Russell Wilson became the second African-American quarterback to win the Super Bowl when he led the Seattle Seahawks past the Denver Broncos on Sunday. The first one to do it was Doug Williams—oddly enough it was also against the Broncos, back in 1987 when Williams quarterbacked the Washington Redskins.
But Williams had a more interesting path—he spent the bulk of the year as the backup and didn’t become the starter until the playoffs. It was an interesting path in an interesting year—to put mildly—in the NFL. Let’s look back on the 1987 Washington Redskins.
Gibbs turned to 25-year-old Jay Schroeder for the 1986 season and the strong-armed Schroeder led the team to the NFC Championship Game. The Redskins looked back on track for 1987, even as the entire NFL looked ready to go off the rails.
There were still problems to contend with. Center Jeff Bostic, a key part of the “Hogs” offensive line, only played five games. His injury required guard Russ Grimm to move to center, which in turn had a ripple effect across the rest of the line. The only offensive player to make the Pro Bowl was wide receiver Gary Clark. But even with all that, Washington finished fourth in the NFL in points scored.
Washington was also an elite team on defense, ranking sixth, and it started with great corners and great defensive ends. Charles Mann and Dexter Manley combined for 18 sacks and Mann made the Pro Bowl. Darrell Green, the future Hall of Famer, had a Pro Bowl year at corner. And for one year, the corner on the opposite side was even better. Barry Wilburn made 1st-team All-Pro.
The Redskins opened the season at home against the Philadelphia Eagles. Perhaps it was an omen that Schoreder injured his shoulder and Williams came on. He completed 17/27 passes for 272 yards, no interceptions and threw a big 39-yard touchdown pass to Art Monk that broke a 24-24 tie in the fourth quarter. Washington won 34-24. But a week later, Schroeder was still out and Williams was outplayed by Atlanta’s Scott Campbell in a 21-20 road loss. And then the strike hit.
This players’ strike wouldn’t last nearly as long as the 1982 work stoppage, which wiped out seven games. And the owners were ready this time. After skipping Week 3, the league used replacement players for three weeks in October. Washington’s replacements would have success and win three consecutive NFC East games, eventually becoming the inspiration for the movie The Replacements, with Gene Hackman and Keanu Reeves.
As much as the established players resented the replacements, the Redskins’ season was given a big boost by the play of quarterback Ed Ruppert who threw for 334 yards in a win over the Cardinals (then in St. Louis and in the NFC East). Or running back Lionel Vital who went over 100 yards in consecutive wins against the Giants and Cowboys, on the road no less. Wide receiver Anthony Allen had a 255-yard receiving game and defensive tackle Steve Martin had two sacks in leading a strong pass rush in Dallas.
The replacement players went 3-0 against what would have been a difficult portion of the schedule and put the regulars in strong position when they returned.
It was a sloppy first game back against a subpar New York Jets team. Schroeder was healthy, but also erratic, completing just 15/38 passes and the ‘Skins trailed 16-7 after three quarters. But Schroeder always could make big plays and those completions went for 275 yards. Eventually it was enough to pull out a 17-16 win.
Schroeder was sharper at the Buffalo Bills, throwing two touchdown passes to versatile running back Kelvin Bryant. George Rogers led a running game that pounded Buffalo for 299 yards and the result was an easy 27-7 win. But Schroeder and the rest of the team regressed at Philadelphia–the quarterback attempted 46 passes and threw thirty incompletions. Each team turned the ball over four times and the Redskins coughed up a 21-0 lead, losing 31-27.
The corners put their talents on full display the following week at home against the Detroit Lions. Green picked off three passes, Wilburn added another and the ‘Skins won 20-13. Williams was back in the lineup for the following Monday Night game at the Los Angeles Rams. He didn’t play badly–24/46 for 308 yards with one interception was as good, if not better than what Schroeder had produced. But the ‘Skins gave up a defensive touchdown, 138 yards rushing and lost 30-26. Gibbs would go back to Schroeder.
Washington was 7-3, and the coming three games against NFC East teams would swing their season. The stretch started badly, as they fell behind the Giants—the defending Super Bowl champs were having a rough go of it in 1987–trailing 19-3. Schroeder threw for 331 yards and three second-half touchdowns to overcome the lack of a running game and win 23-19.
