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Gibbs’ Feat Bests Even Belichick

The Patriots’ win over the Texans was impressive, but Joe Gibbs and the Redskins did them one better in 1987

Washington Redskins v Dallas Cowboys
Coach Joe Gibbs, seen here during a 2005 win over the Cowboys.
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Confession time.

For most of my adult life, I have said without hesitation that Joe Gibbs is the greatest NFL coach of the modern era. Better than Parcells. Better than Landry. Better than Noll. Better even than Shula and Walsh.

Ever since Super Bowl 49, I have begrudgingly admitted (albeit quietly) that this honor now belongs to Bill Belichick.

A funny thing happened a week ago, though. The reaction to the Patriots’ 27-0 win over Houston soared beyond mere praise of Belichick. It approached beatification.

Michael Irvin perhaps went the farthest, saying before the game that, if the Pats managed to beat the Texans, he would start referring to the Lombardi Trophy as the “Belichick Trophy.”

Taking a rookie, third-string quarterback and managing to topple previously unbeaten Houston was merely the latest jewel in Belichick’s resplendent crown. In our modern, social-media-driven world, commentators at all levels rushed to anoint Belichick the best in history . . . based on a week three victory.

As I said, I now think that Belichick is the greatest NFL coach of my lifetime. And, immediately after the Jacoby-Brissett-led triumph, I had a similar reaction as the rest of the football-observing universe: Ol' Belichick had done it again, and the ability of the Patriots to replace players as if they were interchangeable parts in an unstoppable machine is reminiscent of the Gibbs-era Redskins, only with an even longer period of sustained success.

Then I started to think about the circumstances more carefully. What the Patriots pulled off was undoubtedly impressive. They won a game with a rookie, third-string quarterback. But they were also at home, and, other than a banged-up Rob Gronkowski, were pretty healthy.

All of that is great. And everyone in the New England organization, especially Belichick, deserves the praise they've received.

But, as great as the win was for the Patriots last week, I doubt Hollywood will be making a movie about it anytime soon.

If we're talking about sublime feats of coaching, I don't think what the Pats pulled off was nearly as amazing as what Joe Gibbs accomplished during the NFL players' strike of 1987.

Having already gone 2-0 with replacement players cobbled together from a pool of unsigned free agents, security guards, and bored, white-collar workers with college football experience, the Redskins faced an even stiffer challenge when they traveled to play Dallas.

The strike was nearing an end, and many of the regular Cowboys had crossed the picket line to suit up against Washington. Stars like running back Tony Dorsett, quarterback Danny White, and defensive linemen Randy White and "Too Tall" Jones were all in the Dallas lineup when the Cowboys clashed with the Redskins on Monday Night Football. On the other hand, Washington was the only team in the NFL that had no players cross the picket line.

Gibbs, aided by the personnel wizardry of virtuoso general manager Bobby Beathard, had cultivated a good replacement team. But the Dallas squad Washington would see was a different level of opponent.

The “Scabskins” would be on their own against the “real” Cowboys.

Things got even worse for the Redskins when quarterback Ed Rubbert got injured early in the game. Rubbert had played well in Washington’s other two replacement wins, but he got knocked out of the Dallas game with a shoulder problem after throwing only two passes.

Enter Tony Robinson.

Robinson had been a pretty good college quarterback at Tennessee, but he blew out his knee halfway through his senior year. Then, he got mixed up in drugs, eventually being busted for a 1986 cocaine deal, which led to a substantial prison sentence.

Understandably, he went undrafted.

When the Redskins were putting together their makeshift replacement roster nearly two years later, Robinson was temporarily out of prison on a work-release program. Washington signed him off of a semi-pro squad in Virginia.

Now, after Rubbert's first-quarter injury, Robinson would have to lead the Redskins to victory.

Somehow, he did.

Robinson went 11-for-18 for 152 yards in relief of Rubbert. Like Brissett, Robinson benefited from an excellent defensive performance and a big game from a running back (in Robinson's case, Lionel Vital, who ran for 136 yards).

However, in contrast to Belichick, who had a full roster of top-level NFL talent around Brissett, Gibbs was piecing together a supporting cast made of up of stockbrokers, night watchmen, and practice squad wash-outs.

The Redskins topped Dallas 13-7 in one of the biggest upsets in the history of the NFL. Most shockingly, the Cowboys found themselves being booed lustily by their own fans as the game progressed and the Cowboy faithful began to process what was happening in front of them. On a couple of occasions, the crowd chanted “WE WANT SWEENEY” at Danny White, referring to Kevin Sweeney, the Cowboys’ replacement quarterback who was obviously benched once White came back.

It was an ugly night for Dallas, and a glorious night for Washington.

As most Skins fans know, that 3-0 replacement run was instrumental in helping Washington capture the NFC East before going on to win Super Bowl XXII.

And that success was made possible, in part, by an unlikely hero who was on furlough from prison.

Gibbs’ replacement players carried him off on their shoulders as the final seconds ticked off the clock. After the game, players celebrated—and even wept—in the Texas Stadium locker room.

Most of them knew it was the last real football game they would ever play.

“One of the most emotional locker rooms I’ve ever been in,” Gibbs said in the wake of the stunning, hard-fought victory.

Eat your heart out, Bill Belichick.