- The Washington Times - Friday, January 12, 2007

Deep in the downtrodden minds of District-area sports fans are faint recollections that the Washington Redskins and Joe Gibbs were, at one time, the class of the National Football League. And a new hour-long documentary airing on the NFL Network tonight could provide a much-needed memory jog.

For an hour, at least, fans can be reminded of Gibbs’ brilliance, the hard-hitting play of former defensive end Charles Mann and the surprising emergence of quarterback Mark Rypien, who rolled to a 14-2 record in the 1991 season before obliterating each of their three playoff opponents en route to winning Super Bowl XXVI.

The documentary is the most recent installment in the NFL Network’s “America’s Game” series, which counts down the top Super Bowl teams of all time. The 1991 Redskins are ranked 14th, just ahead of the 1971 Dallas Cowboys and in the upper echelon of championship teams. (The NFL Network is counting down the top 20 on the list; Super Bowl Redskins teams from the 1982 and 1987 seasons didn’t make the cut.)

“This show revives the memory, because this particular ‘91 team is one of the most overlooked teams in NFL history,” said Steve Sabol, president of NFL Films, which is producing the “America’s Game” series. “People forget how dominant this team was.”

No one in the District could be accused of overlooking the 1991 Redskins, but the film does offer strong reminders that the team had few true stars or super-sized personalities. Viewers do see repeated shots of Rypien, who showed uncanny accuracy when throwing deep balls to perennial Hall of Fame candidate Art Monk. But the film argues the biggest player — in size, personality and prominence — was Mann, and he gets top billing. (“The Redskins had many gifted players, but none were as gifted in as many ways as Charles Mann,” intones actor Donald Sutherland, the film’s narrator.)

Gibbs and Rypien also appear in new interviews, shot using an up-close technique known as “Interrotron” in which the subjects appear to look directly into the camera. It is a technique used in many art-house films in the 1990s, gaining some attention when it was used in the Academy Award-winning documentary “The Fog of War.”

“We felt it gave the interviews a very personal and intimate look,” Sabol said. “There’s nothing more dramatic than the human face.”

In each documentary in the “America’s Game” series, NFL Films decided to interview just three individuals involved in the game, eschewing the common practice of injecting comments from reporters, columnists and other outside observers. The result is some brutally honest and original commentary. At one point, Mann recalls his feelings toward the team and Rypien entering a 1990 playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers:

“We knew we weren’t going to win it,” Mann says. “We knew we weren’t good enough. And the number one guy is Mark Rypien. You know it’s going to take a great quarterback with great leadership skills that is superconfident to help you win. And he didn’t have it.”

The Redskins lost that game, 28-10.

But that loss, the film argues, was the beginning of a turning point for the Redskins, who the following year led the league in margin of victory while recording three shutouts.

“They were already highly motivated,” Gibbs says. “All you had to do was kind of push them in the right direction.”

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