Few teams have roared through the NFL like the 1991 Washington Redskins.
And yet when the experts list great teams in recent history, they cite Miami and Pittsburgh of the 1970s, San Francisco of the 1980s and Dallas of the 1990s. Even Chicago, which won just three other playoff games in the decade surrounding its 1985 title, and Buffalo, which lost four straight Super Bowls in the 1990s and never won a championship, seem to get mentioned before Washington.
“There was no Redskins mystique,” said 1991 left guard Raleigh McKenzie, a 10-year member of the team. “Maybe it would have been different if we had won back-to-back Super Bowls.”
It has been 10 years since Joe Gibbs’ team dominated the NFL with a 17-2 record, but the question still remains: Where does that Washington team rank in the grand scheme of NFL history?
Those Redskins came within seven points of posting a perfect record, losing at home to Dallas by three points and at Philadelphia by two. Washington outscored its opponents by an average 30-14 and was even better in the playoffs, pounding Atlanta, Detroit and Buffalo by an average 34-14 to win its third Super Bowl in 10 years. And no players’ strike (1982, 1987) or replacement players (1987) could taint this triumph, as could be said of Gibbs’ previous champions.
If not for two late sacks in the finale against the Eagles, a game in which several regulars left early with a 19-7 lead, the offensive line led by left tackle Jim Lachey and right guard Mark Schlereth would have tied the NFL record for fewest sacks allowed (seven).
The defense, led by left end Charles Mann, strongside linebacker Wilber Marshall and right cornerback Darrell Green, recorded 50 sacks and 27 interceptions. Quarterback Mark Rypien threw 28 touchdown passes. Receivers Art Monk and Gary Clark combined for 141 catches and 18 scores. Rookie Brian Mitchell took two punt returns to the house. The 1991 Redskins could do it all.
The 1991 Redskins also were Gibbs’ most unified champions. In 1982, Gibbs’ second year, stars John Riggins and Joe Theismann were holdovers from predecessor Jack Pardee’s teams. In 1987, the struggle between quarterbacks Jay Schroeder and Doug Williams divided the locker room and the city, often along racial lines. Also that year, the veterans weren’t happy that management opted to keep a handful of replacement players once the strike ended.
But 1991 was a smooth ride. There were no holdouts, no “look at me” types and no controversies once Rypien turned down a lowball three-year offer from owner Jack Kent Cooke and gambled on a one-year contract.
Although Gibbs is a Hall of Famer and certainly will be joined by 19-year Redskin Green (the last Super Bowl veteran still in Washington), that might be it in Canton for the 1991 team. Despite setting records for catches in a career, a season and consecutive games, Monk is not a sure thing. Offensive linemen Russ Grimm and Joe Jacoby are even less likely.
“Matt Millen [the 1991 middle linebacker] said it best,” said 1991 general manager Charley Casserly, whose team did include a team-record eight Pro Bowl players. “He said we didn’t have a lot of 10s, but we had a whole team of 7s.”
Those good but not great players were better than the sum of their parts because they truly were a team. Eight starters plus Grimm and nickel linebacker Monte Coleman had been Redskins for at least seven seasons. Seven of Gibbs’ assistants had been on his first Redskins staff in 1981. Casserly had been with the organization 15 years.
“Because of that, we knew each other very well,” Monk said. “We knew what each of us was capable of doing, his strengths and weaknesses. So we were able to challenge, encourage, get in a guy’s face when he wasn’t doing what he was capable of doing. We were truly a family.”
Said McKenzie: “We hung together in the offseason. We liked each other. So guys were willing to put the team first. Like Monte playing mostly third downs instead of starting, or my not complaining about moving around on the line or not starting sometimes.”
Gibbs has justifiably received plaudits for winning three Super Bowls with three quarterbacks (Theismann, Williams and Rypien) of less than superstar quality, but the coach also made magnificent use of the varied personnel on the 1991 team.
