Washington quarterback Doug Williams' legendary performance included four touchdown passes.
January 31, 1988
Quarterbacks have provided more than a few memorable performances in Super Bowls. There was Joe Namath's prickly prediction-come-true in Super Bowl III, Terry Bradshaw's four touchdown passes in Super Bowl XIII, Jim Plunkett's storybook comeback in Super Bowl XV and Phil Simms' near-perfect marksmanship in Super Bowl XXI. Based on statistics alone, Doug Williams' wonderful work in Super Bowl XXII would put him among those elite names.
But Williams' place in football history can't be based just on statistics. After 21 years of Super Bowls and another 34 years of National Football League title games before that, a black quarterback finally played in pro football's premier event. And he played sensationally, earning Most Valuable Player honors while leading the Washington Redskins to their second NFL championship in six years.
Given the social significance attached to Williams' ground-breaking role, his performance may never be equaled in pro football. Making a Namath-like prediction is one thing; carrying the hopes of an entire race into an already pressure-saturated game -- and then virtually rewriting a large portion of the record book -- is the stuff of fantasies, not reality.
But Williams already had tasted as many of life's joys and sorrows as he probably cared. Two years before Super Bowl XXII, he was an unemployed quarterback waiting for the telephone to ring. Once a budding NFL star, his life had been turned upside down. Shortly after he became a free agent with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in February 1983, his wife died of a brain tumor. He was left to raise an infant daughter and to play football in a league doomed to fail. When the United States Football League folded after the 1985 season, his career seemed over.
To understand the valleys he'd visited was to remember the peaks that had come before. Williams had been a star at Grambling State University before joining the Buccaneers, who made him a first-round draft choice (the 17th pick overall) in 1978. There were other black quarterbacks in the NFL, but Williams was the most gifted. He seemed destined to finally demolish all the stereotypes that had become associated with blacks and the quarterback position: That blacks weren't smart enough to play quarterback, weren't dependable and weren't willing to work hard enough to do the job properly.
Williams became an instant starter in the NFL, working under the guidance of Joe Gibbs, then Tampa Bay's quarterbacks coach. But the Bucs were young and struggling, and Williams was inexperienced and unsure. Although he guided them into the National Football Conference title game in 1979, where they lost to the Los Angeles Rams, 9-0, he was never given the chance to hone his skills or to play with truly outstanding offensive personnel.
Instead, his exceptionally strong but sometimes erratic throwing arm gave birth to a joke that found its humor at his expense. It was said that Williams might best serve his country if he were sent to Iran, because he was the only person capable of "overthrowing the Ayatollah." Later, he would laugh as he retold the joke. But at first it hurt, just as it hurt when the Bucs refused to satisfy his contract demands in 1983. He felt he had little choice but to move to the USFL, his life already shattered by the shocking loss of his wife.
"I thought," he said, "that any dreams of me playing in a Super Bowl were finished."
But Williams' life took an unexpected turn in 1986 when he received a call from Gibbs, who by then was the successful head coach of the Washington Redskins. Gibbs wanted to know if Williams would be interested in joining the Redskins as an experienced backup to starter Jay Schroeder. Said Williams: "He didn't have to ask for very long. When you don't have a job, you can't be too choosy."
Williams threw only one pass in 1986 and there was no reason for him to expect 1987 to be any different. But when Schroeder was injured in the opening game, Williams was given a chance to start. Later, after Schroeder returned but played erratically, Williams was named the starter, only to lose the job because of an injury. After Williams relieved Schroeder and rallied the Redskins to victory over Minnesota in the final regular-season game, Gibbs installed Williams as his starting quarterback for the playoffs.
"The Redskins didn't bring me here to become the first black quarterback in the Super Bowl," Williams said. "They brought me here to be the quarterback of a Super Bowl team."
Even when the Redskins did get to the Super Bowl as the somewhat surprising winner of the NFC title -- the favored San Francisco 49ers lost a divisional playoff game to Minnesota -- Williams' presence resulted in a plethora of non-sports stories. The stories involving social significance centered on Williams; the stories detailing quarterbacking talent centered on the Denver Broncos' John Elway, who dominated the pre-game hype so much it seemed at times as if he were a one-man team.
