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Running back Earnest Byner (21) was part of a balanced Washington attack that gained 417 net yards.
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January 26, 1992
The Bills bickered. The Redskins relaxed.
The Bills bragged. The Redskins rested.
The Bills bombed. The Redskins roared.
Buffalo came into Super Bowl XXVI full of itself and confident of its ability to defeat favored Washington. Talk about false hopes.
Washington came into Super Bowl XXVI quietly cocky, bolstered by a season-long domination of the National Football League. The Redskins let the Bills talk all they wanted. Then they simply outplayed, overpowered and outcoached the American Football Conference champions, 37-24, in the Minneapolis Metrodome, turning what promised to be a competitive game into still another National Football Conference-dominated celebration.
"A team reflects the personality of its coach," said Redskins linebacker Matt Millen, referring to the low-key attitude of his teammates. "You don't hear anything from us. That's because this is about as exciting as it can get for us."
Not that Washington Coach Joe Gibbs is dull. He just doesn't believe in a lot of pre-game gab. He has spent years with the Redskins acquiring players who are intelligent, hard-working and talented -- but not very individualistic. Indeed, short of linebacker Wilber Marshall and receiver Gary Clark, both of whom occasionally speak before they think, this well could be the most humble team in the league.
That was one of the major differences between this club and Gibbs' previous Super Bowl entries. In the early 1980s, he was surrounded by superstars, including John Riggins and Joe Theismann, and the outspoken Dexter Manley. Theismann never stopped talking, Manley never stopped being outrageous and who knew what Riggins would do next (remember his "Hi, Sandy Baby" greeting to Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor?). Gibbs much prefers a comfort zone instead of wondering each day what controversy would engulf his team.
"I've never enjoyed coaching a team more," he said of this latest bunch, which compiled a 14-2 regular-season record. "It's been a fun ride for me since training camp. They all like each other, and the chemistry has been terrific. I've kind of gone along for the trip with them. We know we aren't a great team and that we have to play hard and together to win. And that's what we did."
It's a lesson the Bills needed to learn. They arrived in Minnesota snarling. They had lost Super Bowl XXV to the New York Giants, 20-19, when Scott Norwood missed a 47-yard field goal by a few feet at game's end. They had been favored in that game; now they were underdogs and they weren't pleased. Despite a 13-3 record and the league's most dangerous offense, the Bills didn't think they were getting, of all things, enough respect.
"Washington doesn't respect us," defensive end Bruce Smith said. "We have to show them that our defense is good. I want them to throw their best at us. I think they will change their mind."
Buffalo had come up with some excuses for the failure against the Giants. The game had been played without the usual two-week gap between conference title games and the Super Bowl, and the Bills said they were distracted by logistics, ticket demands and too little time. But now, with the rest week restored, everything was in order. They were more focused, more prepared to do battle.
"We have learned how to win the big game as a team," Bills center Kent Hull said. "We've grown up. We know what it was like last year to lose. The feeling sticks with you all year. We don't want to leave here with that feeling again."
But the Bills still were having some problems. Smith, who had missed most of the regular season because of a knee injury, complained about receiving racist mail in Buffalo, telling him to leave town. So he asked to be traded, even though he acknowledged that he got only 10 or so such letters, far less than the support mail he had been given.
"We aren't going to trade him," Coach Mary Levy said. "We are going to point out to him all the positive gestures that have come his way."
Running back Thurman Thomas, who thought he should have been voted the Most Valuable Player of last year's Super Bowl instead of the Giants' Ottis Anderson, had a new gripe. A few days before the Super Bowl, offensive coordinator Ted Marchibroda said that quarterback Jim Kelly was the "Michael Jordan" of the Bills' offense. Fair enough, even if Thomas had been voted the NFL's MVP. But Thomas was livid.
When he read the quote in a morning newspaper, he stormed out of the team breakfast and refused to attend a mandatory press conference. He finally appeared the next day, hardly contrite.
"I think I am the Michael Jordan of this team," he said. But he conceded that there possibly was room for two Jordans, he and Kelly. Oh, yes, he also was upset that he wasn't getting enough recognition and that he was still being considered the best all-around back in the league, instead of just the best, period.
"Guess I will have to go out and win the MVP (of the Super Bowl)," he said.
Said Bills offensive tackle Will Wolford: "You have to understand Thurman. If you don't know him, you'd think he was an idiot. We've known him for two or three years and now we know he's an idiot."
The Bills needed big performances from their individual stars. With the game being played on the quick artificial turf of the Metrodome, Buffalo had a major advantage over the Redskins, who didn't have the glamour of a Thomas, Smith, Kelly or linebacker Cornelius Bennett. Washington depended heavily on team concepts, Buffalo on outstanding talent. Forget the fact that the Redskins were the most balanced team in the league, featuring the highest-scoring offense backed up by the No. 3 defense. Forget that they rarely made mistakes and outscored opponents by a crushing 16 points per game.