Earnest Byner ran for 1,048 yards, but power back Gerald Riggs would come in to punch the ball across the goal line and shifty rookie Ricky Ervins provided a nice changeup. Third receiver Ricky Sanders caught 45 passes, five for touchdowns. Coleman started just one game but played enough to finish sixth on the team in tackles. Tight ends Ron Middleton, Don Warren and Terry Orr all played extensively. Pass rush specialist Jumpy Geathers and rookie Bobby Wilson came in on passing downs and so had more sacks than starting defensive tackles Tim Johnson and Eric Williams. Millen played the middle against the run, Kurt Gouveia against the pass.
Even though the Redskins had won their first playoff game in three years in 1990, their 1-3 preseason ‘91 their worst in nine years caused some concern, especially since they were the NFL’s second-oldest team. Had time passed them by?
Far from it, as made clear by the opening 45-0 lashing of the Lions. Detroit’s super back, Barry Sanders, didn’t play, but this was a rout any way you sliced it. The Redskins caught another break in Week 2 at Dallas when fine young Cowboys runner Emmitt Smith missed the second half with a stomach virus after a virtuoso first half. Chip Lohmiller, en route to an NFL-high 149 points, kicked four field goals of at least 45 yards, and the Redskins rallied from a 21-10 deficit to win 33-31. Right tackle Ed Simmons and strong safety Alvin Walton went down and were replaced by Jacoby and Danny Copeland, who had arrived from Kansas City in April via the same Plan B free agent path that had brought Millen from the 49ers.
Washington was 2-0 for the first time in five years and kept winning against Phoenix (34-0), Cincinnati (34-27, a game in which defensive end Markus Koch was lost and replaced by Fred Stokes), Philadelphia (23-0), Chicago (20-7) and Cleveland (42-17). But now came the annual visit to Giants Stadium. The Redskins had lost six in a row to the Giants and hadn’t beaten them on the road since 1983 (other than the 1987 replacement game).
“The Giants had been a thorn in our side for a long time,” Monk said. “The second time we played them in 1990, we made a lot of changes in our audibles and our cadences. We thought that would make the difference, but it was like they knew everything we were doing. After that, it was almost to the point where we didn’t think we could beat them.”
And there was plenty of doubt in the Redskins’ locker room when the Giants led 13-0 at halftime. Clark had dropped a bomb and a sure touchdown. But linebacker Andre Collins led a stiffened defense and Washington rallied to win 17-13 with Clark scoring both touchdowns.
“Beating the Giants, especially in a dogfight at their place, was a turning point in terms of finding out that we could beat a team that had no fear of us,” Rypien said.
The streak almost ended in Week 9 against Houston, but Oilers kicker Ian Howfield missed a 34-yard field goal try at the end of regulation, enabling Lohmiller to win it 16-13 in overtime. Week 10 against Atlanta was considerably more one-sided. Having just upset the 49ers, the Falcons were bragging that the Redskins were next. Result? Washington 56-17 as Rypien threw six touchdown passes before taking a seat on the bench. With Falcons Pro Bowl cornerback Deion Sanders out, Monk and Clark combined for 367 yards and five scores.
“Jerry [Glanville, Atlantas coach] was so stubborn that he stayed in man-to-man coverage even though he didn’t have Deion and some of those DBs couldn’t have covered me, let alone our receivers,” Rypien said. “It was like pitch and catch.”
After crushing Pittsburgh 41-14 to go 11-0, the Redskins faced the Dallas rematch. HBO arrived to profile the threat to the 1972 Dolphins’ status as the NFL’s only unbeaten team.
“I wanted to lose a game to get that undefeated monkey off our backs,” Mann said. “Once you lose, the pressure’s off and you can go back to just playing football.”
Mann got his wish. Despite losing star quarterback Troy Aikman to a knee injury in the third quarter, the Cowboys were faster (they hit two of three fourth-and-longs), smarter (they converted an onside kick and a Hail Mary) and simply better. Dallas won 24-21.
