September 2, 1991: Redskins Storm Into ‘91, Blow Out Lions, 45-0: Washington’s Most Lopsided Triumph

After two weeks when they’d looked their worst, when they were bad enough to have their coach in something resembling panic at times, the Washington Redskins opened the 1991 season at their best, rolling past the Detroit Lions with a record-setting 45-0 victory before 52,958 last night at RFK Stadium.

Everything went their way, including pregame warm-ups. That’s when the NFL’s best running back, Barry Sanders, re-injured a rib that limited him to only four preseason carries and kept him on the sidelines last night.

Sanders was the main reason the Redskins were terrified about this opener, but it’s unlikely even he could have made a difference. The Redskins hit the Lions in waves, rolling up 392 yards, forcing four turnovers and getting almost flawless games from quarterback Mark Rypien, receiver Gary Clark, running back Earnest Byner and several others.

There was Brian Mitchell returning a punt 69 yards for a touchdown, there was Darrell Green getting his 25th and 26th career interceptions and there was Sidney Johnson getting his first. There was an offense that converted 11 of 14 third-down plays and a defense that limited the Lions to 154 yards.

Mitchell’s punt return -- the first in the regular season for the Redskins in 10 years -- finished a 21-0 first quarter. It was 35-0 at the half, 42-0 after three quarters and a 37-yard run by rookie Ricky Ervins sparked the second unit to a final field goal.

It could have been more because after the Redskins’ second unit drove to the Detroit 1-yard line late in the fourth quarter, Coach Joe Gibbs refused to let his team score. He ordered reserve quarterback Jeff Rutledge to kneel behind the line four times and give the ball back to the Lions.

”This is about as good as we’ve ever played,” Gibbs said. “Everything worked. I think we were a little scared coming into this game, but everything went our way. I know it was tough on them. They weren’t at their best without Sanders and with their quarterback having missed a lot of time.”

Rypien completed 15 of 19 passes for 183 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He left the game with 6 1/2 minutes remaining, and got a long, warm ovation from the fans who booed him more than once the last two seasons.

”We hit just about everything we ran,” Rypien said. “I needed this. We needed this. You want to get off on a good foot and everyone executed real well. We have a right to be proud, but it’s just one game.”

He had plenty of help, especially from Byner, who accounted for 126 yards. He rushed 16 times for 83 yards, caught two passes for 25 yards and threw an 18-yard touchdown pass to Ricky Sanders. Byner also had a six-yard touchdown run.

Clark caught six passes for 107 yards, including a 38-yard touchdown throw from Rypien. Jimmie Johnson caught Rypien’s other touchdown pass, a four-yarder that made it 14-0 in the first quarter.

The Lions have been here before. They’re 0-14 in Washington and haven’t beaten the Redskins anywhere in 26 years (14 straight losses). The Redskins needed the victory because they took the field knowing three other NFC East teams -- Dallas, Philadelphia and Phoenix -- had won their openers.

”We just got beat by a very good and a very physical team,” Lions Coach Wayne Fontes said. “They beat us in all facets. I was very disappointed in our defense. We didn’t play well at all. We missed some things on offense, but it was our defense that played very poorly.”

Without Sanders, Peete was completely ineffective, hitting eight of 21 for 75 yards and three interceptions. The offense that ran up and down the field on the Redskins last season did nothing this time around. Defensive chief Richie Petitbon threw about six different schemes at the Lions, beginning with his regular defense except for Monte Coleman subbing for Matt Millen at middle linebacker.

Before the night was out, they ran some three cornerback coverages, some blitzes and some trickery. They double-covered enough receivers that Peete was forced to throw at Green. This was the defense that was coming off a couple of terrible preseason games and was more than a little worried about the run-and-shoot Lions.

”Our defensive coaches did a fantastic job,” Gibbs said, “and we just gave all of them game balls. I was scared about this one. I walked in 10 minutes before the game and they’re still going over things. I see that, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh no, we’re in trouble.’ “

The Redskins started fast and got faster. They opened by stopping the Lions on their first possession, then grinding out a textbook seven-minute scoring drive, going 62 yards on 12 plays. Gerald Riggs scored the first touchdown on a one-yard run with 5:37 left in the first quarter and the Redskins led, 7-0.

That did almost everything perfectly. Rypien went three for three, Byner had 38 yards of offense and the Redskins converted three straight third-down plays. The first big play came on third and six from the Washington 42 when Rypien hit Gary Clark on a slant across the middle for 18 to the Detroit 40.

On third and three at the Detroit 23, Rypien made another big play, checking off two receivers and flipping the ball to Byner for a seven-yard gain. Byner was clobbered by cornerback Melvin Jenkins almost as the ball arrived, but still held on.

That gave the Redskins a first down at the Detroit 16, and Byner picked up gains of three and one. On third and six, Rypien scrambled for 11, a play that ended with him lowering a shoulder into cornerback Bruce Alexander near the 2. Riggs entered the game and scored on a one-yard run.

”I would have scored if I hadn’t been so slow,” Rypien said.

The Lions had the ball for one play, long enough for Green to get 25th career interception. He stepped in front of receiver Robert Clark on the right side at the 32 and returned it 12 yards.

”They weren’t as sharp as they normally were,” Green said, “but we made some big plays. We came out with the attitude that we were going to do the things we do best, and that’s what we did.”

The Redskins made it 14-0 by driving 20 yards in four plays, scoring when Rypien lofted a four-yard pass to Jimmie Johnson in the right corner of the end zone, and it was 14-0 with 3:34 left in the quarter.

The Lions had the ball for six plays before Jim Arnold punted the ball to Mitchell at the 31. He started to his right, pushed into a crowd, broke the tackle of Tracy Hayworth at the 40 and sprinted into the open. Two Lions had an angle on him at the Detroit 40 but Mitchell outraced both.

The Redskins hadn’t returned a punt for a touchdown in regular season since Mike Nelms did it against the Patriots Oct. 25, 1981. Their last one was by Green in a 1988 NFC semifinal playoff in Chicago.

The punt return made it 21-0 with 55 seconds left in the quarter. Green got his second interception with 13:11 left in the second quarter and it gave the Redskins possession at the Detroit 29. The Redskins needed four plays to make it 28-0. The rout was on. Byner ran six yards for a touchdown to make 35-0 at the half, and the Redskins scored on a 38-yard Rypien-to-Clark pass and a 26-yard Chip Lohmiller field goal.

”It’s great, but it’s only one game,” Gibbs said. “We can’t kid ourselves. This is going to be a dogfight. We’ve got Dallas next week, and the only bad thing about the whole day is that everyone else in the NFC East won.”