An hour after he found out the Miami Dolphins would be the Redskins' opponent in Super Bowl XVII, Washington Coach Joe Gibbs already had established his team as the underdog in Sunday's Super Bowl game in Pasadena, Calif.
"I'm sure we will go in as the underdogs," Gibbs said, not realizing the early Las Vegas line on the game made Miami a three-point favorite. "People just look at Miami differently than they do us. I just get the feeling that everybody has more respect for a Miami than for a Washington right now."
It was apparent Gibbs already was establishing what he calls his "common sense" approach to preparing his players mentally for this annual NFL extravaganza. Once more, even after beating Dallas, the Redskins still have something to prove, this time against the opponent Washington played 10 years in its only other Super Bowl appearance.
"I don't know if it is an advantage to be an underdog," he said. "But it's something we've had to deal with all season. We let others evaluate whether we should have respect now or not. We just play."
Still, Gibbs conceded he is concerned that the emotion spent by the Redskins in their 31-17 victory over Dallas Saturday for the NFC title might make it difficult to rebound for the Super Bowl. He says he will spend time this week telling his players about the opportunity this game represents.
"I'm going to tell them that you don't get this type of opportunity very often," he said. "This is a chance of a lifetime. You would hope that would be uppermost in their minds. Dallas was a very big game for us; it had everything rolled into one, so maybe there is more of a chance of that (a letdown) happening to us than it would be to someone else.
"But these players always seem to grasp the importance of every game. You have to do so much to get this far. You never really know where the money winds up ($36,000 for the winners, $18,000 for the losers), but it's the gold ring and the pride that is the most important thing.
"A chance to be world champions doesn't happen that often . . . A lot of people work for years and never get this shot. You can't let it slide by. Who knows what lies ahead for everybody?
"You can't say we might get here another year. In St. Louis (as an assistant coach), we thought we were near a couple of times and when we missed, we thought we'd get it next year. But next year never came.
"If you have a chance like this, you have to grab it."
Safety Tony Peters was confident the players wouldn't need a pep talk from Gibbs, once the Redskins got to southern California and began game preparations.
"All of us are happy now," Peters said, "but all of us also have dreamed of a Super Bowl ring. We want to be world champions. We wanted to beat Dallas and we did that, but our work isn't done. We still have a game left."
Tackle George Starke said that "beating Dallas was Super Bowl I. Now we play Super Bowl II."
Gibbs spent yesterday afternoon watching the Miami-New York game before reporting to Redskin Park to begin administrative and game preparations for the Super Bowl. Some members of his staff already were breaking down the Dolphins' game films when he arrived.
"I saw enough of Miami to know they are playing great," Gibbs said. "They have a great scheme and they are well prepared. We couldn't beat them last year or in preseason this year. They have good offensive balance and very good speed, and their receivers gave us an awful lot of trouble. They also seem to have that toughness about them that makes them hard to beat.
"The Jets have a great offense, with all those No. 1 draft choices, and Miami just shut them down. To beat a team like the Jets three times in one year, that's really, really hard."
The Dolphins beat the visiting Redskins, 13-10, in 1981, one of four teams to defeat Washington over the last 22 games. That loss came when Washington was 1-5 and Gibbs still was adjusting his newly installed one-back offense. The Redskins gained 301 yards, but gave up 445, including 149 on the ground as Tony Nathan gained 98. The game was tied in the fourth period until Uwe von Schamann kicked a 25-yard field goal.
In the preseason this year, Miami won, 24-7, with John Riggins scoring the Redskins' only touchdown. Both teams have changed considerably since, with the Dolphins' defense emerging as the league's best during the regular season and with the Redskins demonstrating surprising consistency and intensity every week.
If Gibbs needs to hold up a blueprint this week of how the Redskins go about winning games, he only has to refer to the victory over Dallas. It was a prototype effort: all three parts of the team--offense, defense and special teams--were major contributors; the players showed great emotion; they made no major mistakes--they have had just one turnover in three playoff games--and two little-known players, Darryl Grant and Mel Kaufman, emerged as heroes.
And Riggins continued, as Assistant Coach Joe Bugel put it, "to hitch us to a wagon and pull us along."
Riggins is in the process of making NFL history. No other player has gained 100 yards in three straight playoff games in the same season, and he has a chance to extend that streak to four Sunday. In the playoffs, he has accounted for 52 percent of the Redskins' plays and 42 percent of their offense with his 444 yards on 98 carries.
Behind a massive offensive line that is dominating defensive fronts with simple power blocking, Riggins is controlling games much like Miami's Larry Csonka did in 1972. Linebackers have great difficulty tackling him one on one and linemen are being cleared out by the Redskins' offensive line.
Asked if Miami did anything yesterday to change his mind about using Riggins so much, Gibbs replied, "No, I didn't see anything. We still are going to strive for offensive balance. And then we go with what is going right."