With 16-0 no longer an issue, Washington dispatched the Los Angeles Rams (27-6), the Cardinals (20-14) and the Giants (34-17) before Gibbs pulled in the reins in Philadelphia.
RFK Stadium was hit with a cold monsoon the day of the playoff opener against those trash-talking Falcons. Atlanta’s run-and-shoot offense was a popgun under such conditions, but Hogs love the slop. It didn’t help the Falcons’ cause when word leaked that Neon Deion planned to shoot a music video on the sideline with help from rapper Hammer and boxer Evander Holyfield. The Redskins, enraged at the upstarts’ effrontery, held the Falcons to 43 rushing yards and forced six turnovers in a 24-7 spanking that could have been much worse.
The NFC Championship game figured to be a rubber match with the improving Cowboys. But Detroit upset Dallas, and the Redskins began making their Super Bowl plans.
“When we heard we were going to play Detroit, we knew we were going to win the Super Bowl,” said Mann, who blasted past Lions rookie tackle Scott Conover and forced quarterback Erik Kramer to fumble on the second play. Stokes recovered, and two plays later Riggs put the Redskins ahead to stay. Barry Sanders was healthy, but the Lions remained lambs. Washington improved to 5-0 in NFC title clashes at home with a 41-10 laugher.
In Minneapolis, the Redskins met the Bills, who had lost Super Bowl XXV in the final seconds and were as formidable as the Falcons and Lions had been unthreatening. Buffalo had a couple of defensive standouts in end Bruce Smith and linebacker Cornelius Bennett and its offense led by quarterback Jim Kelly, halfback Thurman Thomas and receiver Andre Reed was more potent than any except Washington’s. And Bills coach Marv Levy’s no-huddle scheme made defensive substitutions difficult. So Redskins defensive coordinator Richie Petitbon came up with a no-huddle defense. The Redskins would substitute, but the players would have to know their responsibilities from reading Petitbon’s signals rather than from first-year starting free safety Brad Edwards’ instructions in the huddle.
“I was a little worried about the Bills because they could score so fast,” Mann said. “Ryp and our offense were having a great year, but I didn’t want to be out there with my tongue hanging out. But Richie was very clever. For two weeks, he made us all watch him on the practice field, in meetings, even on the plane to Minnesota.”
Rypien sprained his ankle during Wednesday’s typically intense practice, but he was ready on Sunday and so were his teammates.
“Before the game, Russ said matter of factly to [center Jeff Bostic], ‘Bosco, in six hours you’ll have another ring and $36,000 more,’” punter Kelly Goodburn recalled.
Those same two wily veterans helped Rypien over early jitters.
“On the first series, I got smacked in the chin on one play and knocked down a second time,” Rypien said. “I was screaming, ‘What the heck’s going on?’ But Jeff and Russ, who had been in the Super Bowl before, said, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll wear them down by the second or third quarter.’ And the next thing you knew, we were taking it to them.”
After a scoreless first quarter, Washington moved to a 17-0 halftime lead. The 37-24 final score was as close as Buffalo got thereafter. Edwards picked off two of Kelly’s four interceptions. MVP Rypien passed for 292 yards en route to Disney World.
Injuries began to bedevil the aging Redskins in 1992. Bostic, Jacoby, Lachey, Green and Williams all missed significant time. When Gouveia and Collins were hurt, Tony Barker and John Brantley were signed off the street to start. Washington backed into the playoffs at 9-7 and then upset Minnesota and pressed San Francisco hard. But in 1993, the exhausted Gibbs retired and new boss Petitbon wasn’t up to commanding an increasingly battered team that had lost Clark, Stokes and cornerback Martin Mayhew in the first year of unrestricted free agency and Marshall after he demanded a trade. After stunning defending champion Dallas in the opener, Washington crashed to a 4-12 record, its worst in 30 years. Petitbon and his assistants were fired and the team was dismantled as the salary cap came into effect.