But one of the Bills' glamour men was struggling. Kelly had played poorly in the AFC title game against Denver, when Buffalo's offense didn't score a touchdown. He was pressing and anxious, and as the days to Super Bowl XXVI approached, he seemed ready to assume the entire burden of his team's quest.
"A quarterback isn't considered to be great unless he wins the Super Bowl," Kelly said. "I've been dreaming about playing in the Super Bowl since I was a kid, and I got the chance last year. But now I want to be a winner. That's the only thing that counts."
This was an unusual game, even before it began. Not since 1982 and Super Bowl XVI in Detroit had the extravaganza been played so far north. The possibility of heavy snow disrupting the event, plus the reluctance of many fans to come early and celebrate, cut into the brightness of the show. But the weather cooperated, it snowed just a bit during the days leading up to kickoff and everything went smoothly for the organizing committee. Too bad the game didn't cooperate.
It was so devilishly complex, the way the Redskins conjured up a maze of blitzes and schemes and power and guile to dismantle the Bills. This was the finest of Gibbs' three league championship productions, the creative masterpiece of pro football's most ingenious and daring coaching staff.
By refusing to stay predictable, the Redskins confused Kelly, disrupted Buffalo's defense and dominated a game that should have been a lot closer, given the equality of talent on the two teams. But Gibbs and his staff simply outcoached their Buffalo counterparts, giving the Redskins an overwhelming edge by providing them a tactical superiority that Buffalo could never counter.
It is a coldly efficient dissection that places Gibbs among the game's coaching paragons. He is the first to win Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks, and only Chuck Noll, with four, has won more of these games.
Here were the Redskins, tossing the Bills' pride-and-joy, no-huddle offense back into their faces by using a no-huddle scheme of their own. Here were the Redskins eliminating Thomas from Buffalo's offense with a series of clever run blitzes. Here were the Redskins pounding Buffalo's physically inferior defense with a constantly changing load of formations and a full dose of run-pass balance that wore out the Bills.
In the process, Washington proved that Buffalo's loss to the Giants in Super Bowl XXV was no fluke. Those Giants pounded the Bills with their running attack; these more-balanced Redskins built on that example and then added to it by exploiting Mark Rypien's steady hand at quarterback. Rypien emerged as this game's MVP by throwing for 292 yards and two touchdowns despite an intense Buffalo pass rush.
Buffalo clearly proved it still wasn't good enough to break the string of AFC flops, which now has reached eight straight in these Super Bowls. Not since January 1984, when the Los Angeles Raiders beat, of all teams, the Redskins, has an AFC club won a Super Bowl. And in those eight losses, the bullies from the NFC hold a 294-122 scoring edge.
Kelly, in particular, was exposed. He was outplayed by Rypien, the former sixth-round draft pick who improved during the 1991 season from an average player to a dominant one. Kelly, who calls the Bills' plays from the no-huddle, couldn't find a counter to the Redskins' early run blitzes. He panicked once Buffalo fell behind, 10-0, and gave up far too soon on Thomas, using him on just six first-half running plays that netted a woeful three yards. Then he tried to catch up too fast by reaching too many times for that one big pass completion.
The grateful Redskins turned those gambles into four interceptions to go along with a Kelly fumble. Kelly's weak numbers reflected his ineffectiveness: 28 completions in 58 attempts for 275 yards and two touchdowns. And Washington, which had feasted all season on opponents' mistakes (the Redskins tied for first in the NFL's takeaway! giveaway ratio), turned his errors into 20 points.
"I think we frustrated him," Redskins safety Brad Edwards said. "He wasn't able to do what he wanted to do and he tried to get it back real fast. But when you don't give him time, he has to throw to places that he may not want to. And that can kill you."
To get to Kelly, the Redskins knew that first they had to stop Thomas, the anchor of the league's No. 1 rushing offense. If Thomas couldn't run the ball, then Washington could make Buffalo a one-dimensional team and begin attacking Kelly's passing. So the Redskins opened by sending linebackers into the gaps along the line of scrimmage, guessing that the Bills would follow a season-long trend of running Thomas up the huddle on delays and straight handoffs.
But Buffalo's overrated offensive line couldn't deal with the blitzing or the superior strength of the Redskins' front four. Thomas would run a play, get stuffed and Kelly would start throwing. Maybe Thomas had an omen of what was to come: He couldn't find his helmet in the game's opening minutes and missed Buffalo's first two plays looking for it under the team bench. And you thought coaching was fun?
