The 1991 Washington Redskins: A Forgotten All-Time Great Champion
The Washington Redskins had gone to three Super Bowls in the 1980s and won two, but they only had one playoff victory over the last three years, and there were questions about whether quarterback Mark Rypien was the one who could lead them back. Over the long-term arc of his career, those questions proved fair enough, but in 1991, Rypien had a magical year and took his team along for the ride.
The 1991 Washington Redskins were also a complete team in all phases. The receivers were dynamic, with Gary Clark, Ricky Sanders and Art Monk providing a balance of possession-types and deep threats. The “Hogs”, the famed offensive line, cleared the way for 1,000-yard running back Earnest Byner and change-of-pace sidekick Ricky Ervins.
It added up to an offense that scored more points than anyone in the NFL. Rypien, Byner, Clark and right guard Mark Schlereth made the Pro Bowl. Left tackle Jim Lachey was 1st-team All-Pro.
Defensively, the ‘Skins ended up #2 in the league. Charles Mann led the pass rush with 11.5 sacks, Wilbur Marshall was a playmaker at linebacker and Darrell Green provided lockdown coverage at corner. Mann and Green were both Pro Bowlers. On top of it, the special teams were one of the league’s best.
Under the coaching leadership of Joe Gibbs, there was nothing the 1991 Washington Redskins didn’t do at an extremely high level.
Two prime-time games opened the season. Washington opened the season at home on Sunday night against the Detroit Lions. Byner led a balanced rushing attack that produced 191 yards. Rypien was 16/21 for 201 yards and three touchdowns. The defense held the Lions to 154 total yards and the Redskins won 45-0, putting on an absolute clinic.
A Monday Night visit to the Dallas Cowboys was a little tougher. This was the breakthrough year for Jimmy Johnson’s Cowboys, when they would make the playoffs for the first time. Washington took some early shots and trailed 21-10. But they got it together and the difference-maker proved to be kicker Chip Lohmiller. He hit field goals of 53, 52, 45 and 46 in a dazzling display. Every one of them was needed in a 33-31 win.
The Redskins hosted the Phoenix Cardinals and coasted to a 34-0 win as the defense held the Cardinals to 55 rush yards and intercepted three passes. Two of the picks came courtesy of Marshall who brought one of them back for a score.
Washington went on the road to play the Cincinnati Bengals. Though Cincy would finish the season 3-13, at the time they were still seen as the defending champions of the old AFC Central (including the Steelers, Browns and Houston Oilers). A punt return for a touchdown by Brian Mitchell helped the ‘Skins build a 27-10 lead. Then they blew the lead before short-yardage back Gerald Riggs scored the last of his three touchdowns in a 34-27 survival.
Another prime-time home game awaited, this time on Monday Night with the Philadelphia Eagles, who were missing starting quarterback Randall Cunningham. Washington held Philly to 89 total yards of offense and won 23-0. In two home games under the lights, the Redskin defense spun shutouts both times.
The defense continued to dominate at the Chicago Bears, a perennial contender under Mike Ditka. Washington intercepted Jim Harbaugh three times and controlled the game in a 20-7 win.
A home game with the Cleveland Browns was a tougher test. Even though the Browns struggled this season, they still had a good quarterback in Bernie Kosar, and he moved the ball consistently. The Redskins only led 21-17 after three quarters, but their running game took over. Washington ran for 208 yards as a team and Gibbs unveiled backup running back Ricky Ervins, shiftier than Byner and able to provide another weapon. Ervins gained 133 yards and the offense broke through late in a 42-17 win.
After a bye week it was time for a date with the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants. The Redskins had lost six straight games to the Giants, each of them uniquely aggravating and down to the wire. Bill Parcells had retired and this New York team was not the same. But that didn’t stop them from jumping out to a 13-0 halftime lead. It seemed like this was the same old Giant nightmare repeating itself.
Even though the running game only produced 95 yards, Rypien made enough plays to lead a rally. He found Clark on a short touchdown pass and then a 54-yarder. Washington won 17-13 in a Sunday Night game, and all of Redskins Nation could switch the channel over to Game 7 of the magnificent 1991 World Series with a victory under their belt.
