Like most Redskins fans, I'm a hopeless football optimist at heart.
I think this weekend's game presents a great chance for a win. I'd even go as far as to say that Washington should win this Sunday. Seriously!
Nevertheless, both teams are obviously struggling this season. The Titans and Redskins are a combined 1-9 against teams that aren't the Jacksonville Jaguars. Those struggles got me thinking about the handful of times Washington and Tennessee (previously Houston) had matched up over the years, and which of those games were the most "important."
The two teams first played in 1971, but this weekend's game will only be the twelfth time the franchises have squared off. Half of those games came before the Titans moved to Tennessee.
With this week's game more than adequately covered by the many talented writers at Hogs Haven, I thought I'd take a quick detour down memory lane-back to a time when these franchises weren't merely relevant, but dominant.
That takes us to November 3, 1991. Houston had used the then-fashionable "Run-and-Shoot" system to become one of the most potent offenses in the league by the late 1980s. Ownership became frustrated with eccentric head coach Jerry Glanville's inability to get past the divisional round of the playoffs.
So, despite taking his third straight team to the postseason in 1989, Glanville got the axe. He was replaced by former Redskins head coach Jack Pardee, who also played for the Skins as part of George Allen's "Over the Hill Gang." Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride was retained, however.
Pardee's 1990 Houston Oilers were promptly eliminated in the wild card round.
Things looked different in 1991, though. The Oilers reached November with a 7-1 record, their lone loss a tight, 24-20 decision at New England on September 22. Houston had scored at least 17 points in every game, and had scored at least 30 four times in eight tries. Led by star quarterback Warren Moon and a trio of talented receivers in Drew Hill, Ernest Givens, and Haywood Jeffires, the Oilers could strike quickly and frequently against even the better defenses in the league.
Meanwhile, if the Oilers looked like the best team in the AFC this side of Buffalo, Washington was putting together a case for being the best team in the entire NFL. The Redskins were a perfect 8-0 when they met Houston. Their last win had been a 17-13 victory over the defending world champion Giants at the Meadowlands. The Redskins had scored at least 33 points five times, and the Washington defense had already recorded three shutouts.
The expectation was that the Redskins / Oilers clash might even be a Super Bowl preview. With two high-powered offenses, the conventional wisdom was that a fairly high-scoring game was in the works. It didn't turn out that way.
In fact, neither team reached the end zone in the first half. After a scoreless opening quarter, Washington had to settle for a 21-yard Chip Lohmiller field goal at the end of a ten-minute drive. The Oilers faced similar frustrations near the Redskins' goal line. Houston's Ian Howfield kicked a pair of short field goals, good enough for a 6-3 Oiler lead at halftime.
Things got worse for the Redskins from there. After losing right tackle Joe Jacoby to a minor knee injury in the first half, Pro Bowl left tackle Jim Lachey went down early in the second half when Art Monk rolled up on Lachey's knee. A promising drive got cut short by a Ricky Ervins fumble. Another drive stalled at the three-yard line, continuing the Redskins' red-zone futility and leading to a 20-yard Lohmiller field goal. That kick tied the game at 6 near the end of the third quarter.
Washington caught a break when Oilers running back Lorenzo White fumbled at his own 31. The Redskins recovered, and, a couple of plays later, Earnest Byner faked Bo Orlando out of his shoes, scampering to a 23-yard touchdown that put the Skins up 13-6 with 14:10 left in the game.
On Houston's next possession, Brad Edwards picked off a Moon pass and returned it into Oiler territory. A deep ball from Mark Rypien to Gary Clark gave Washington a first down at the 12. It looked like the Redskins were well on their way to 9-0, but Houston's Ray Childress recovered a fumbled snap.
After an exchange of punts, the Oilers got the ball back with about five minutes left, still trailing 13-6. Moon went to work, maneuvering Houston on a 10-play, 79-yard drive that culminated in a one-yard plunge by White.
Disaster struck on the ensuing kickoff. The normally sure-handed Brian Mitchell fumbled on a hit by Rick Graf, giving the Oilers the ball right back. Houston had it at the Washington 23 with just 1:33 left. To make matters worse, Joe Gibbs had used two timeouts on the Oilers' previous possession in order to preserve as much time as possible for what he thought would be Washington's final drive.
A Moon pass to Givins got Houston to the 15. A running play and an Oiler timeout meant Howfield would have a shot at a game-winning, 33-yard field goal with four seconds on the clock.
Howfield, who had been cut by seven NFL teams and a World League of American Football team before catching on with the Oilers . . . hooked it left.
NBC's Paul Maguire pointed out on instant replay that Howfield's new holder, punter Greg Montgomery, had left the laces pointing in, not out.
The Oiler captains were visibly frustrated during and after the overtime coin toss. The Redskins got the ball first, but Houston forced a punt. Then, the Oilers' second offensive play in OT saw Darrell Green make a terrific, diving interception on a Moon pass intended for Jeffires. That pick set up Washington with a first-and-ten from the Houston 33.
Three Byner runs later, and Chip Lohmiller came on for a 41-yard field goal attempt. Unlike his Houston counterpart, Lohmiller drilled his kick right down the middle with plenty of distance to spare.
The Redskins were 9-0.
Jack Pardee's return to Washington had been spoiled.
The missed kick at the end of regulation was the last field-goal attempt of Ian Howfield's NFL career. He was released and replaced by Al Del Greco, who wound up kicking for the franchise for ten seasons. Ironically, though, the final game of Del Greco's career was his infamous playoff performance against the Baltimore Ravens, in which he missed field goals of 45, 31, and 37 yards, the latter of which was blocked and returned for a go-ahead touchdown.
Houston went into a minor slump after the loss to the Redskins, winning two very close games and losing twice over the next month. The Oilers still tied the then-franchise-record with eleven wins, taking the AFC Central crown in the process. Houston beat the Jets in the first round of the playoffs, but once again failed to reach the AFC title game. Denver knocked off the Oilers in a 26-24 nail-biter in the divisional round, wrapping Houston's year at 12-6.
Houston remained one of the better teams in the AFC for two more years. After a 12-4 finish in 1993, the Oilers cratered in ‘94, collapsing to an astounding 2-14. Pardee was fired after ten games and replaced by assistant coach Jeff Fisher.
The 1991 Redskins went on to finish with the best record in football, losing only to the Dallas Cowboys by three points, and to the Philadelphia Eagles by two points in a season-ending game in which the back-ups played much of the second half. Washington then romped to their third Super Bowl title in a decade, finishing 17-2 overall.
The Redskins had committed an uncharacteristic 4 turnovers in the Oiler game. They corrected this problem immediately. Over their final ten contests, Washington turned the ball over a total of eight times.
This Sunday's game may not have the implications the 1991 version had, but it's still important for both the Redskins and Titans. Fans of both franchises are hungry for a win and hoping to see their squads someday return to the level of play that made them two of football's best teams a generation ago.