SAN DIEGO, JAN. 30 -- The National Football League has saved its best for last. The Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos, survivors more than winners, come together on the glittering Super Bowl stage at 6 p.m. Sunday to put the final touches on the story of the strangest season in pro football history.
It is fitting that this will be the Super Bowl of subterfuge, of reverses and quarterback draws, of Sybil defenses and spy linebackers. A bizarre season deserves a confounding finish.
But this also is the Super Bowl of Doug Williams -- the first black quarterback to start a Super Bowl game. And don't forget Charles Mann and Dexter Manley, "The Three Amigos," and Karl Mecklenburg and, of course, John Elway.
Elway. It's worth saying that name twice. In a game that could be filled with deception and substitutions and the best the minds of Joe Gibbs and Dan Reeves have to offer, how one man plays likely will determine who wins Super Bowl XXII at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.
If Elway is unstoppable, the Broncos almost surely will win. However, if the Redskins can keep him under control, they very likely will win. As Elway goes, so go the Broncos.
The Redskins are not so dependent. They still can win if Williams does not play well, as happened two weeks ago in the NFC championship game.
Three Redskins who did not play in that game will be available in this one: wide receiver Art Monk, backup middle linebacker Rich Milot and running back Keith Griffin. All were placed on the active 45-man roster today. To make room, wide receiver Anthony Allen and cornerback Tim Morrison were placed on the five-man inactive list and long-snapper David Jones was put on injured reserve.
Gibbs said he will speak with running back George Rogers, who has been slowed by a sprained left ankle, in pregame warmups to see how he feels about starting. Right now, Gibbs expects Rogers to start.
"George will be introduced as the starter," Gibbs said. "If there's a hang-up, we'll find out before the game."
If Rogers does not start, rookie Timmy Smith will.
Cornerback Barry Wilburn missed the team's walk-through today with the flu, Gibbs said. He is expected to be fine by game time, but if he isn't, rookie Brian Davis will start. Backup linebacker Kurt Gouveia suffered from the flu Friday but said he was fine today. Milot's presence adds depth there, just in case.
"It feels good," Milot said of his return to the active roster. "You don't get a whole lot of chances to play in games like this, and now I'm in the Super Bowl for the third time in my nine-year career."
The Broncos activated backup tackle Jim Juriga today. They still are concerned about the status of right guard Stefan Humphries, who has a bruised thigh. If he can't start, Larry Lee will. Defensive tackle Dave Butz will play opposite Humphries or Lee. That could be a battle Butz wins, which might make it difficult for the Broncos to run up the middle.
A Redskins victory would give Gibbs his second Super Bowl victory in six seasons and further entrench Washington as the team of the '80s. If Denver wins, it proves the value of perseverance. The Broncos lost this game last year, miserably, 39-20. In the week leading up to the game, that's all the Broncos have talked about.
Not that the Redskins have ignored the fact that the last time their team went to a Super Bowl, four years ago, it lost, 38-9.
"It's the biggest game of my life." Redskins wide receiver Gary Clark said this, but any one of the 89 other players could have made the statement. And because there is no dominant favorite (the Broncos are 3 1/2-point favorites) for the first time in five seasons, it is expected to be a good, close game -- a rare treat for Super Bowl Sunday.
The Redskins (13-4) and Broncos (12-4-1) have played only one time in the seven seasons Gibbs has been in Washington. That game was played Dec. 13, 1986, at Mile High Stadium and was won by Denver, 31-30. The Broncos are the only team Gibbs has not beaten.
Information gleened from that game has been packed into the teams' game plans. Mann, who is the Redskins' left defensive end, got by right tackle Ken Lanier for three sacks. Mann and Lanier meet again Sunday. It's likely the Broncos will give Lanier some help this time. It's also likely Elway will want to try to move away from Mann, but that means he would have to roll to his left, toward Manley.
Denver knows Mann is a more disciplined player than Manley, and is much more likely to stay in his rushing lane and contain Elway. The degree of Manley's patience as Elway runs out of the pocket will determine the success of the Redskins' pass rush.
The results will be personified in the quarterbacks. Reeves bristled at the notion his is a one-man team, but others say that description isn't too far off. "He's superhuman," wide receiver Ricky Nattiel said of Elway.
The Redskins say Williams has had a very good week at practice and he says he feels loose and is not nervous. But, if he struggles, the Redskins' running game must not. Reeves said the other day he is most fearful of the Redskins' ability to hang onto the football against his defense, which ranked next-to-last in the NFL in the average it allowed opponents to gain per rushing attempt in non-replacement games.
The Redskins, who have not run well most of the season, should look like the Redskins of old Sunday, slugging it out on the ground. They have bigger and better offensive and defensive lines, which very well could prove to be the difference. The Cleveland Browns wore down the Broncos in the second half of the AFC championship game, outscoring Denver, 30-17, but still losing, 38-33. It's vital for the Broncos to get the lead in the first half, because, if they don't, the Redskins could go to their running game and drive the Broncos crazy.
The Washington offensive line outweighs the Denver defensive front by about 30 pounds per man. "We'll find out whether it's better to be bigger or quicker," said Redskins offensive tackle Mark May.
Or sneakier. Gibbs said the Redskins want to start the game "with something they haven't seen. That's our philosophy. The basic plays are the same. But we want to run them from a different look that their defense isn't accustomed to seeing."
This is because they want to score early and keep Denver from running to their two- and three-touchdown bursts that tear a game wide open. If the Redskins don't hang onto the football, they will hand it over to Elway, who accounted for more than 300 yards running and passing in the AFC title game.
The Redskins won't say if they will shadow Elway with a "spy defender," although they used linebacker Monte Coleman in that capacity against Philadelphia quarterback Randall Cunningham in the regular season. The results weren't smashing, and Gibbs is hesitant to take one player out of his defense for the sole purpose of following another.
What they will do is use the myriad of defensive fronts and blitzing mystery men they used in the NFC title game. The Redskins branch off from a four-man front, the Broncos from a three-man front.
It's clear that both teams -- and both coaches -- are trying to out-think one another. Someone here said that if there was a coach they would want to prepare a team the two weeks before the Super Bowl, it would be one of two people.
Or Joe Gibbs.