The victory was the lynchpin the ‘Skins needed to wrap up the division. Schroeder went to the St. Louis Cardinals (an NFC East team until 2002) and opened with an 84-yard touchdown pass to Clark and a big-play oriented 13/25 for 235 yard performance. Rogers pummeled the Cards on the ground with 133 yards in the 34-17 win. Schroeder delivered a similar performance at home against Dallas–13/26 for 250 yards, with most of it to Clark–in a 24-20 victory that all but put the NFC East to bed.
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There were still problems though, even at 10-3. Schroeder’s completion percentage would end the season at an erratic 48 percent and for all his big-play ability, he lacked consistency. Williams was the man who had the heart of the clubhouse and the players wanted him as the starter. Another erratic Schroeder performance in a 23-21 loss at Miami didn’t solve that problem.
The defeat also dropped the Redskins to the #3 seed. Prior to 1990, all division winners were seeded into the second round so this wasn’t as devastating as it would be today, but it did mean Washington would open the playoffs on the road.
The regular season finale in Minnesota was the last straw. The Redskins were tied 7-7 at half, but the only touchdown had been scored by the defense. Gibbs inserted Williams in the second half and the quarterback found speedy wideout Ricky Sanders on two long touchdown passes. Washington won in overtime, Williams finally had the job and the connection between him and Sanders on the deep ball would be heard from again.
Washington went into the playoffs with high hopes, even as the 3-seed. They still had the “Hogs” offensive line, including Joe Jacoby and Mark May (the current ESPN college football analyst) at the tackles and Russ Grimm at guard. On the defensive side, Charles Mann and Dexter Manley were a potent pass-rushing combo at the ends of the four-man front. Darrell Green was a lockdown corner, a future Hall of Famer, and big threat on special teams.
The playoff game in Chicago didn’t start well, as Williams lost an early fumble, the ‘Skins were stopped on a fourth down and Bears’ quarterback Jim McMahon got his team out to a 14-0 lead. But Williams threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to tight end Clint Didier and it was tied up 14-14 at half.
Green made the play of the game in the third quarter, returning a punt for a touchdown and injuring a rib as he hurtled a defender. The Redskins hung on for a 21-17 win and already knew they had gotten a big break in the other NFC playoff game—wild-card Minnesota upset top-seeded San Francisco, meaning the Redskins were the improbable host of the NFC Championship Game (not until the 2006 Indianapolis Colts would a team seeded as low as 3rd host a championship game).
“Ugly” is the only word that describes the 1987 NFC Championship Game. Williams threw an early 42-yard touchdown pass, but went 9/26 on the day for 119 yards and the Redskins’ lead was only 10-7 early in the fourth quarter. The defense delivered with two big goal-line stops. Minnesota had 1st-and-goal on the 3-yard line, but had to settle for a tying field goal.
Williams then connected with Clark on a 43-yard pass to get his team moving, and with Clark again on a seven-yard touchdown pass. Minnesota made one last drive, reached the 6-yard line and faced a 4th-and-4. Green made one more big play, breaking up a pass at the goal line and Williams was the first African-American quarterback going to the Super Bowl.
The media hype on this subject was intense and Williams handled it all with grace as he prepared to face the Broncos, led by John Elway. Denver struck first, as Elway threw a 56-yard touchdown pass and it was 10-0 at the end of the first quarter. Early in the second quarter, Williams hit Sanders on an 80-yard touchdown strike that cut the lead to 10-7. Then the avalanche began.
Before the second quarter was over, Williams would throw a touchdown pass to Clark, and another one to Sanders, this one from 50 yards. The Redskins scored 35 points, a record for one quarter. The game, after looking to ready to get away from Washington early, ended up being all but over by halftime, when they led 35-10. Everyone just played out the string in the second half and it ended 42-10.
Williams set a record for passing yardage (340), running back Timmy Smith did so for rushing (204) and Sanders for receiving (193). Smith’s record stands to this day. Williams was game MVP and his place in NFL lore was forever secured.
It was a crazy path that Doug Williams walked to history, but he and the 1987 Washington Redskins ended up with a championship.