"We've got a curfew just for John," snapped Denver Coach Dan Reeves at one point. "The rest of the guys are on their own."
Elway was the league's golden boy, a $2 million-a-year star who was so good that he had carried a good-but-not-great Broncos team into the Super Bowl two straight years. He had played well against the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXI, but Denver still had been overwhelmed. But he seemed on an even higher plane this time, and the Redskins, who had been erratic all season despite easily winning the NFC East, certainly were no Giants. Denver was a 3 1/2-point favorite, based almost solely on Elway's aura. He was John Wayne, throwing to Denver's speedy wide receivers collectively nicknamed-after a motion picture of the same title -- the "Three Amigos."
But Elway alone couldn't cope with what the Redskins produced: Williams' marvelous output coupled with a 204-yard rushing performance from rookie Tim Smith and a 35-point outburst in the second quarter-the most prolific offensive performance in one quarter in Super Bowl history. Washington won easily, 42-10, before a crowd of 73,302 at San Diego's Jack Murphy Stadium. It marked the fourth straight lopsided Super Bowl victory by an NFC team.
"I'm no Jackie Robinson," protested Williams afterward, dismissing any comparison to the man who broke the color barrier in major league baseball. But Robinson would have been proud of Williams' guts and character and class. In the days preceding the Super Bowl, the Redskins' coaching staff fretted about the pressures being placed on Williams. They believed that their team could physically overpower the quicker, smaller Broncos, but they wondered whether they could control Elway and if Williams would press too much in trying to live up to the expectations of his fans.
"Doug is the reason we are here," said one Redskins coach. "Since he became a starter, we're a different team. But you hope he doesn't go into the game feeling he's carrying all his fans on his shoulders. If he tries too hard, we could have problems."
After the game, after he had completed 18 of 29 attempts and had set a Super Bowl record for passing yards (340) and had tied another for touchdown passes (four), Williams was on top of the sports world, smiling broadly.
He was the missing link in the Redskins puzzle, the stabilizer on offense that enabled the coaches to take full advantage of their varied offensive talents. Schroeder lacked a deft touch on his short passes and sometimes pressed too hard to make big plays. Williams, passing with a soft touch he had developed in the USFL, played almost flawlessly in the postseason (one interception and one sack in the first two playoff games, and one sack and one interception in the Super Bowl). He made certain that the Redskins didn't beat themselves.
"I think there were a lot of television sets turned on today and a lot of people will start to see me as a role model," he said. "But the most important thing is to be able to play well and be a role model. That's what we did today."
The saga of the Redskins, start to finish, was an unlikely tale. This was a team that grew accustomed to struggles, often forced to rally from deficits and hardly ever putting away opponents. There were controversies at quarterback and running back and wide receiver, injuries and a "replacement" team that kept the Redskins in the championship hunt by winning all three of its games during the NFL players' strike. And in the end, it was an unheralded defense that throttled Elway and an unassuming trio of Williams, Smith and receiver Ricky Sanders that produced the offensive fireworks. Those three hadn't even been starters when the season began.
In the process, the Redskins proved that not even a player as talented as Elway can overcome the burdens of a weak defense. The Broncos were outgained badly in three playoff games and, combined with their 39-20 loss to the Giants the year before, gave up 81 points in back-to-back Super Bowl losses.
"The way we've played in the two Super Bowls, I'm embarrassed for the whole organization," said Denver linebacker Jim Ryan.
It was a Super Bowl matchup without controversy -- and almost without color. During the week prior to the game, the players from the two teams couldn't say enough nice things about each other. "It's like two choir boys squaring off," said Redskins tackle Mark May, shaking his head.
Gibbs and Reeves went so far as to schedule a Saturday night chapel service that players from both teams could attend. Imagine former Green Bay Packers linebacker Ray Nitschke mingling with the Kansas City Chiefs a few hours before Super Bowl I? At least some of the players from both teams got out at night, meeting unexpectedly at a local watering spot. That's where Denver safety Tony Lilly got his first up-close look at the "Hogs," the Redskins' hefty offensive linemen. "Awesome," said Lilly.
