Before RGIII entered The Shanaplan, Redskins Nation experienced a good stretch of dark times. Even when there was a glimmer of hope, reality would quickly settle in.
As my Redskins allegiance starts into its fourth decade, I can nostalgically recall that circumstances have not always been like this. My childhood is littered with the team's many triumphs in the ‘80's. But, one of my most enjoyable moments was the '91 season.
I was in Southeast Asia for a few years before then, during the time of brick-sized cellphones, Apple 2e's and fax/telex machines; where my only means of following sports were USA Today and delayed TV feeds of CNN's Sports Tonight. When I returned stateside that fall to start my freshman year in college, I was psyched to come back to the football flow of things, with SportsCenter in the dorms' TV rooms to help me track Sundays' results. What I didn't realize was the treat that I was in for in my first season back.
For those of you who don't remember, the '91 squad was arguably one of the most complete teams that I have ever seen (ESPN in 2007 rated it as the 4th-greatest; Football Outsiders ranked it #1). Everyone normally equates Joe Gibbs v1.0 to great offenses, and for good reason. The league-leading unit (485 points scored) was led by Mark Rypien, who threw to The Posse -- Ricky Sanders, Gary Clark, and Art Monk; while handing the ball off to the underrated RBBC of Earnest Byner (all-purpose back) and Gerald Riggs (short-yardage, goal-line). This crew operated behind the swan-song version of the Hogs, who were every bit as domineering as their predecessors.
The special teams, led by venerable kicker Chip Lohmiller and all-purpose Brian Mitchell, was no slouch, either. But, what people tend to forget was how special this 4-3 defense was (2nd-fewest points allowed, 224). Aside from the ageless Darrell Green and two declining Pro-Bowlers (DE Charles Mann, LB Wilber Marshall), this unit gave new meaning to "more than the sum of its parts." Yet, to this day, it played such unforgettable team-defense that I can still name each starter and key backups.
Gibb's troops took off 11-0, demolishing most teams along the way, while looking unbeatable in the ol' confines of RFK Stadium. During this stretch, I remember John Madden commenting, as I watched the team beat the Bears in Week 6, "certain teams...the way they are playing...have this glow about themselves, and this Redskins squad has that glow." I should have put more weight into his observation, but how can anyone be so sure that early in the season?
However, as the weeks passed by, the wins continued to pile up, and my reservations started to slowly melt. The team's bid as serious playoff contenders came after they crushed the Steelers 41-14 on the road in Week 12, after they dismantled the Falcons in record-setting fashion 56-17 (Rypien threw 6 TD passes) the week before. The impeccable play-calling and execution made it look like the team could do whatever it wanted against their flailing foes. The power running game was vintage Joe Gibbs, and the receivers were running so free that it looked like a simple game of pitch-and-catch. The defense flew all over the field to blanket receivers, pressure quarterbacks and stone runners cold in their tracks.
Like any team, this Redskins squad experienced the ups and downs of a season. But, a sign of a championship team is how it endures these downs. After a disappointingly close home-loss to the Cowgirls broke their streak in Week 13, the defense contained the Rams and Cardinals in subsequent road victories until the offense timely recaptured its rhythm in a Week 16 34-17 win over the defending champ Giants. They closed the season with a meaningless tight road-loss to the Eagles to finish 14-2, tops in the NFC.
Following a first-round bye, the way the Redskins started the playoffs reminded me of the way they played during their streak, with all three units humming on all cylinders. Madden's prophetic glow shown through as the team walked over its Week 11 victims, the Falcons, 24-7 in the Divisional Round and repeated its Week 1 thrashing of Barry Sanders' undermanned Lions 41-10 in the NFC Championship. Gibbs' offensive play-calling seemed simple to defend - play-action off of the run game. But, the execution and decision-making was so crisp that opposing defenses were at their mercy. And the defense showed what it is like when all 11 defenders are on the same page, so much so that it seemed like there were 15 players on the field. The Redskins looked like a team of destiny.
Super Bowl XXVI's opponent was Marv Levy's Buffalo Bills, who were making their second consecutive appearance. They were nearly a mirror image of Gibbs' troops, showcasing Jim Kelly at the helm of the second-best offense, with a trio of pass-catchers in Andre Reed, James Lofton and Don Beebe. League MVP Thurman Thomas was a duo-threat at running back, backed up by a dependable big back, Kenneth Davis. Their offensive line featured a few Pro-Bowlers.
Even though the Bills' balanced defense was lead by Hall-of-Famer Bruce Smith and two all-Pro linebackers, I felt that the Redskins defense was playing more soundly as a unit, without relying heavily on any one individual. Their defensive depth was better on all three levels, which kept players fresher and allowed defensive coordinator Richie Petitbon to utilize his entire playbook. This advantage helped the Redskins to take its NFC-East-turn beating up the Bills 37-24. The game was not as close as the score indicated, as victory was relatively in hand at the end of the third quarter. Even Jim Kelly and his vaunted K-Gun offense could not mount a comeback in the fourth. Buffalo fans could not pin this one on Scott Norwood, their anointed goat of the Bills first Super Bowl loss a year before.
Super Bowl XXVI's win marked Coach Gibbs third and, obviously unbeknownst to us all at the time, his last championship title, all astoundingly accomplished with three different quarterbacks for the same franchise. I would safely bet that this feat will not happen again in our lifetime. So, to recap, my first season back from overseas, and the team wins the Super Bowl.
Unfortunately, Joe Gibbs' retirement in '93, following a 9-7 season, ushered in a forgettable era that not only brought me tumbling back to earth, but left me in an extended funk. Thankfully and gratefully, the memories of that '91 season buoyed my sanity until Bob Griffin's arrival.