Buffalo has beaten Washington the last five times the teams have met. However, the last time the Redskins came out on top, they brought home the Lombardi Trophy. Coach Joe Gibbs and company concluded the 1991 season by beating the Bills in Super Bowl XXVI, 37-24.
A few who contributed to the championship shared their memories in my book “Then Gibbs Said to Riggins…”.
Postseason games didn’t monopolize Earnest Byner’s list of fondest football memories. A fumble at the 3-yard line as he, then with the Cleveland Browns, was going for a game-tying touchdown with just over a minute left on the clock in the AFC Championship Game against Denver on January 17, 1988, will do that. However, in 1991 the running back played well enough to not only start a new list, but do so using a Sharpie.
He rushed for team-high 1,048 yards as the Redskins advanced to Super Bowl XXVI against Buffalo. And with a 10-yard touchdown reception from Mark Rypien, he not only helped Washington win the title, 37-24, he won a personal battle, as well.
“My greatest experience was actually winning the NFC Championship Game [vs. Detroit],” Byner laughed. “I cried almost all the way to the stadium and even cried when I was playing because I was so emotionally charged for that game. So an opportunity to finally get past that plateau that I had been on as far as championship games.…
“Playing in the Super Bowl was actually a little bit more subdued until the first play. I ran the ball and got swamped by Buffalo’s defense. And right there for an instant, I thought, ‘Gosh, the whole world is watching.’ And that was a magnificent feeling. After that, the game was on. Catching the first touchdown for our team, winning the Super Bowl was a dream come true.”
Byner continued. “That whole season was really a dream. I think it was a culmination of the experience that Coach Gibbs had had over the years, the respect he had for the veteran players, and the relationship he had established. The overall chemistry of that team was somewhat spirited. It was a genuine caring for one another. All those combined produced a magical year.”
Being a contributing rookie on a football team that compiles a 14-2 record, wins the NFC championship, and is heading to the Super Bowl could make a dream come true.
That, however, was not the case for running back Ricky Ervins in 1991. After helping the Redskins reach those accomplishments, the experience that was Super Bowl XXVI against Buffalo was not how he expected it would be at all.
“We never got a chance to experience the whole week. We had it in Minnesota, and there was nothing but snow there,” laughed Ervins. “When you go to Super Bowls now when they have them in Miami or Pasadena, the whole week is a festivity of things going on. We never had that NFL experience.
“Once you get to the game and all the hoopla that’s going on, the singers and the balloons inside the building, it hit me. That year, we were constantly winning, so I was used to winning. So when we played Buffalo, it was just another game. But once the game was over with and you see [video] tapes that they make up, that’s when it hits you. Wow! I actually played in that game.”
He certainly did. As the game’s leading rusher with 72 yards on 13 carries, the rookie shined under the league’s biggest spotlight.
“I don’t think about that much. I just wish I could have scored a touchdown because they show the touchdowns on TV. They don’t show the rushes,” Ervins chuckled. “And I had a chance to get one. I got down to the goal line and they brought [Gerald] Riggs in. But hey, that was our game plan.” And it was successful. Washington beat the Bills, 37-24.
In an attempt to utilize his quickness and size, the Redskins shifted Tim Johnson from defensive end to defensive tackle after acquiring him from Pittsburgh in 1990.
The move paid off the following year when Washington finished the regular season at 14-2, its best mark since having the same record in 1983. What was the key?
“I think Coach Gibbs [has] genius [in] his ability to put players in the right place and to pick the right players,” said Johnson. “He went out and got me and [defensive end] Eric Williams and a couple other guys. He began to build that team, and that was the genius of that team. Coach Gibbs knew the right players that were going to fit. He didn’t have to go find the most talented high-round draft-choice player, because I wasn’t. I was a sixth-round draft choice [in 1987].
“In Pittsburgh, I was in a 3-4 [defensive alignment] playing end. In Washington, I was in a 4-3 playing inside [at tackle]. I call it genius because I was out of position, but evidently, they saw my ability to be able to play inside without seeing me play inside. It was masterful the way they put that team together. Putting the right people on the team and [putting them] in the right position, that’s hard to do.”