Still, Gibbs was far from overconfident. He put in a curfew, a change from his Super Bowl policy of four years earlier. He also instructed his players to wear wrong uniform numbers at practice sessions during the week. That scheme could be attributed to Gibbs' profound belief that the Raiders had spied on his practices before they beat the Redskins, 38-9, in Super Bowl XVIII.
"The guys loved it," assistant coach Dan Henning said of the Redskins' subterfuge. "Some of them wouldn't take the most prominent numbers. They said if anyone was out there sniping, they didn't want to be a target."
Reeves contracted a case of paranoia, too. When the Broncos saw a man filming their practice from the roof of a house, Reeves said, "See if his name is Joe."
His name certainly wasn't Dexter, although that name drew plenty of attention. Dexter Manley, the Redskins' loquacious defensive end, attempted to avoid the spotlight during Super Bowl week and, instead, wound up drawing it. At one point during the pregame buildup, he said he would be unavailable to the media. On another day, he said his dream was to "catch the quarterback and hit him from behind, in between his two numbers, and cut his lights out." Reminded that Elway wore No. 7, Manley replied: "Oh." He took verbal potshots at Jimmy (The Greek) Snyder and lauded Elway, then boycotted a mandatory interview session until Gibbs made him return.
Said a Redskins teammate: "We're waiting for Dexter to explode. He's been quiet much too long."
Redskins practices were so fierce that the coaches wondered if the team was peaking too soon. Perhaps a pep talk from Ollie North before the team left Washington had got the players too psyched. "You should have seen us on Wednesday (four days before the game)," said Manley. "No one was safe on the practice field."
Gibbs tried to benefit from the mistakes of Washington's Super Bowl loss to the Raiders. He thought he had installed the game plan too early back then and added too much to it as the days went on. This time, the plan was implemented in stages and then reduced instead of enlarged. The coaching staff, instead of working long hours, even had evenings to relax.
"Joe's as calm and as confident as I've seen him," said Joe Bugel, the Redskins' assistant head coach/offense. "He's relaxing and it's rubbing off on everyone else." It was easy to be laid back. Magnificent weather visited San Diego in the week prior to its first Super Bowl game.
Despite the fascination with Elway and his many talents, the Redskins saw another side to the game. They were certain they could run the ball effectively against the smaller Denver defense, especially if they started Smith instead of the slower George Rogers. And the coaches believed that if Williams could have just a .500 passing day, the Redskins would be able to beat a weak Broncos secondary. The game plan was to offset Denver's defensive slanting and stunting with counter run plays and to throw the ball deep against the cornerbacks. The Redskins were intent on being bold because they thought Denver would score at least three touchdowns.
Richie Petitbon, the Redskins' assistant head coach/defense, respected Elway so much that he changed his usual approach regarding blitzing. Instead of frequently sending six or seven defenders toward the quarterback, Petitbon and the other defensive coaches decided to limit the rush to the front four linemen and a fifth player, either safety Alvin Walton or one of the linebackers-Monte Coleman, Mel Kaufman or Clarence Vaughn. The idea was to have the front four rush straight ahead, forgoing any stunting that would open up scramble lanes for Elway, and then try to confuse the quarterback by blitzing from ever-changing points on the field.
"We didn't want to leave the middle of the field open, because Elway could hurt us there," said Petitbon. So free safety Todd Bowles manned the middle and Petitbon began what Bugel called "a chess game" with Elway.
The Broncos almost had a checkmate in the first quarter. Washington's cornerbacks liked to play a lot of man-to-man defense and to press receivers on the line of scrimmage. On its first play from scrimmage, Denver, which enjoyed facing man-to-man, pressing cover-ages, got rookie receiver Ricky Nattiel isolated on cornerback Barry Wilburn, breaking down what had started as a zone coverage scheme.
Elway kept looking away from Wilburn, who thought he wouldn't be involved in the play. Then Elway suddenly connected with Nattiel, who was five yards behind the defender. The 56-yard touchdown pass was the quickest score in Super Bowl history, coming just 1 minute and 57 seconds after the kickoff.
"He caught me asleep," Wilburn said of Elway. "Give him credit."
