They were blessed with one legendary coach who was known for his vibrant, infectious nature (George Allen) and another so cerebral that he looked like he was teaching a calculus course from the sideline on game days (Joe Gibbs).
Then Daniel Snyder bought the team in 1999 and everything changed. This isn’t to say that Snyder doesn’t want to win as much as his predecessors. It’s just that he hasn’t quite discovered what it took to create the history that his fan base fondly remembers.
All of which is terrific, but I’m choosing Other. What’s more, I’m choosing a specific play from a specific game as the turning point for the entire franchise: John Riggins taking the ball, breaking tackles, and running 43 yards down the sideline for the go-ahead touchdown in Super Bowl XVII.
By sheer coincidence, DC Comics is launching their big summer event series tomorrow, and it shares a name with this ESPN project: Flashpoint. (The coincidence is especially weird since ESPN is part of the same corporate family as Marvel Comics, the primary competition to DC Comics, but I guess that’s just the way life works sometimes.) The Flashpoint comic is apparently about some kind of alternate history where certain notable events unfolded differently, thus entirely changing history, and I think that’s a good way of approaching these football flashpoints as well.
Which is why I’m picking the Riggins touchdown run: the entire season — a magical, unexpected Super Bowl run — was likely hanging in the balance. It was fourth-and-1. If Riggins gets stopped there, the Dolphins take the ball near midfield leading by four with ten minutes left in the game and all the momentum in the world on their side. I think it’s likely that they go on to win Super Bowl XVII.
If THAT happens, the Redskins are now two-time Super Bowl losers, at opposite ends of a decade, both to the same team. Even if they still have the same dominating 1983 season, the embarrassing loss in Super Bowl XVIII becomes their THIRD Super Bowl loss, second of the Joe Gibbs era.
And after all of that, I think the franchise as a whole is viewed very, very differently by history — I think they join the Minnesota Vikings of the 1970s (and presage the Buffalo Bills of the early 1990s) as a team that just can’t get it done when it counts. And who knows what happens after that.
Riggins is likely not in the Hall of Fame in this alternate universe, nor are Art Monk and Russ Grimm. Joe Gibbs and Darrell Green might still make it, but it’s not nearly the same lock that it was in the world where Don McNeal slipped on Clint Didier’s man-in-motion and 70 Chip went off without a hitch.
Basically, the entire greatest stretch of this team’s history hinges entirely on one fourth down run.
The Washington Post’s Ken Denlinger wrote a column about that play for the next day’s paper, and even immediately after the Super Bowl the historical significance was clear. “So a town that thought its last magical moment might have been Wes Unseld making two free throws June 7, 1978,” Denlinger wrote, “now has Riggins outlegging Glenn Blackwood for the go ahead touchdown in a game that ended a four-decade dry spell.”
I’d say that’s an immediate description of a pretty solid flashpoint right there, and nearly thirty years of reflection certainly haven’t lessened the play’s impact. So that’s my answer to ESPN’s question. What’s yours?
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