Just prior to the annual NFL draft, on April 28, 1981, the Washington Redskins obtained RB Joe Washington from the Baltimore Colts for a second-round draft pick. It was part of a busy day for Washington GM Bobby Beathard, who was active on the trading front, not only obtaining the 5’10”, 179-pound running back but making deals that led to the drafting of linemen Russ Grimm and Mark May. May, the Outland Trophy winner, was taken in the first round and Grimm was grabbed in the third round thanks to a deal with the Rams. Both would be significant contributors as members of the esteemed offensive line that would come to be known as “The Hogs”.
Joe Washington had been taken with the fourth overall pick by the Chargers in 1976 out of Oklahoma. His pro career did not start out auspiciously when he missed the entire season with a knee injury. As a spot player for San Diego in ’77, he gained 461 yards from scrimmage – 244 on 31 pass receptions and 217 on 62 carries. Prior to the 1978 season, Washington was dealt to the Colts for RB Lydell Mitchell, a veteran with similar skills as a classic halfback, and broke out in a big way. He gained 1869 all-purpose yards that broke down to 956 rushing yards on 240 carries, 377 receiving yards on 45 catches, 490 yards on 19 kickoff returns that included a game-winning 90-yard TD, and 37 yards on 7 punt returns. In addition, he tossed two touchdown passes.
In 1979, Washington was selected to the Pro Bowl following a season in which he ran for fewer yards (884) but led the NFL with 82 pass receptions, for 750 yards and a total of 1333 yards from scrimmage. However, the total dropped to 996 yards in 1980 (502 rushing, 492 receiving) as he lost his starting job to rookie Curtis Dickey. Washington had been unable to come to terms on a new contract with owner Robert Irsay and requested a trade. The Colts were reluctant to part with him, but they sent the second round draft pick they received from the Redskins on to the Minnesota Vikings as part of a transaction that gave them two choices in the first round. The Vikings in turn used it to take undistinguished RB Jarvis Redwine.
Washington had a productive first season with the Redskins, even while missing some time due to injury, gaining 1474 yards from scrimmage. He had 916 yards on 210 carries and caught 70 passes for another 558. In combination with power-running John Riggins, it gave the Redskins a potent backfield and marked the first time in franchise history that two backs gained over 700 rushing yards in the same season (Riggins ran for 714). The team, in its first year under Head Coach Joe Gibbs, got off to a 1-6 start but rallied in the second half to finish at 8-8. It set the stage for two NFC titles and a Super Bowl victory over the next two years.
Washington was overshadowed by Riggins in the strike-shortened 1982 season, especially during the playoffs leading to the Super Bowl, and his numbers were modest. In the one-back, two-tight end offense that Gibbs employed, Washington was typically used in place of Riggins in passing situations. He was more of a factor in 1983, rushing for 772 yards and catching 47 passes for another 454 as the Redskins set a new league record for scoring on their way to the top of the conference.
It was Washington’s last significant season with the Redskins. He appeared in just seven games in 1984 and gained a paltry 266 yards from scrimmage. Dealt to the Atlanta Falcons during the ’85 draft, he finished up his career as a situational back spelling Gerald Riggs.
In all, during four seasons with the Redskins, Washington rushed for 2070 yards on 455 carries (4.5 avg.) and caught 149 passes for 1220 yards, scoring a total of 16 touchdowns. He had two hundred-yard rushing games, with a high of 147 against Detroit in 1981, plus a 10-catch, 124-yard pass receiving performance vs. the Cowboys, also in ’81. For his nine-season career, he gained 8252 yards from scrimmage and was equally dangerous as a runner and receiver out of the backfield, ably complementing John Riggins with the Redskins.