On Denver's next possession, a trick pass from running back Steve Sewell to Elway -- imagine risking your star quarterback as a receiver -- covered 32 yards and took the Broncos to the Washington 6-yard line. But Elway was stopped by tackle Dave Butz on a third-down quarterback draw and Denver settled for a 24-yard Rich Karlis field goal and a 10-0 lead.
Sanders fumbled the ensuing kickoff, but the Redskins kept possession on a recovery by Terry Orr, perhaps the game's biggest play.
Had Denver recovered, Washington might have been buried under a 17-0 avalanche.
The Redskins were tentative. "We were too excited, too emotional," said defensive end Charles Mann. "Relax, relax," the players told each other on the sideline, in between some pointed yelling by the coaches. "It was like someone was kicking us in the mouth and we weren't doing anything about it," said Bugel.
Williams watched four of his passes get dropped before he suffered a twisted knee and had to leave the game for one play near the end of the first quarter. But he returned after reminding Gibbs that he had played in pain before and that this game should be no different.
Almost overlooked in Washington's inauspicious start was that one day earlier, Williams had been forced to undergo an emergency root canal. So the Redskins confronted a 10-point deficit with a gimpy, sore-mouthed quarterback, a defense stunned by Elway's early strikes and an offensive plan of run-and-ball control that suddenly looked out of place.
Things changed dramatically in the second quarter. On the Redskins' first play of the period, Williams wanted to throw a conservative, 7-yard pass called "Charlie Hitch" to Sanders. But cornerback Mark Haynes bumped Sanders at the line and Sanders adjusted by going deep. Once he got behind Haynes, Sanders caught a finely thrown, semi-soft pass at midfield and scampered in for an 80-yard touchdown which equaled the Super Bowl record for longest pass play. Time left in the period: 14:07.
"The turning point," said Gibbs. "You could feel the sidelines come alive. We caught fire."
The rest of the quarter almost defied imagination. The Redskins scored on their next four possessions, performing as if they were going up against their scout squad. Following a Denver punt, Gary Clark, running the same pattern as Sanders, got behind Steve Wilson and pulled in a 27-yard scoring pass. Time left: 10:15. "Doug was hitting everybody, no matter what you did," said Clark. "If it didn't work, it was the receiver's fault."
After Karlis missed a 43-yard field-goal try, Smith broke away on a play called "counter gap" for a 58-yard touchdown. "(Left tackle) Joe Jacoby and (left guard) Raleigh McKenzie gave me good blocks and I busted it outside," said Smith, who also was helped by an initial block from tight end Clint Didier. "I saw a tight squeeze that made me go inside, then cut back out, and their defensive backs had their hands full with our wide receivers to make it easier to run after I got through the line." Time left: 6:27.
Then Sanders beat Lilly for a touchdown on a 50-yard pass play called "double pump." Sanders said, "It was just a run-pass. They fake it to the running back, the strong safety comes up to make the tackle and I get behind him." Washington was running so well that Denver had to respect play-action fakes; that opened up the passing game. Time left: 3:42.
Following the first of two Wilburn interceptions, Didier pulled in an 8-yard touchdown pass against safety Tyrone Braxton for a 35-10 lead. "We call it 'scram,'" said Bugel. "Clint was the primary receiver, with Sanders right behind him. If they cover Didier, we just throw a short pass to Sanders." Time left: 1:04.
The Redskins' second-quarter numbers were awesome: Five straight scores for 35 points, the most ever in one quarter in any NFL playoff game; 356 total yards, including 228 passing by Williams on nine completions in Ii attempts; five touchdowns in 18 plays covering just 5 minutes and 47 seconds of possession time; 122 yards on five carries by Smith, and 168 yards on five receptions by Sanders.
"After the third one, it seemed like they were on a roll," said Ryan. "Your head is spinning and it's like you're in a whirlpool." Said Broncos linebacker Karl Mecklenburg: "Williams was patient. He stayed in there and looked to the second and third receivers. He took advantage of our weak points caused by injury."
The Broncos, who had reworked six defensive positions since the previous year, couldn't stop the Redskins because they simply were unable to handle either Williams or Washington's offensive line. The Hogs gave Williams enough time to wait for receivers to come open against an average, injury-plagued secondary and also wore down the smaller Denver front seven with the relentless pounding on running plays.
