Look for the greatest defense in the history of the NFL and most people will point to the 1985 Chicago Bears.
Look for the greatest offense and most people will point you to the ’99 Rams and the “Greatest Show on Turf”.
The only undefeated season, of course, belongs to the ’72 Dolphins.
And the greatest dynasty? Certainly, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady’s New England Patriots are undisputed for the run of success they put together to start the 21st century, winning six championships between 2001 and 2019.
But when it comes to the greatest team in NFL history to play together for a single season, the distinction goes to the 1991 Washington Redskins, who had a 14-2 regular season record against a tough schedule that included 6 games against eventual playoff teams, and who outscored their opponents by 261 points in 16 games, and then swept through the playoffs with an average margin of victory better than 20 points.
That team was the perfect blend of coaching, offense, defense and special teams. That greatest football team of all time was created through the vision and leadership of a great coach who is still recognized today for his team-building talent.
While the glory for winning the Super Bowl XXVI Lombardi Trophy goes to the players on the field, the magic ingredient that formed those individuals into a winning team was Joe Gibbs, known to today’s Washington fan base simply as “Saint Joe”.
Gibbs was a little-known offensive coordinator when he was tapped for the head coaching job in Washington by GM Bobby Beathard in 1981. Today, he is in two Halls of Fame – the National Football League Hall in Canton, Ohio and the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina. Gibbs, as most people know, led the Redskins to four Super Bowls in 12 years from 1981 to 1992, winning three of them. He is still the only head coach in NFL history to win 3 championships with three different starting quarterbacks.
Not every football fan is aware, however, that, in 1992, Gibbs left the NFL to form his own NASCAR team. That team became one of the most successful in racing, winning 5 NASCAR Cup Series Championships and 2 Xfinity Series Championships. Coincidentally, his five Cup Series championships have come with three different drivers as well.
It’s clear that Gibbs knows what it takes to mold a winning team.
When it came to the 1991 team that dominated the NFL on the way to the franchise’s fifth world championship, it was the element of team that mattered more than one or two great players. Of course, the team had talented players; in fact, one defensive player and two offensive players from that championship team are in the Hall of Fame. But it was Joe Gibbs’ ability to pull people together that led to that ultimate team success.
The Joe Gibbs philosophy of team-building
Head coach Joe Gibbs has talked many times over the decades about his philosophy of team-building and winning. In fact, he teaches a course in Performance Management at Strayer University and often talks to executives, business owners and sports teams about leadership and team-building.
Coach Gibbs is clear that building a great team is all about the people.
“I found out in football, if I picked the right 45 football players, they were going to make me look good as a coach. If there’s one key for me, it’s understanding everything you can about people,” Gibbs said via Fox Business.
But for Gibbs, defining the “right” people is about more than just skills; it’s about motivation and character.
“In football, we had 13 scouts touring America. When they came back, the first thing they wanted to tell me about was all the things you can measure. How much they weighed, how fast they can run, how high they can jump. But the key to picking people isn’t just that. It’s the desire they have inside of them and what kind of determination they have,” Gibbs said courtesy of American Express.
Having selected the right kind of people, Coach Gibbs says that team building relies on the leader and team members all being themselves. “You cannot pattern yourself after somebody else,” said Gibbs, “because when you’re working with the collective mind, they will figure you out. If you’re trying to fake something or you’re trying to pattern yourself after somebody, you’re heading for trouble.”
This devotion to putting together the right people, being genuine and allowing members of the team to be themselves produced great results in 1991 for the Washington franchise.
What the ’91 Redskins achieved
The ’91 Redskins topped 40 points five times and they shut out three teams. This elite performance on offense and defense extended to include special teams and the extraordinary return man, Brian Mitchell, who still stands today at second in NFL career all-purpose yards, just 216 yards behind the great wide receiver Jerry Rice, and ahead of running backs Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith, all three of whom are enshrined in Canton, Ohio.
The 1991 Washington Redskins were dominant on both sides of the ball, with the offense ranked first in scoring and the defense ranked second in points allowed. Eight players made the Pro Bowl. QB Mark Rypien had his best season as a pro, compiling 3,564 passing yards and 28 touchdowns. But this was not really a quarterback-driven offense. Instead, this great team’s identity was centered on the unique cast of characters that comprised the offensive line unit.
Known as “the Hogs”, Washington’s OL unit was the best in NFL history, and they were dominant for a decade. Coached for several years by the legendary Joe Bugel, who inadvertently gave the unit its now iconic nickname, the composition of the Hogs changed over the years as some players retired and others were added to replace them, but from beginning to end they were defined by two things – their dominance as a unit on the field of play, and their close-knit relationships off the field that created the foundation for their success.