Kelly could have countered by trying Thomas around the ends. But he stubbornly stayed with the inside plays. And the Redskins, so effective with the blitzes, kept calling them.
"It evolved as we had success," defensive coordinator Larry Peccatiello said. "We hadn't planned on using so many (blitzes), but when they worked, why not?"
Thomas was sullen after the game. His final totals (13 yards on 10 carries, four receptions) were awful, as was Buffalo's woeful offensive output (283 yards compared with Washington's 417). He complained that he should have been utilized more, and was hurt by his lack of production.
"We are falling into the category of being the Denver Broncos and the Minnesota Vikings," Thomas said in the city where the hometown Vikings wear the label of a four-time Super Bowl failure. "Once it gets to the big games, we don't seem to win."
Kelly couldn't offer many excuses because he couldn't remember much of what happened. He was knocked out on his feet early in the fourth quarter on a tackle by cornerback Martin Mayhew. He came right back despite a mild concussion, but his mind was still hazy in the postgame locker room.
"I held on a couple of times and I tried to make a big play when it wasn't there," he said. "I missed some things when I had guys open; I can remember only a couple of things in the second half. Maybe I shouldn't remember most of them. Maybe it's better that way."
Consider the toughness of Rypien, who was given only a one-year contract (for $1.25 million) by Washington in the off-season so the Redskins could unload him easily in case he flopped as a starter. In this Super Bowl, the most important game of his career, Rypien was given the added burden of running the Redskins' no-huddle attack, a late-season addition to the Washington offense. Gibbs acknowledged he copied the concept from the Bills because of its effectiveness. Then he entrusted Rypien with it "because he is so darn smart. He doesn't make mistakes."
In contrast to Kelly, who couldn't outwit Washington assistant head coach Richie Petitbon and was sacked five times as punishment for his indecision, Rypien was more than a match for the Bills' defensive brain trust. At first, the Bills tried to pressure him by using Chicago's old 46 defense, which helped win Super Bowl XX for the Bears. They moved nose tackle Jeff Wright a yard or two away from the center and then inserted either Smith, Bennett or linebacker Darryl Talley next to Wright. The objective was to work on center Jeff Bostic, the weak point of the Redskins' gritty offensive line (the so-called "Hogs").
"We tried to create some havoc," Bills defensive coordinator Walt Corey said. "But they got up on us so fast that they now could tell us what they wanted to do." But, by revamping its defense so dramatically, it was a stark admission by Buffalo that it couldn't handle the Redskins' complex offense using what Wright had called "our increasingly simpler defenses."
The Hogs prevented Rypien from being sacked-he was dumped only seven times all season-but the Bills did rough him up and knock him around after he unloaded passes. They thought if they could unnerve him, he would become erratic.
"Regardless of how many times we kept hitting him and putting him down, he kept getting up and coming up with the big one," Buffalo end Leon Seals said. "He did a hell of a job."
Said Bostic, the man in the middle: "They didn't think we could handle their (defensive) front seven. But when we did, that meant their secondary had to hold up. It was the matchup we wanted." Washington was certain that once it could move the game into that secondary, it had a clear advantage, which proved true.
Washington's offensive balance made it even more difficult for the Bills. The Redskins ran the ball 40 times and threw it 33, 50 which way should Buffalo turn? The Bills had no chance unless they made Washington one-dimensional. But they didn't, in part because their hardest hitter in the secondary, safety Leonard Smith, missed the game with a knee infection and their tough inside linebacker, Shane Conlan, was absent after ripping knee ligaments early in the first quarter.
But the Redskins had unexpected injury problems, too. Petitbon began the game using his No. 3 cornerback, A.J. Johnson, in place of safety Danny Copeland. That was his only concession to Buffalo's no-huddle scheme; otherwise, he stuck mainly with his usual 4-3 alignment up front. But Johnson hobbled out on the opening Buffalo possession, and now the Redskins were covering receiver James Lofton with their No. 4 cornerback, Alvoid Mays. Later, their best coverage man, cornerback Darrell Green, left with a hamstring pull and yet another backup defender, Sidney Johnson, was thrust into the game. Despite those secondary holes, Kelly was baffled and battered.
"A huge key was to establish something against him early," said Edwards, who had two interceptions. "We wanted an early pass rush to get hands on him and tell him we were around, and we wanted to mix up coverages so he couldn't lock in. If he is pressured, he doesn't have time to read. That's when you make mistakes."
Ironically, it was the usually sure-footed and sure-handed Redskins who messed up early. They had a touchdown pass to Art Monk in the first quarter reversed by instant replay because one foot was out of bounds at the back of the end zone. So they went for a field goal, and holder Jeff Rutledge botched the snap.