The ‘Skins hosted the Oilers next. Houston was coached by an old friend–Jack Pardee had led the Redskins from 1978-80, and the Oilers would win the AFC Central. Byner’s running was the difference in an excellent game. He led an attack that produced 154 yards on the ground, while Houston quarterback Warren Moon threw for 250.
Still, it looked like Washington would lose when the Oilers lined up to try a 33-yard field goal with four seconds left in a 13-13 game. But the kick was missed and the Redskins won on Lohmiller field goal in overtime.
Having survived a scare, Rypien unleashed the next two games. He completed 16/31 passes for 442 yards and six touchdowns against the Atlanta Falcons–that’s over 25 yards on every completion, and Clark’s four catches produced 203 yards. The defense forced six turnovers and the final score was 56-17.
A historical footnote to this game is that an unknown third-string quarterback named Brett Favre got in the game for some mop-up duty. He was 0-for-4, though given his later reputation, it’s perhaps surprising he didn’t contribute to the turnover count.
Rypien then went 21/28 for 325 yards with no interceptions in a 41-14 rout at Pittsburgh. Monk was the top target in this game and the future Hall of Fame receiver was on a good two-game run of his own. In the Falcon and Steeler games, Monk combined for 15 catches for 294 yards.
The record was 11-0. Rypien was throwing the deep ball with the ease and accuracy of someone playing catch in their back yard and the talk of an undefeated season was very much alive around the NFL. Then Dallas came to town.
Redskins’ corner Martin Mayhew intercepted a Troy Aikman pass and returned it 31 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter and it looked like business as usual. Only it wasn’t. The running game couldn’t get started, with only 50 yards on the game. The Cowboys turned it around and won 24-21. Although even in losing, a different aspect of Washington’s greatness came out.
This game was must-win for Dallas if they wanted to make the playoffs, and Johnson would later write that the Cowboys felt they had no choice but to unleash everything they had against the Redskins. From going for it on fourth down, to onside kicks at odd times, to constantly blitzing, Johnson threw the kitchen sink at the ‘Skins.
The analogy the Dallas coach made in his book was that if you wanted to hit a gorilla you couldn’t tap him, you had to hit him with everything you had. It might blow up on you, but it was the only chance of winning. That a fellow contender, one that would win 11 games and one more in the playoffs, would feel such extreme measures were required speaks volumes about the excellence of the 1991 Washington Redskins.
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Washington rolled to the end of the season, winning three more games that clinched the #1 seed in the NFC playoffs. They beat three successive non-playoff teams, the Los Angeles Rams, the Cardinals (who were in the NFC East prior to 2002) and were only tested at Phoenix, when they trailed 14-0 at the half. A takeover in the second half produced a 20-14 win. The ‘Skins then lost a meaningless 24-22 game in Philadelphia to close the year.
The first playoff game was against the Falcons. In spite of the rout that had taken place in RFK Stadium on November 10, Atlanta was still gaining respect in the NFL. They had an electric corner in Deion Sanders was making his first really big splash in the league. A monsoon hit Washington and the sloppy field could serve to equalize a potential mismatch.
Redskins-Falcons was the 12:30 PM ET game on Saturday that got the divisional round started. With the bad weather, no one scored in the first quarter. Washington was able to get their running game going, getting 162 yards on the ground for the game. They got a pair of rushing touchdowns in the second quarter, with Ervins maneuvering his way in from 17, and then Riggs crashing in from down close. The ‘Skins led 14-7 at the half.
The defense was dominating. Atlanta would gain only 43 yards on the ground and most important, Washington was forcing turnovers. They intercepted Chris Miller four times, and strangely enough it was defensive tackle Fred Stokes getting two of the picks. Six turnovers in all came Washington’s way and they pulled away to a 24-7 win.
The final home game of the year would be back against the team where it all began. Detroit, with its great running back Barry Sanders, had enjoyed a breakout year and been the second-best team in the NFC. The Lions had blown out the Cowboys in the second round of the playoffs to reach this game.
