Yesterday in football history

On January 26, 1992, the Washington Redskins defeated the Buffalo Bills 37-24 in Super Bowl XXVI. The game was played in Minneapolis. The victory marked the third time in 11 years that Joe Gibbs’ Redskins won the Super Bowl (Washington hasn’t played in one since).

The three Super Bowl winners were led by three different quarterbacks — Joe Theismann, Doug Williams, and Mark Rypien. They also had three different featured running backs — John Riggins, George Rogers (who didn’t play in the Super Bowl — CORRECTION, he carried the ball 5 times for 17 yards), and Earnest Byner (who wasn’t our leading rusher in the Super Bowl). This lack of continuity is unique, I believe, among NFL teams that experienced such a high level of success in a relatively short period.

The 1991 Redskins are seldom mentioned by casual fans as one of football’s all-time great teams. But analysts almost always rate them as such. In fact, Chris Chase of Fox Sports rates them number one among all Super Bowl winners. So did USA Today going into last year’s Super Bowl (and no one will argue that the 2015 Denver Broncos were better). So did Bleacher Report in 2012.

In 2007, ESPN rated them the fourth best football team ever (not just among Super Bowl winners). Football Outsiders, using advanced statistics, rates them number one ever.

USA Today explains:

Criminally underrated, the ’91 Skins were one halftime Hail Mary and a lineman-eligible drop in the end zone during a meaningless Week 17 game [note: in which the starters were pulled early] from being undefeated. They have the second-highest point differential of any Super Bowl champion. They had 50 sacks and Mark Rypien, who started all 16 games, was sacked just seven times.

They played a tougher schedule than any team in the top 10 of this list (they’re the only team whose opponents had a collective record of .500 or better). They ran through the NFC playoffs by a score of 65-17 and were whupping up on Buffalo 37-10 in the Super Bowl when they took the foot off the gas and allowed Buffalo two garbage-time TDs.

Fairness requires me to note that the two “garbage-time” TDs Buffalo scored had less to do with the Skins taking their foot of the gas than with our defense being out of gas thanks to the Bills no-huddle high-octane offense. There are members of the Redskins defense who say that if Buffalo had recovered the on-sides kick that followed the last touchdown, there is no way Washington could have stopped Jim Kelly and crew for scoring another TD.

On the other hand, it doubtful that the Bills could have stopped the Redskins either. In fact, after recovering the on-sides kick, Washington ran it down Buffalo’s throat even though the Bills knew what was coming.

About that offense. It put up 485 points during the regular season. At the time, this was the third most of any team in NFL history.

The offense was anchored by the Hogs, and the 1991 version were the best offensive line I’ve ever seen. To the core players who helped lead us to two Super Bowl wins — Jeff Bostic, Joe Jacoby, and Hall of Famer Russ Grimm — the Redskins added Jim Lachey at left tackle. Lachey was the best of the bunch. He made first team all-pro for the third straight season.

Also joining the starting line-up was Mark Schlereth. He made the pro-bowl and went on to win two more Super Bowls in Denver.

Quarterback Mark Rypien had a phenomenal year. He was named second team all-pro quarterback and Super Bowl MVP. His trio of wide receivers — Hall of Famer Art Monk, Gary Clark, and Rickey Sanders — were unstoppable. Clark made first team all-pro.

Monk had been Joe Theismann’s favorite target. Jay Schroeder, who led the Redskins to an NFC championship game, favored Clark. Sanders was Doug Williams’ go-to guy.

Rypien seemed to have no favorite. He distributed the ball as the play call and the coverage dictated. At least one of the three always seemed to be open — often deep down the field.

Rypien took a huge amount of criticism early in his career when he was turnover prone. Interviewed right after the Super Bowl victory, he was asked if he had anything to say to his critics. Rypien responded: “They were right, but I got better.”

Words to live by.

The defense was of the “no-name” variety, but it gave up the second fewest points in the league. They shutout opponents three times during the season and held two other opponents to seven points and six points respectively.

In the Super Bowl, Jim Kelly completed fewer than half of his 58 passes. In 18 rushing attempts, the Bills gained only 43 yards.

Hall of Famer Darrell Green and Charles Mann were the only two defensive pro-bowlers. In writing this post, I had to look up the first names of the two defensive tackles, Eric Williams and Tim Johnson, but both enjoyed fine years.

Defensive coordinator Richie Petibon was ahead of his time in the situational use of his personnel. Looking at the roster, I see two players who I regarded as key who didn’t start a single game. Jumpy Geathers, famous for the “forklift rush,” terrorized offensive linemen in passing situations. Monte Coleman, the super-athletic linebacker, could run with any tight end or running back in pass coverage.

Thirteen different players recorded at least one sack.

Members of the 1991 team say their hardest hitting encounters of the season were in practice, and the hardest hitting practices were during the week leading up to the Super Bowl. The product was a 24-0 lead midway through the third quarter. This mirrored the team’s fast start to the season. In their first six games, they outscored their opponents 231-82.

The 1991 Redskins were a team in a hurry.

Are they really the best NFL team ever? I can’t say. But I’ve been watching the NFL since the late 1950s, and there is no team I can confidently say was better.

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