By Mick Warshaw
Cold, Hard Football Facts Sultan of Sacks (@mickwarshaw)
Joe Gibbs had a marvelous coaching career with the Washington Redskins. He led the team to its most successful stretch in the modern era, fielding four Super Bowl participants and three champions from 1982 through 1991.
The early Gibbs teams are fondly remembered for their colorful cast of characters – renowned partier John Riggins and the Hogs chief among them.
Those teams, however, won their championships during strike seasons (1982, 1987), casting a slight shadow on their legacy.
The 1991 team, though, thoroughly dominated the league in a “normal” regular season, with a 14-2 record followed by three dominating postseason victories.
Mark Rypien became the third quarterback of the Gibbs era to win a ring while the defense and the offense were both dominant.
Unfortunately, this outrageously good team is frequently overlooked in casual discussions of the best teams ever.
The Cold, Hard Football Facts are sick and tired of the disrespect.
The 1991 Washington Redskins have a statistical case as the best team of the Super Bowl era.
Prepare to have your mind bludgeoned by the awesomeness of this team, much like it bludgeoned its opponents on its rampage through the NFL.
A One-Season Wonder
In 1990, Washington gave little indication that it was coalescing into such a juggernaut.
Granted, the team’s 10-6 record was nothing to be ashamed of. But three different quarterbacks started games, they were middling defensively (13th of 28 in points allowed) and they lost all three regular season meetings with the defending (San Francisco) and pending (New York Giants) champions.
The offense in 1990 was very good, posting 381 points scored (4th), but the team’s scoring differential of +80 was far from special, and their Passer Rating Differential was only +1.0. Washington's sack differential was a very good +23, but in every other category the Redskins looked like they would continue to be about a 10-win team in 1991.
When 1991 rolled around, Washington had jettisoned Stan Humphries and turned the reins of the offense over to Mark Rypien.
Rypien rewarded the move by leading the NFL in game-winning drives (5) and 25-yard+ touchdown passes (14). He was second in touchdown passes (28), passer rating (98.0) and yards per attempt (8.5), and finishing in the top 10 in various other passing categories.
Rypien tossed the pigskin to a pair of 1,000-yard receivers in Hall of Famer Art Monk (1,049) and near-miss Gary Clark (1,340). Six different receivers caught passes of at least 25 yards.
The rushing attack was paced by Earnest Byner (1,048 yards) and Gerald Riggs (11 TDs). The team’s 21 rushing scores led the league.
An All-Time Great Offense
All of this offensive excess buoyed the Redskins to (at that point) the third-highest point total in NFL history. Here are the highest point totals in NFL history from 1920 to 1991 (NFL teams only):
- 1983 Redskins (541)
- 1984 Dolphins (513)
- 1991 Redskins (485)
- 1983 Cowboys (479)
- 1981 Chargers (478)
(Get a complete list of every offense in NFL history that topped 30.0 PPG in this 2013 epic CHFF study: The Big Tease.)
The Redskins produced this statistical dominance against a brutal schedule (.529 opponent win percentage, .554 when not playing Washington; the 1985 Bears played a .473 slate) that included a rack of top-flight defenses.
The NFC East in 1991 was not a fun division to play eight games against. The sad-sack Cardinals at 4-12 provided the only relief against a brutal slate, with the Eagles and Cowboys both posting double-digit victories and the defending champion Giants finishing at .500 in their first year without Bill Parcells.
The Cowboys, of course, were in the process of developing into a dynasty, and had most of the pieces in place by that season for their three championship seasons over the ensuing four years.
The Eagles of 1991, meanwhile, were loaded with game-breaking defensive talent (Reggie White, Sety Joyner, Jerome Brown, Clyde Simmons) and produced an awesome 52.1 Defensive Passer Rating, one of the best pass defenses in modern football history.
Sure enough, these two powerhouses were each able to defeat Washington – in their respective second tries – by a combined total of five points, hanging the only losses of the season on the ‘Skins.