Washington came out fast in the NFC Championship Game, with Riggs finishing off a drive with a 2-yard touchdown run. Another drive down close stalled, but Lohmiller kicked a field goal. Riggs scored another TD, this one from three yards out, but the Lions were able to get a touchdown drive of their own and a field goal just before the half that kept the game at 17-10.
But the Redskin defense was in control of the great Lion running back Barry Sanders, who would gain only 44 yards. Rypien was playing flawless football and would go 12/17 for 228 yards and no interceptions. After a Lohmiller field goal gave the Redskins breathing room, Rypien connected with Clark on a 45-yard touchdown pass that broke it open. Another touchdown pass to Monk followed. Green administered the coup de grace, with a 32-yard interception return that sealed the 41-10 win.
The best measurement of Washington’s dominance of the NFC is this–they beat the conference’s clear second-best team by a combined 85-10 in two games.
The Buffalo Bills dominated the AFC the same way Washington had owned the NFC, and the Redskins-Bills Super Bowl debate started fairly early in the season. Buffalo running back Thurman Thomas would win the MVP award. But the Bills, even in clinching the #1 playoff seed and then winning their two playoff games, had started to show some vulnerabilities. The ‘Skins came into the Super Bowl as a solid seven-point favorite.
Washington looked ready to grab an early lead when Rypien appeared to finish an 89-yard touchdown drive with a third-down scoring pass to Monk. But instant replay showed Monk’s foot out of bounds and the call was correctly overturned. The ‘Skins flubbed the hold on the field goal and the first quarter went by without a score, and with Rypien and counterpart Jim Kelly each throwing an interception.
In the second quarter, the Redskins got settled in. Lohmiller hit a field goal and Rypien flipped a short touchdown pass to Byner. The defense was getting after Kelly and would end up with five sacks on the game, all from different players. Another short-yardage touchdown from Riggs put them in command, 17-0 at halftime.
The defense forced another turnover right out of halftime and the lead quickly grew to 24-0. Then Buffalo threatened to make it interesting–they scored on two successive drives to cut the lead to 24-10 and it was still in the third quarter.
It was time for Rypien to come through by throwing the ball downfield to Clark one more time. They two hooked up on a 30-yard touchdown pass that opened the game back up. Two more Lohmiller field goals followed. For the game, the ‘Skins intercepted Kelly four times, two by free safety Brad Edwards. After the lead grew to 37-10, the Bills added a couple meaningless touchdowns and it ended a deceptively close 37-24.
It not only marked the third Super Bowl win for Washington head coach Joe Gibbs, but he’d now done it with three different quarterbacks, an unprecedented feat. Rypien was named Super Bowl MVP. He would never again have a season anything like this, but what a year this one was.
The 1991 Washington Redskins don’t get the same historical love that other great champions—the 1984 San Francisco 49ers, the 1985 Chicago Bears and of course the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins do. While I understand that when it comes to the ’72 Dolphins, the reality is that the ’91 Redskins deserve to be in the discussion when it comes to the best Super Bowl team of all time.
Washington’s legacy is hurt by the fact Rypien didn’t have a great career and they lost two games. If you’re asked to compare two teams, one of whom went 18-1 and was quarterbacked by Joe Montana (the 1984 49ers) and another that was 17-2 and quarterbacked by Rypien, you’re going to have a natural human reaction to instinctively favor the former.
What has to be emphasized is that for one year Rypien was as good as any of the game’s great quarterbacks. His career was nowhere in the ballpark, but his best year was as good, if not better than the best year of any quarterback in the league.
When it comes to the record, the last loss was a meaningless, and the first one was against a talented and desperate team all but admitting that the only way to beat Washington was to throw the kitchen sink at them and hope it didn’t blow up.
Finally, the completeness of the 1991 Washington Redskins team hurts them in historical discussion. Their defense was outstanding, but it’s not remembered the way the 1985 Chicago Bears unit was. It was Washington’s consistent three-phase excellence, including special teams, that made them stand out. It wins you a lot of football games, but doesn’t add up to anything that stands out a quarter-century later.
This Redskins team was very much like its head coach—not flashy, not likely to stand out, but absolutely as good, if not better, than anyone who came before or after.