The Vortex rollercoaster opened at Kings Island in Mason, Ohio on April 11, 1987. It featured drops and loops, banks and inversions. It was a wild ride. And it served as a good precursor for the NFL season that would be kicking off several months later. By the end of that tumultuous year, the team we now call the Washington Commanders would sit atop the NFL for the second time in coach Joe Gibbs’ miraculous decade.
It all began fifty years ago today with a brutal slugfest against the division’s little-brother-with-a-chip-on-his-shoulder team from just up I-95. Buddy Ryan’s Philadelphia Eagles were coming to town. It was a hot, humid day in DC – Sunday, September 13, 1987.
The season began under a cloud. Labor unrest was right out in the open and the threat of a players’ strike was palpable. But Joe Gibbs wasn’t thinking about that. He was thinking about how he could get by the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants and their bone crushing defense. The last time the teams had met, the Giants had stuffed Washington’s offense to the tune of 17-0 in the previous season’s NFC championship game.
Gibbs was intent to hit the ground running in 1987.
Remembering the Commanders’ first game of the 1987 season
He had obstacles from even before the season.
Star running back George Rogers had barely played in the pre-season due to a lingering turf toe. Two tight ends – Clint Didier and Terry Orr – were out for the game. So were defensive stalwarts Dexter Manley and Neal Olkewicz. Maybe worst of all, one the Hogs – right tackle Mark May – was also hurt. That meant rookie Ed Simmons was going to be making his first start against the Eagles Reggie White. White was still young at this point, but he was already establishing himself as perhaps the greatest defensive end of all time.
Washington had crushed Philly in the 1986 opener, and Buddy Ryan was determined to correct that. His team was not as talented as Washington’s, but he was going to pull at all the stops, both physically and mentally. He called a flea flicka. He called an onside kick (which was successful.) He called a fake punt (which appeared to work but was nullified by a penalty). And then, inexplicably, he called for a second consecutive fake punt (which was a disaster.) Or maybe he didn’t, and punter John Teltschick did that second one on his own. The record is unclear.
Ryan also had his team hitting hard, hitting late, and hitting dirty. More on that in a minute.
The game began sloppily, with three fumbles in the first three minutes. After the Eagles second fumble, Washington seemed on the verge of scoring when White blew past H-Back Glenn Dennison (playing in place of the injured Didier and Orr) and drove QB Jay Schroeder into the turf – a play that would draw a flag in 2022. Schroeder stayed in the game for another play, but it was clear he was having trouble with his right shoulder.
Washington would settle for a short field goal by Jess Atkinson and a 3-0 lead. It would be the last field goal Atkinson would ever kick.
Washington stopped Philly and got the ball right back. Backup QB Doug Williams came on in place of Schroeder. The veteran Williams had thrown exactly one pass in 1986 and had asked Joe Gibbs to trade him in the off-season. A deal with Oakland was practically done when Gibbs had second thoughts. Something told him might just need Williams in ’87. Williams took Washington down the field, utilizing all of his top tier receiver. First, Gary Clark. Then Art Monk. And then Ricky Sanders. The final play was a pretty throw to Monk running free in the middle of the field for a 10-0 lead.
As Atkinson kicked the extra point, Philly’s resident bad guy Andre Waters crashed in from Atkinson’s left and took out kicker’s plant leg. A flag was thrown and then picked up. The officials ruled that Waters had been blocked into the kicker by Rich Milot. The bottom line was Atkinson had to be stretchered off the field with a dislocated ankle. His career was over. As he left, he shouted defiant encouragement to his teammates.
On the ensuing kickoff, Dennison barreled downfield and tackled returner Evan Cooper. Then Anthony Copeland, a 250-pound backup linebacker, decked Cooper again when he got up. Flags were thrown. The injured Dexter Manley raced onto the field to celebrate the hitting. Philly had knocked out Washington’s quarterback and kicker in the first quarter of the first game, and Washington was not about to back down.
The next time Washington was on offense, they even managed to knock Reggie White out of the game, albeit briefly.
