Friday, February 22, 2008

Remembering: Doug Williams' historic Super Bowl win

Play by play, Williams built a Super Bowl legacy 20 years ago
Thursday, Jan. 31, 2008

By Nick Deriso
There was actually some indication of what was about to unfold.

Sure, no team had ever come back from being down 7 or more points in any Super Bowl.

But Doug Williams and the Washington Redskins — losing 10-0 to Denver Broncos after one quarter of play 20 years ago at San Diego’s Jack Murphy Stadium — kept telling themselves the same thing.

"We had been down like that already against Chicago," Williams said.

The Redskins had fallen back two touchdowns before overtaking the Bears 21-17 in 1987’s divisional round.

"And it was frigid there," said Williams a Grambling product. "In San Diego, we had 80-degree weather."

A moment that grew into a cultural symbol — Williams, after a startling comeback, would become the first black quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl, and the first to earn MVP honors — was just a game back then.

And Washington was losing.

The NFC’s eventual representative in Super Bowl XXII had changed quarterbacks and running backs over the length of the ‘87 season.

Then Williams nearly blew out a knee.

He was still confident. But he might have been the only one.


Redskins rookie Timmy Smith started the contest, rather than the injured former Heisman trophy winner George Rogers, and was going nowhere.

Williams’ initial third-down pass was dropped, too, giving Denver the ball for the first time.

One play later, Broncos’ receiver Ricky Nattiel — then just 22, the youngest player in history to score in a Super Bowl — was hauling in a 56-yard touchdown pass from Elway.

That was the fastest score in Super Bowl history.

Washington was stymied again on its next possession, which included another third-down drop. Williams was 1-of-4 for nine yards as Denver added a field goal to go up 10-0 with nine minutes still remaining in the first period.

"I think the average betting man would have gone with Elway," Williams said. "They didn’t give Doug Williams a prayer. Well, the good Lord does answer some."

But not before Redskins returner Ricky Sanders fumbled the resulting kickoff, nearly giving Denver the ball back in Washington’s red zone. Williams would go on to complete this stirring 40-yard strike to Art Monk.

That drive, and the next one, eventually also stalled — and Williams found himself twisting on the ground, grabbing a hyperextended left knee.

The injury was so excruciating that Williams instinctively released the ball, though he was ruled down. San Diego’s squishy turf had already forced the Broncos to switch to a deeper cleat.

Former starter Jay Schroeder returned to finish the drive, but was summarily sacked and then suffered yet another Redskins drop — their fourth already.

The air, it seemed, had gone out of Washington — but not Williams, even though he was just four-of-10 for 78 yards as the second period began.

"No question, I was in tremendous pain, but I was there to play the game," Williams said. "That’s how I looked at it. I couldn’t worry about that. You are on the biggest stage of your life. To me, it was like growing up — you throw a little dirt on it and keep going."


Williams returned from the sidelines and, 53 seconds into the quarter, threw an 80-yard touchdown to Ricky Sanders, his first-ever postseason score. The Redskins had managed just 63 yards on offense during the entire first period.

Washington held as Elway threw what was then his sixth consecutive incompletion. Four plays later, Williams hit Gary Clark for a 27-yard score to take the lead.

Williams was well protected behind an offensive line so talented that he had been sacked just once in the playoffs.

"If the offense line did what I’d like for them to do, and receivers did what they can do, I knew we could get back into it," said Williams, who played for the legendary Eddie Robinson. "I just had to get the ball back."

Denver, fading badly now, turned the ball over on a missed 43-yard field-goal attempt.

Williams and the Redskins still had seven minutes remaining before the half.

Two plays later, Smith ran 58 yards for a touchdown — his first score ever — and a 21-10 lead. He had just 126 regular-season yards, but 204 in this game alone.

Denver had worked all week on stopping the Redskins’ vaunted counter running play. It didn’t matter.

"‘Coach Rob’ used to say it’s all about blocking and tackling," Williams said. "If you block it right, they can’t stop you — and our line did that. We knew from a physical standpoint, we were the better football l team. That was proved as game went on."

That last touchdown had tied the Super Bowl record, set by San Francisco in XIX and Chicago in XX, of 21 points in a single quarter.

Washington needed just three more plays to score its fourth consecutive touchdown, as Williams hit Sanders on a 50-yard slant — tying a record for most TD receptions by a player in the Super Bowl.

"When everybody is working on all cylinders like that, it’s the epitome of execution," Williams said.

Washington, ahead now 28-10, stopped Elway on an interception in his subsequent possession.

Smith dashed 45 yards to set up Washington at the Broncos’ 35. Denver’s defenders were distracted, then deflated.

"You get he defense out of place, get them confused," Williams said. "All of a sudden they’re looking at each other, trying to make judgment calls. When they’re making all of these late changes, there is a chance that somebody is going to be out of place."

Williams’ fourth touchdown pass, tying another Super Bowl record, to Clint Didier extended Washington’s now insurmountable lead to 35-10.

TV announcer Frank Gifford, in a line that Williams can repeat from memory, said it best: "If this was a fight, they might stop it."

In 222 previous post-season games to that point, no NFL team had ever scored more points in a single quarter. Oakland came closest in 1968, putting up 28; the Giants scored 27 all the way back in 1934.

Williams ran into former Denver coach Dan Reeves this week. "He just shook his head and said: ‘That second quarter was a nightmare.’"


Washington only scored once more, preferring instead to run the ball in long, quarter-eating drives.

"We wanted to flatten this thing out and keep Elway off the field," Williams said. "You take time off clock, and make it a little more impossible."

Desperate to catch up, Elway began to take more chances, and Washington defenders feasted on multiple turnovers.

The enormity of the moment was becoming clear. A contest marked by personal firsts for Williams, the initial player in Super Bowl history to throw four touchdowns in a single quarter, and to throw four in a half, would have wider implications for African-Americans.

"It’s a great feeling when you realize that people still recognize you and are grateful for what you did," Williams said. "They’ll come up and say: ‘God bless you; you don’t know what you mean to us.’ That’s a great feeling to have that kind of impact."

The announcing team for Super Bowl XXII — Gifford, Dan Dierdorf and Al Michaels – were a microcosm of that sudden revelation.

"Those guys were dumbfounded," Williams said, chuckling. "The last thing they expected was for it to be like that."

Elway was portrayed as the golden-boy sure thing, while Williams would be largely disregarded as an all but forgotten outsider. Too often, the conversation had entered on Williams’ race, rather than what his team did well.

"The problem with that Super Bowl was it wasn’t so much the game itself, as it was who the quarterbacks where," Williams said. "You had Doug Williams against John Elway, and we all know who’s going to win that game."

Williams’ performance, resilient and eye-popping in its complete efficiency, opened eyes and opened doors.

Two other black quarterbacks have followed Williams to the Super Bowl, though neither Philadelphia’s Donovan McNabb or Tennessee’ Steve McNair would win.

"The opportunity now," Williams said, "is more than it was then."

Super Bowl XXII remains an afternoon where race relations achieved a rare vista — even if, at first, it started as just another football game.

"That day still has significance," Williams said, "because it touched so many people’s lives — not just as a fan but from an emotional standpoint. From a time when there was no black quarterbacks to winning it, so many older people talk about what that game meant."

In the smaller vernacular of sports, he’s the consummate underdog-made-good, too.

"When somebody is down and out," Williams said, "they’ll put that game in."

As he walked off that San Diego field, in a lingering image, Williams raised his helmet in triumph.

"I had been to place people only dream about," Williams said, still taking it in. "You don’t get to that point too often."

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