The Jan. 31, 1988, showdown between Washington’s Doug Williams and Denver’s John Elway rated only 37th in our ranking of the quarterback matchups from every Super Bowl, but don’t get it twisted: What Williams accomplished that day in San Diego, as the first Black quarterback to start a Super Bowl, is one of football’s defining moments. Few quarterbacks have played better on the game’s biggest stage.
“Maybe the most significant quarterback performance in Super Bowl history still comes down to Doug Williams,” NFL historian Joe Horrigan, a former executive director at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, said in a phone interview last week. “Because Doug wasn’t competing just against John Elway; Doug was competing against every quarterback who ever played the game. That was huge.”
In the days leading up to Super Bowl XXII, Williams, who on Thursday was appointed to a new role in the Washington Football Team’s front office as senior adviser to team president Jason Wright, was the focus of attention.
“The questions put to Williams from 1,000 or so national media members this week were either pointed enough, probing enough, insensitive enough or just silly enough to make a lesser man run back to his room and hide,” The Washington Post’s Michael Wilbon wrote from the middle of the media circus in 1988. “… Of course, everybody’s favorite has to be, “Doug, you’ve been a Black quarterback all your life …”
Williams expected the questions and didn’t take offense, but he was more concerned with Broncos linebacker Karl Mecklenburg than his place in history at the time.
“All of the emphasis was put on myself being Black and the history part of it and everything, and I understood the significance of being the first to play in the Super Bowl, but I couldn’t go into the game looking at it from that standpoint,” Williams said this week on the Washington Football Team’s Women of Washington podcast. “I had to go and prepare from a standpoint of finding a way to win the game. I always said that when the game was over and we won, you can paint me any color you want to, but I still was the starting quarterback of the Washington Redskins.”
“I know he dismisses it a little bit today and says it wasn’t on his mind as much as people might think, but I know Doug well,” said Horrigan, who consulted with Williams and fellow trailblazing Black quarterback James “Shack” Harris when they co-founded the Black College Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. “I think it’s baloney. It was on his mind. He had so many burdens on his back that day and responded in such a profound way that changed not just that Super Bowl, but it changed the game. He had a lot to prove. There couldn’t have been a more challenging game than that, and he won in such unbelievable fashion.”
After being knocked out of the game for one series after straining his knee in the first quarter, Williams, who underwent a four-hour root canal the day before, returned and led the greatest single-quarter offensive explosion in Super Bowl history. The former Grambling star completed 9 of 11 passes for 228 yards and four touchdowns in Washington’s 35-point second quarter, which turned a 10-0 deficit into a rout. The outburst began with an 80-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Ricky Sanders and ended with an eight-yard scoring grab by tight end Clint Didier. Williams finished 18 of 29 for 340 yards, four touchdowns and one interception, earning MVP honors.
So why does Super Bowl XXII, despite Williams’s historic performance opposite a Hall of Famer in Elway, land in the bottom half of our Super Bowl QB matchup rankings? The answer is in the methodology, which relied on three statistical elements. The first assessed the quality of the quarterbacks’ careers. The second measured how well they played in the season leading up to their Super Bowl meeting. Finally, the quarterbacks’ performance in the big game was considered. Williams was a solid but not exceptional player in the years before and after his only Super Bowl appearance, and he started only two games during the 1987 regular season, so he rates poorly on two of the three elements.
Williams’s performance in the Super Bowl, however, was among the best ever. His quarterback game score, a modification to baseball statistician Bill James’s formula used for pitchers, was 68. That’s the fourth highest in Super Bowl history behind only the San Francisco 49ers’ Steve Young and Joe Montana, who posted game scores of 71 in 1994 and 1989, and the New England Patriots’ Tom Brady (69) in 2017.
“As the first Black quarterback in the NFL championship game,” The Post’s Ken Denlinger wrote after Washington’s 42-10 win, Williams “was under even more scrutiny this week than Elway. He handled that with grace and patience, and then performed as brilliantly as any of his most ardent admirers could have hoped.”
Neil Greenberg contributed to this report.
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