The Eagles got going in the second quarter. Receiver Mike Quick beat Darrell Green cleanly on a deep ball and Randall Cunningham made a beautiful throw to make it 10-7. They tried virtually the same play on the next series, but this time Washington’s new safety helped out and intercepted Cunningham’s pass. That safety is now the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
But Philly kept momentum and tied the game at 10 with a field goal.
Then came the consecutive fake punts.
The first appeared to work beautifully. Teltschick threw to an uncovered William Frizell down the left sideline. The play gained 37 yards.
But referee Dick Jorgensen blew it dead – correctly pinning an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the Eagles for what he referred to as the “hideout play.” Frizell had stepped onto the field from the Eagles sidelines just before the snap. Rules required that he break the huddle with his team.
Teltschick looked like he could have kicked the ball on the restart, but he took off to his right and came up woefully short. Williams took advantage with a pretty throw to receiving back Kelvin Bryant, who beat Andre Waters, down to the 4-yard line. Rogers, who did not look good for most of the game, was able to take it in from the 1 just before halftime. Punter Steve Cox, who fortunately had experience as a placekicker, converted the PAT and Washington led 17-10 at the half.
Washington came out strong in the second half. Williams completed a beautiful ball to Sanders down to the 1, and backup battering ram Reggie Branch pounded it in. It looked like Washington had the game well in hand.
But in a roller coaster of a season, it was not going to be that easy. Cunningham and receiver Kenny Jackson abused cornerback Barry Wilburn on a couple of plays and Philly got another touchdown. Then, with Washington again moving easily downfield, Reggie White, recovered from his first-half injury, made the kind of play only the all-time greats seem to make.
Ed Simmons had been doing a respectable job against White for much of the game, but on this play, White raced past him. Instead of decking Williams, White simply grabbed the ball out of his hands. Then he used his 4.6 40 speed to rumble 70 yards for a touchdown and a tied-up ball game.
And yet again, Washington proved resilient. It began with another young running back, Keith Griffin, taking the ensuing kickoff back 54 yards. And it ended one play later, when Art Monk, coming out of the slot against linebacker Seth Joyner, ran free down the middle. Williams hit him with a laser and Washington again had the lead. Reggie White, gulping oxygen on the sidelines, could only watch.
Steve Cox would add a late field goal to make the final score 34-24, but not before Wilburn would get some redemption by shutting down Jackson and eventually intercepting a Cunningham pass as Philly desperately tried to come back. And not before Dexter Manley would run onto the field several more times, desperate to get in on the action. The coaches would always pull him out before the play. It was going to be a long season, and they knew they would need a healthy Dexter if they wanted to get by the Giants.
So Washington won the game without its quarterback and without its kicker, and while missing at least five other key contributors. A few weeks later, there would actually be a strike. A week’s worth of games were cancelled and the NFL played three games with replacement players. The stories from that season are legendary. Darrell Grant punching the bus carrying the replacements. Coach Gibbs telling his players not to cross the picket line in the final week of the strike, unless they all did it as a team. Washington was playing Dallas, and several star Cowboys had in fact returned by that point. But the resilient, unified team from DC, beat those Cowboys.
Meanwhile, the feared Giants were imploding, opening the season with five straight losses. They were never a factor. Washington would win the NFC East going away. After filling in for Schroeder during the first few weeks, Williams would return to the bench until just before the playoffs, when Gibbs turned to him again. Williams would take Washington to the Super Bowl. Darrell Green would cement his legend with a game-winning punt return against Chicago in the first playoff game. The following week, he would collide with Vikings running back Darrin Nelson just as Nelson was trying to catch a game-tying pass in the closing seconds of the NFC Championship game. It turns out that Nelson dropped the ball before Green actually hit him, but the legend grew.
Washington would play the greatest quarter in Super Bowl history to blow the doors off the Denver Broncos and win the championship. Thirteen years later, there would be a major Hollywood motion picture. (Not a good one, mind you, but a movie nonetheless with Gene Hackman and Keanu Reeves.)
Yep, the Vortex was almost ¾ of a mile of solid steel, with a 138-foot drop at 55 degrees. It achieved a top speed of 55 mph.
And it had nothing on Washington’s 1987 season, all of which kicked off 35 years ago today, with a tough bloody victory over Buddy Ryan’s Philadelphia Eagles.