"I'll take a good physical team over a good finesse team nine out of 10 times," said May.
Washington was especially effective using its counter gap play, where the running back followed the lead blocks of the right guard and tackle pulling around left end or the left guard and tackle moving to the right.
"It's the best way to neutralize a quick team like Denver that likes to slant its defense," said Jacoby. "They were guessing where we would run and they guessed right in the first quarter. But they guessed wrong in the second and we got 'em. We'd get to the hole and there would be just a linebacker left. All the back had to do was beat a safety."
The Redskins were determined to use the counter gap, their bread-and-butter running play, at least 15 times in the game. "Patience is the key," said Bugel. "A few years ago, if we lost a few yards on it, we'd give up on it. Now, we realize you might gain two with it, then four and then maybe lose two. But then it could go for 54. Give it time."
Smith's 58-yard touchdown came on a counter gap, and he later gained 43 yards on the same play, running left behind Thielemann and May. Suddenly, Smith, a fifth-round draft pick from Texas Tech who missed most of his last two college seasons with knee problems, was a Super Bowl star.
"This is an unlimited feeling," he said. "I wasn't too nervous. I made sure I felt comfortable. I let them know I was comfortable and relaxed."
Smith had run better than hobbled starter Rogers for most of the season, but Gibbs had been reluctant to make a change. An internal debate within the team hierarchy had raged for weeks, with most backing an increased use of Smith. Finally, Gibbs decided he needed more outside speed against Denver, so he switched to Smith, cementing the decision the night before the game. To keep Smith from being nervous, the Redskins didn't inform him he was starting until just before Washington's opening possession.
He obviously never got too nervous. His 204 rushing yards broke the Super Bowl record of 191 set by Marcus Allen in 1984 and were 78 yards more than he had gained during the regular season. At least Sanders, another of the Redskins' USFL refugees, had some previous NFL experience. Still, his nine catches for a Super Bowl record 193 yards also were unexpected.
"We saw things in the second quarter that we saw in the first, but we had been dropping passes and they put on the blitz early," said Williams. "But our offensive line got together and things started clicking."
Said Ryan: "They read some of the things we were doing to overload against the counter play and they ran away from us. It seemed they knew what we were doing." No one, especially Denver defensive coordinator Joe Collier, had said the Broncos played good run defense. "The last thing a defense picks up," Collier had said in the days before the game. "We are still learning to do it right."
Meanwhile, nothing was clicking for Elway. The Redskins' five-man rush got better and better, especially Walton, whose blitzing gave Elway particular problems. After a fast start (he completed three of his first four passes for 96 yards), Elway labored (11 of 34 for 161 yards, three interceptions) and Denver collapsed.
"They did a good job checking (bumping) our receivers," said Elway. "It slowed them down, it affected our timing, it was taking longer (for patterns to unfold) than it normally does." Elway was sacked five times. Just as important, the Redskins' disciplined rush prevented him from scrambling for more than 32 yards on three carries. The Broncos had 142 total yards and 10 points in the first 15 minutes; for the rest of the game, they had 185 yards and no points.
"We thought our cornerbacks could cover their wide receivers," said Petitbon. "But we had to get pressure on Elway. We gave him
new stuff, with someone blitzing a lot from different spots to confuse him. He's a great player, but he had a big load to carry coming in."
Denver survives on defense by causing turnovers. But Washington made just one mistake and the Broncos had nothing to fall back on against the Redskins' onslaught, which included a Super Bowl record 280 rushing yards. The Hogs, who were outclassed by the New York Giants' defense three times the year before (twice in the regular 1986 season and again in the NFC championship game), could be justifiably proud of their performance in the playoffs after the 1987 season. In three games, they paved the way for 513 rushing yards and surrendered only three sacks.
"We caught fire," said Gibbs, a winning coach for the second time in three trips to the Super Bowl. "(The second quarter) was easily the best quarter of football I've been around.
"Maybe now, they will look at Doug for something other than his color."
Perhaps Eddie Robinson, who was Williams' coach at Grambling, put it all in context.
"I've seen him do what he did today all the time at Grambling," Robinson said. "The only difference is, today he had a much bigger audience, that's all."