September 2, 1991: A Beating of Classical Magnitude
The Lions were thrown to the Christians last night at RFK Stadium.
What the devout Washington Redskins -- led by their evangelical coach, Joe Gibbs, and their charismatically born-again halfback, Earnest Byner -- did to the run-to-death and shot-to-pieces Detroit Lions was positively Roman.
The normally mild-mannered and slow-to-gel Redskins, upset by their worst preseason since 1982, gave a performance worthy of December in their opening night game. The score after three quarters was 42-0. But it wasn’t that close. Washington led 35-0 at the half but, thereafter, held the score down like Good Samaritans. There goes the Redskins’ best chance in this generation to wipe that 73-0 out of the record books.
The Redskins even followed the Golden Rule to the extent of falling on the ball to run out the clock after getting a first down at the Lions 1-yard line with more than two minutes to play and the score 45-0. The crowd, in a Colosseum mood, booed the act of mercy. Or maybe it understands the playoff tiebreaker.
The good news was everywhere as the Redskins preached their gospel of wide-open offense, ball-hawking defense and heart-busting special teams work.
The phrase “everything went right” is used to death in pro sports, but this time it was eminently applicable. Almost every flaw over which Gibbs spent August fretting and complaining was, in a twinkling, turned into a strength.
Mark Rypien, the perennially suspect quarterback, looked lighter, quicker in the pocket and supremely confident in his third-down selection of receivers. He rolled, he threw running left, he maneuvered to gain time, he even scrambled for 11 yards to the 1 to set up the game’s second score.
He finished 15 for 19 for 183 yards and two touchdowns, and the Redskins were 11 of 14 on third-down conversions. “Now that’s phenomenal,” he said of the third-down plays. Rypien didn’t give a single fan in the sellout throng on this balmy, daydream night a chance to boo. When No. 11 was finally relieved with six minutes to play, and the score 45-0, he received the hometown ovation that Gibbs no doubt desired for him.
If anything, Byner was even more heavenly -- just as he has been since he discovered God in the middle of a practice last season, then was soon baptized in Darrell Green’s Jacuzzi.
By halftime, Byner had already rushed 15 times for 76 yards, caught a tough, acrobatic seven-yard pass for a first down and, in the game’s most ludicrously easy touchdown, tossed an itty-bitty scoring pass of 18 yards to Ricky Sanders, who had time for a fair catch.
Green didn’t do badly either. Before Lions quarterback Rodney Peete had completed a pass to his own teammates, he had been intercepted twice by Green. (Note to Lions Coach Wayne Fontes: Martin Mayhew wears No. 35, not 28.)
What the Redskins did to the Denver Broncos for a quarter in Super Bowl XXII, they did to the Lions for an entire game. The degree of domination would have been awesome except that the Lions aren’t very good anyway (6-10 last year) and were without their only star, running back Barry Sanders, who decided during pregame drills that his four sore ribs really needed another week to heal.
If the Redskins’ special teams needed inspiration, it came from Brian Mitchell, whose 69-yard punt return to make the score 21-0 was a perfect blend of courage, strength and speed. He had the guts to explode through a crack in the Lions’ wall. He had the muscle to ignore the dead-on hit of 250-pound Tracy Hayworth without breaking stride. And he had the acceleration to make defensive back Kevin Scott look so slow that Scott suddenly developed a pulled muscle that may gain him some exoneration come film-review time.
Not to be outdone, third-round draftee Ricky Ervins, who wants to succeed Byner someday as running-back extraordinaire, ripped off a glorious 37-yard bounce-off-everybody-in-sight run late in the game.
The Redskins’ game plan, often bland in the early season, was as imaginative as Gibbs’s customary work in the playoffs. The Washington running game, behind its monstrous Hogs, was the cornerstone. Once, Byner rambled 18 yards on a counter-trey behind 315-pound Joe Jacoby and 295-pound Jim Lachey before a Lion got close enough to cough on the runner.
However, the Redskins ran reverses to flankers and two halfback passes as well as play fakes so excellent that Rypien had five seconds to sort out his receivers on naked rollouts to his left. Gary Clark caught six balls for 107 yards and a textbook 38-yard bomb from Rypien. Art Monk kept his consecutive-game streak with at least one reception alive at 117. And the third member of The Posse, Ricky Sanders, looked far more spry and mentally focused than at any time last year when he was bedeviled by legal problems.
The grades, please. Rypien: A-plus. Hogs: A-plus. Running backs: A-plus. Posse: A-plus. (What a bore.) Even tight end Ron Middleton, subbing for injured Don Warren, caught his first pass as a Redskin. And H-back Jimmie Johnson caught a touchdown pass.
As for the defense, it can be summarized in a word: zero. The Lions crossed midfield three times -- counting the pregame handshake.
”Seeing that Barry Sanders wasn’t in there is like going to the dentist and finding out that you don’t have to have your wisdom teeth removed,” said defensive lineman Markus Koch.
The Detroit quarterback was sacked re-Peetedly, threw three interceptions and passed for 75 yards as the Lions offense was turned into the run-and-punt.
After the game, Redskins fans were so giddy from the fireworks that they chanted “We want Dallas.” Not too many were chanting when the Redskins ended a 1-3 preseason last week with a 13-9 defeat at the hands of the lowly Jets.
”This is just a night when everything went our way and they were hurt at key positions,” said Gibbs. “But it does let us see what we’re capable of doing.”
The Redskins ended the 1990 season on a relatively high note and considered themselves serious Super Bowl contenders this season, especially with new coaches in the NFC East in both New York and Philadelphia. Entering this game, they had doubts about everything from their quarterback to their morale to their intensity. Gibbs was almost apoplectic with displeasure.
Now, thanks to one pathetic performance by the Lions and one near-perfect night for the Redskins, all those worries will be transformed -- at least temporarily -- into the most extravagant September expectations and January fantasies.