January 27, 1992: MVP! Doubts Ripped Away

MINNEAPOLIS -- When the good guys get the last laugh, it’s sweet. So have a chuckle along with Mark Rypien, the most valuable player of Super Bowl XXVI.

”Beautiful,” said Rypien, taking off his world champions cap and running his hands through the best known ugly hair in America.

”Actually, the truth hurts,” Rypien said. “I didn’t mind the parts about not being handsome and having bad hair. But the charisma part got me mad. . . . I have a little spark.”

The truth is that Rypien now has enough spark to build a roaring fire. The Bills spent Super Bowl week turning this game into their personal challenge of Rypien. Time and again they said he’d been untested and virtually untouched in his 28-touchdown, Pro Bowl regular season. Hit him, hurt him, intimidate him, they implied, and Rypien and the Redskins would fold.

So, the Bills came after Rypien with every blitz and stunt and bull rush that they owned. Although battered to the Metrodome turf a dozen times -- but never actually sacked -- Rypien rose time and again Sunday to lead Washington to a crushing 37-24 victory.

”I can take this one with me. . . . We can all carry this one to our graves,” he said after completing 18 of 33 passes for 292 yards and two touchdowns. “They can’t say you can’t win the big one after you’ve won the Super Bowl. If there’s a bigger one than this, come up and tell me about it. I’d like to play in it.”

And probably win it.

Five hours before the game, Rypien, the most slandered Redskin, was also the first to arrive. He stood beside the end zone flag in the Metrodome, gazing calmly at the field where he soon would prove himself. “I wanted to relax and get used to the place.” By the end of the day, he owned the joint.

Seconds before Rypien was introduced to hundreds of millions of people worldwide, he stood with a playful, peaceful little smile on his face. When he ran onto the field, he was the only Redskin who gave a double thumbs-ups for Mike Utley, the Detroit Lion paralyzed by a midseason injury, and a fist pump too. Hitch the wagon to me boys, he said.

The first time 275-pound Bruce Smith decked Rypien, the Redskins’ quarterback reached down, grabbed Smith’s arm, and, even though the embarrassed giant didn’t want to be helped up by a quarterback, the 234-pound Rypien yanked him to his feet. Is that your best punch?

Time after time the Bills rushed six men or more, leveling Rypien as he threw or, sometimes, afterward. Once, Cornelius Bennett smashed him in the face with a forearm, getting a penalty but not rattling Rypien, who got up smoking. Despite the pressure, Rypien’s decision-making was crisp and authoritative.

”I like getting a little contact,” said the rawboned Rypien. “You get up off the mat and your jaw is set and you’re ready to go.”

”Rip was everything we could ask,” said Coach Joe Gibbs. “He really got knocked around early but he came back and made the big plays. He was smart. He ran the no-huddle himself and he came back to the bench and made good suggestions.”

The Redskins went to the no-huddle with the score 0-0 late in the first quarter. Seventeen minutes later, the score was 17-0. (Does Rypien call better plays than Gibbs?)

One big pass after another to Gary Clark (114 yards for the day) and Art Monk (113) came from Rypien’s strong arm as the Redskins outgained the Bills 266 yards to 78 in the first half. When the score reached 17-0, after a long Rypien pass had set up a short Gerald Riggs touchdown plunge, Rypien finally let his feelings explode. He ran and leaped for 50 yards to the bench, pumping his fist domeward and, in general, doing a dance worthy of a showboating Bill.

”I’m not going to yell ‘In your face,’ “ he said, “but if you don’t show some emotion at a time like that, you’re in the wrong profession.”

By total contrast, the Redskins did to Jim Kelly exactly what the Bills were doing to Rypien. Except the Redskins hadn’t advertised their plans to keep six men “in the box,” jam the middle, blitz on almost every shotgun down and send the Bills’ $2.864 million man to the plastic grass just as often as the Bills wanted to do to Rypien.

Kelly didn’t answer the challenge with nearly the poise or intelligence Rypien showed. Kelly looked confused all day, throwing four interceptions and losing a fumble. Worse, Kelly didn’t show good sense deep in his own territory. Of his five turnovers, four were Bill-killers, giving the Redskins the ball at the Buffalo 12-, 2-, 14- and 33-yard lines.

Where Rypien showed almost ideal judgment -- dumping the ball when necessary and throwing on rhythm, Kelly was always escaping the crumbling pocket, trying to make spectacular but hopeless flash-and-dash plays.

Finally, knocked silly by Martin Mayhew on a scramble, Kelly staggered off the field like a groggy fighter, insisting to a doctor that he still wanted to play, but being led away for his own safety for a play to clear his head. “I can’t remember much” of the game, Kelly said, “but the part I do remember I didn’t like.”

For the Redskins, this game only had one moment of second-half tension. And “moment” is the right word. After the Bills cut Washington’s 24-0 lead to 24-10, the Redskins took the wraps off Rypien again, allowing him to pass against the naked Buffalo secondary rather than hand off to kill time.

The ensuing 79-yard drive included four completions for 56 yards. The final touch, on third and 10 from the Bills 30, was the prettiest pass of the day. Clark was isolated on James Williams and beat him radically with a post-corner route. Rypien’s soft bomb -- his signature pass -- traveled 40 yards in the air and arriving with geometric perfection -- unmissable. The score hit 31-10 on the way to 37-10.

”That was the most important play,” said Rypien. “We answered their call.”

All the Redskins answered their call, but one more than any other. The world watched this Super Bowl to see King Kelly strut his stuff. Instead, it may have seen the beginning of the Reign of Rip.