But Kelly, under heavy pressure, threw an interception on the next play, with Green tipping away a pass intended for receiver Andre Reed. Edwards pulled it in and returned the theft to the Buffalo 12-yard line. But then an ensuing Rypien pass was picked off by cornerback Kirby Jackson and brought back to the 11. Were the Redskins blowing a golden chance to gain command? Not really. Washington's defense continued to stifle Kelly, and the offense finally responded with a 64-yard drive to set up a 34-yard Chip Lohmiller field goal early in the second quarter and a 51-yard march that ended with a 10-yard touchdown pass to halfback Earnest Byner. That gave the Redskins a 10-0 lead with 9 minutes, 54 seconds left in the half.
Kelly's frustration became obvious on the next series. He tried to find a well-covered Lofton deep, but Green left Reed and came over to intercept the ball at the Redskins' 45. A 34-yard pass to Clark against Jackson, who was a victim of Rypien all game, followed by a 14-yard end sweep by Ricky Ervins set up Gerald Riggs' one-yard scoring plunge. It was 17-0, Redskins, and the Bills had yet to penetrate Washington territory.
Want more Bills frustration? Near the end of the half, they forced a punt from the Washington 1 and took over at the Redskins' 41. But on third-and-18, after a Kelly sack, Edwards broke up a pass to Reed at the 5. It was a borderline interference call, but no flags were thrown. Reed tossed his helmet in disgust, drawing a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty that took his team out of field-goal range. That's the kind of mistake that the poised Redskins seldom make.
Not everything went as perfectly as Washington had planned, however. Two intriguing plays put away the game in the second half, and neither one was in the Redskins' playbook when the contest began.
The first came on the opening play of the third quarter. On the team bus driving to the game, Peccatiello suggested a new blitz to Petitbon. They put it into the game plan but didn't tell the players until halftime. Then they called it on first down at the Buffalo 20.
"We had used a similar blitz with Kurt (Gouveia) coming up the middle," linebacker Andre Collins said, "and I would take Thomas on pass coverage. He was just drifting and they weren't looking at him. So they decided to send me up the middle instead and let (end) Fred Stokes cover Thomas." Sure enough, Collins burst inside, untouched, while Thomas looked to his right. By the time he turned to see Collins coming up on his left, he couldn't get over to knock him away from Kelly. Collins forced an early pass that went right to Gouveia, who was tackled at the 2. A quick Riggs score made it 24-0.
"I think we were helped a lot by the timing of our blitzes," Collins said. "We noticed that when Kelly put his hands out in the shotgun, he would then dip them and the ball would be snapped. We watched for the dip and went on that movement. It gave us an extra step. He couldn't stop it."
The second unplanned stroke came with the Redskins in front by a 31-10 score. Mays, the inexperienced secondary man, got confused on an assignment and blitzed instead of staying in coverage. His mistake turned into a triumph: He caught Kelly from the backside and forced a fumble that was recovered at the Buffalo 14. This error set up a 25-yard field goal by Lohmiller and a 34-10 cushion early in the fourth period.
By then, Washington already was celebrating. The clincher came soon after Thomas had scooted around left end for a one-yard touchdown run to narrow the Redskins' lead to 24-10. Kelly, despite a fearful battering, was getting in sync. Washington, which had been trying to take time off the clock, decided to go back to its full offense.
The Redskins simply shoved the Bills right down the field, mixing bullet passes with bullish runs behind the quickness of rookie Ervins. The climax came on the 11th play when Clark, after running a series of slant-in patterns all game against cornerback James Williams, faked inside and cut out. Williams took the bait and was dead. Clark sprung free for a 30-yard score.
"That was the backbreaker," Seals said. "That broke the ice and the ship sunk. As the game went on, we did everything possible to stink up the joint."
By then, the Redskins had clearly shown that the Buffalo defense had not improved since last year's Super Bowl loss. The Bills ranked 27th in the NFL in defense but claimed that long-term injuries to Smith and Wright were the reason. That defense had improved in the playoffs, but those two triumphs were against AFC opponents Kansas City and Denver, and they hardly can duplicate the Redskins' offensive strengths.
"We just gave them a lot of different looks," Gibbs said. "And Rip was right on the money with his decisions, just like he has been all season. He just had a great game."
It was Rypien who provided the turning point for the Redskins. In a midseason game against the Giants, who had won six straight against Washington, he rallied his team from a 13-0 halftime deficit to a 17-13 win.
"We haven't had a quarterback here who could beat the Giants in a long time," Gibbs said. "Once Rip did that, he established himself. We thought he could be a Super Bowl quarterback, but until you win one, you never know. He deserved this one. The pressure was on him, and he came through."
The same could be said about Gibbs and his staff. This was their game, their triumph, their masterpiece. And it will be a nightmare that will haunt the distraught Bills for a long time.