The right people at the right positions were hardly challenged in the playoffs. They flew past the Atlanta Falcons, 24-7, and then destroyed the Detroit Lions, 41-10, for the NFC title. Washington’s momentum continued in Super Bowl XXVI when they beat the Buffalo Bills.
“It was like a dream almost,” Johnson said. “What’s funny is that I was on the sideline [prior to the game], just hyped like everybody else, and as I was standing there, [my former coach with the Steelers] Chuck Noll comes up behind me and taps me on my rear. I looked around and I think, ‘Man, the Lord has a sense of humor, doesn’t he? A couple of years ago, I was stuck in Pittsburgh and now look! [Noll’s] watching me play in the Super Bowl.’ So that was kind of a funny moment. It was funny how he acknowledged me. I almost said thanks for trading me because it worked out better this way.”
Brian Mitchell did not have to toil too long in the NFL before he had an opportunity to suit up on Super Bowl Sunday. In 1991, just his second season, the kickoff and punt returner helped Washington reach Super Bowl XXVI against Buffalo.
Was he nervous to be playing on football’s biggest stage? That would be a no.
“I was so excited and young that I didn’t have a chance to be nervous, to be honest with you,” said Mitchell, who had one kickoff return for 16 yards. “You know, people say when you’re young, you’re just dumb enough to not even know. I think that was the situation. I don’t know if it was nervousness because I wasn’t really, like, shaking or had any butterflies [in my stomach], but it was such an exciting moment, being a young kid looking at the Super Bowl, that by the time I realized we were playing in the Super Bowl, it was the second quarter. The first quarter was gone.”
The Redskins were, well, pretty ticked off when they took the field, to say the least. The offense came through with 417 total yards, while the defensive unit intercepted Bills quarterback Jim Kelly four times and sacked him on five occasions. They also held Buffalo’s star running back Thurman Thomas to just 13 yards on 10 carries.
“Well, I thought we were a better team,” Mitchell said. “Then again, they did a lot of talking during the week, which motivated us a lot more. The week of practice was probably the most intense week of practice I’ve ever seen on that team. And I’m talking about even training camp. We got so fired up about [what] they were calling our [offensive] linemen; they said they were fat. ‘The Hogs, yeah, they’re fat, they’re sloppy.’
“[And] they were arguing back and forth with each other about who was going to be the MVP of the Super Bowl as if we weren’t there! We took that seriously and went out there and showed them we were way more physical then they were. They were a bunch of guys in the AFC, and that was a pass-happy league at that time. And we just took the physical to them, and they couldn’t handle it.”
By rattling off 11 straight victories to open the 1991 season, the Redskins were clearly en route to a conference title and a date with Buffalo in Super Bowl XXVI.
Quarterback Mark Rypien, who was named as the NFC Player of the Year, feels that the reason the team enjoyed so much success started with the bespectacled man wearing a headset on the sideline.
“It was Joe Gibbs’ ability to keep veteran players around, his system, and selling his players on the system,” said Rypien. “I think that [enables] you to be successful.”
Gibbs’ system brought about continued success on Super Bowl Sunday and earned his team a third Lombardi Trophy. During the game, which was not as close as the final score would indicate, the Redskins totaled 417 yards of total offense compared to Buffalo’s 283. For his part, Rypien completed 18-of-33 passes for 292 yards and two touchdowns and was named as the game’s Most Valuable Player.
And although he was clearly delighted about the outcome, Rypien didn’t feel the experience as a whole was what he expected. “I think the Super Bowls are not for the teams that are involved, it’s more for corporate America to have a big gathering at a football game,” said Rypien. “Your fan base is not nearly the same as you would have at RFK Stadium. You get some people that are fanatic about it no matter what that was able to get there, but it’s a different fan base.
“Joe Gibbs was so good about giving us some leeway when we had a chance on Monday and Tuesday. And then we had to buckle down on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and up to the game and just understand that we’re here to finish off something very special. So from that standpoint, I don’t think anything really changed. We were in a different city and practicing in a different facility, but other than that, it was business as usual.
“The game was somewhat different because there is so much put into that thing, so much drama to the whole thing that it didn’t really feel like a playoff game or NFC Championship Game or something in your own stadium and in front of your own people.”