They played poker together after practice in what was known as “The 5 o’clock club”, and they socialized away from Redskins Park – drinking, hunting, fishing and working out together — deepening relationships both on and off the field. It’s hard to imagine a group of players more different from their quiet-demeanored, proper and deeply religious head coach, but encouraging people to be themselves is at the center of Joe Gibbs’ philosophy.
Teams reach their highest potential not by forcing team members to adapt themselves to a preconceived pattern of success, but by shaping the organization to embrace the individual character and talents of its members in the gospel according to St. Joe.
The Redskins passing game and running game both benefited from the play of the close-knit Hogs – the team within a team. QB Mark Rypien was sacked just seven times in 16 regular season games. And it’s not like Rypien was running a quick-release West Coast offense; instead, he was running a version of the big-play drop back pass attack Air Coryell system that Gibbs had helped develop in San Diego. Running back Earnest Byner, who compiled 1,048 rushing yards, and wide receiver Gary Clark, who tallied 1,340 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns, each had Pro Bowl seasons in 1991, while the future Hall of Fame wideout Art Monk, who was 34, had over 1,000 yards receiving and caught eight TD passes.
Dominant on both sides of the ball
But it wasn’t just on offense that the ’91 Redskins excelled. On defense, the blazing-fast Hall of Fame cornerback Darrell Green, who eventually played an incredible 20 years with the Redskins, had five interceptions and was named to the Pro Bowl. Likewise, defensive end Charles Mann tallied 11.5 sacks on his way to the Pro Bowl. As a unit, Washington’s defense allowed only 224 points (14 ppg) and led the league in turnover ratio at +18.
Despite the dominance of the ’91 ‘Skins, few players from the team are remembered by most NFL fans nowadays. This might seem odd until you remember that the foundation of the team was the Hogs. The team could run the ball at will and pass the ball downfield to three different receivers; the defense could stuff the run and the rush the passer; the cornerbacks were fast and the linebackers were brutal hitters. The very reason why there are so few individual players that stand out in fans’ memories today is that this was a team in every sense of the word. As one sportswriter put it:
“How can a [Mark] Rypien [led] team be better than those QB’d by Montana, Brady or Manning? How can a defense that wasn’t on the level of Buddy Ryan’s 4-6 in Chicago or the dominant Marvin Lewis units in Baltimore be half of the best champion ever? How can a team as unmemorable as the ‘91 Redskins be listed above Cowboys, Steelers, 49ers and Patriots teams that played in more famous playoff games and featured better-known players?
“It’s exactly because of how unmemorable they were. The greatest make it look easy.”
Success comes from consistent messaging
Of course, building a great team doesn’t happen overnight. It requires careful attention, day after day for months and years, and it requires the leader to deal with new people and changing situations while staying true to one consistent philosophy. Get the right people, create an environment that is adaptable enough to include all the personalities on a single team, get them all oriented towards a set of common goals, and then dedicate everyone’s efforts to achieving the goals together. That’s the philosophy that Gibbs used to mold consistent winners through a dozen years of ever-changing challenges.
Perhaps the greatest challenge to arise during Joe Gibbs’ tenure came in 1987, when the NFL experienced a player strike that saw the owners respond by bringing in replacement players to continue the season. The replacements played for three weeks, after which the strike ended and the season was resumed with the regular players. During the strike, the Redskins were one of only two NFL teams not to have any regular players cross the picket line.
That was largely due to Joe Gibbs, who called the players on his team and asked them to stick together. If they were going to strike, said Coach Gibbs, then strike as a team; if they were going to return, then return as a team. What Gibbs didn’t want was the sort of fracture that would occur if some players returned while others stayed on the picket line. The players complied, and the replacement players went undefeated through the three weeks that they were on the field, culminating with a win against Dallas on Monday Night Football that was remarkable due to the fact that a large number of the Cowboys star players had already returned to play.
Of course, Joe Gibbs’ Washington Redskins finished at the top of the league in the regular season and went on to defeat the Bears and Vikings in the NFC playoffs, and then beat the Denver Broncos to win Super Bowl XXII in January, 1988.
Many of the players on that ’87 team formed the core of the ’91 Redskins, but the key reason to pay attention to the events of the 1987 strike-affected season is that it demonstrates what made all of Joe Gibbs’ teams great. As a leader, Joe Gibbs encouraged each player to be true to his own individuality but to commit to and contribute to a team identity, and to put that commitment they felt to one another ahead of any individual considerations. Gibbs started preaching that message as a rookie head coach in 1981; that message didn’t waver in the face of the unique challenges posed by the 1987 players’ strike, and remained consistent as a new group of players arrived annually for training camp with Joe Gibbs and the rest of the coaching staff. The commitment to the right people and the right environment was the constant through 12 years of change and 12 years of success.
The pinnacle of that success, in 1991, was the greatest NFL team of all time – the winners of Super Bowl XXVI – the Washington Redskins.