Dominance on Defense and on the Scoreboard
The 1991 Redskins were no slouch defensively, either. They finished second in the league with 224 points allowed for a scoring differential of +261. It reamains one of the greatest differentials in NFL history.
- 2007 Patriots (+315)
- 1942 Bears (+292)
- 1999 Rams (+284)
- 1962 Packers (+267)
- 1991 Redskins (+261)
Washington's defense pitched three shutouts and held three other teams to 10 points or less (including playoffs).
The Redskins really got after opposing offenses, with 50 sacks, 27 interceptions, 22 forced fumbles and a 58.9 Defensive Passer Rating, in each case among the best in football in 1991.
Thirteen different players recorded a sack for the Redskins that year, paced by Charles Mann (11.5). Twelve players snagged an interception, with Wilber Marshall and future Hall of Famer Darrell Green leading the team with five each. Four different players registered 100+ tackles.
It was completely impossible for offenses to try to scheme around any one or two defensive players, because every defender on the team stepped up and contributed.
With all those contributions coming from every corner on both sides of the ball, the Redskins produced an eye-popping Passer Rating Differential of +39.1, one of the best marks of the Super Bowl Era and just a shade behind the undefeated Dolphins of 1972 (+39.5).
As we have discussed previously, all those numbers are a winning formula.
Another differential the Redskins dominated was sacks. With only nine sacks allowed, the +41 differential is the best we have discovered so far in our sack research, ahead of the 1985 Bears (+36).
Historical dominance, of course, isn’t measured as much in these stats as in scoring, and Washington was certainly no slouch in that department.
The Redskins’ mark of +16.3 points per game compares favorably with those famous 1985 Bears (+16.1), and is the third best mark of the 16-game era and among the best in the Super Bowl Era:
- 2007 Patriots (+19.7)
- 1968 Colts (+18.5)
- 1999 Rams (+17.8)
- 1968 Cowboys (+17.5)
- 1967 Raiders (+16.8)
- 1991 Redskins (+16.3)
- 1985 Bears (+16.1)
The undefeated 1972 Dolphins check in at a comparatively pedestrian +15.3 points per game.
Taking a longer look at that list of teams with scoring differentials superior to the 1991 Redskins, only the Rams were able to bring home the championship bacon.
The Colts were, of course, upset by the Joe Namath Jets, and they beat the Cowboys on the way to that Super Bowl. The Raiders played in the AFL and were summarily destroyed by the Packers in Super Bowl II.
The Patriots were mortal locks to be declared the greatest team ever, before a soft-touch fade pass landed in Plaxico Burress’ arms with 35 seconds left in Super Bowl XLII.
On special teams, Washington had (at the time) future franchise all-time scoring leader Chip Lohmiller kicking, while legendary return man Brian Mitchell took two punt returns to the house. They really did dominate in every phase.
Postseason Dominance/Fast Fade in 1992
Washington was rightly a heavy favorite in each of its postseason games, and it made good on the high expectations, winning its three contests by a suitably lopsided 102-41 total (20.3 points per game). In the 21 seasons since, no succeeding champion has matched the Redskins’ feat of not trailing for even one play in the postseason.
With all the dominance on display, it’s easy to wonder: why does this team get overlooked so often by both the casual observer and hardcore football fans?
The answer is that it was a short-lived period of dominance that did not exist in 1990 and disappeared again in 1992. Mark Rypien fell off the proverbial cliff the following season (passer rating of 71.7, 13/17 TD/INT ratio) and the team went a very average 9-7. Washington’s offensive output in 1992 plummeted to a middling 300 points.
Additional marginalization came from within the division, as the aforementioned Cowboys dynasty took flight behind the offensive Triplets. Dallas’ legendary battles with San Francisco for control of the NFC came to define the narrative of the NFL for the first half of the 1990s, and Washington’s championship season lies on the mostly forgotten dust heap of NFL lore.
It’s time for that to end. When taking into account the whole picture, including difficulty of division, difficulty of schedule, dominance in all three phases, the 1991 Redskins may rank as the greatest team of the Super Bowl Era.