Blue-collar Redskins super only as group

January 21, 1992|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,Sun Staff Correspondent

MINNEAPOLIS -- This is a Super Bowl matchup that seems turned upside down.

The Buffalo Bills represent a blue-collar town and yet they've got the two glamour players in the game -- quarterback Jim Kelly and running back Thurman Thomas, who get to showcase their skills in a wide-open, no-huddle offense.

The Washington Redskins represent the nation's capital and yet they're the blue-collar team in this game. They operate from the one-back offense that puts a premium on old-fashioned blocking and tackling.

The Redskins aren't much on glamour and glitz, which is why they don't dazzle anybody, even with a 16-2 record. Their quarterback, Mark Rypien, has spent the year proving himself and their running back duo of Earnest Byner and rookie Ricky Ervins has been effective, but neither can be compared with Thomas, who generally is considered the best all-around back in the league.

Yet the Redskins have been so effective on the field that they're favored by a touchdown in Super Bowl XXVI. Last year, the Bills were favored by a touchdown, but lost to the New York Giants, 20-19.

That doesn't mean the Redskins are being lauded as one of the sport's great teams in recent years.

"I think if we win the Super Bowl, people still aren't going to say we're a great team," said linebacker Matt Millen, one of the role players who defines the Redskins team.

When the Redskins play an NFC rival such as the Giants or the Philadelphia Eagles with a premium on the battle in the trenches, Millen starts at middle linebacker.

By contrast, when the Redskins played a pair of run-and-shoot teams in their first two playoff games (Atlanta and Detroit), Millen wasn't even in uniform, and he doesn't know if he will play against Buffalo's wide-open offense.

"I think when you take personnel people from across the league and they dissect the team, they say they've got this player and he's better than that guy [on the Redskins], they can go down the thing and say this isn't a great football team. Well, what is a great team? You can go back to poorer teams with greatest personnel that didn't win, so you're talking about the team as a whole. There's not a plethora of Hall of Fame people, but it's a great team," Millen said.

Millen, who also played on Super Bowl teams with the Raiders in Oakland and Los Angeles and with the San Francisco 49ers, said the key for the Redskins is that their players fit their roles so well.

"The coaches allow them to play within themselves and they don't ask them to do things they can't do," Millen said.

When coach Joe Gibbs is asked to describe how good the team is, he uses the word "solid."

"If I'd characterize, I'd probably say it's solid and has good depth. I don't think there are a lot of holes in it. I'd say our team has great chemistry, it seems to have great focus and great leadership. I don't think we're star-studded, but we have some darn good football players," he said.

What even Gibbs can't figure out is why the team came together this year.

"It's been one of the easiest years for me. Lots of times you work hard and it doesn't go well. Different things can happen on a team. You just get the feeling we're not really together. Some guys don't like each other or you've got problems of different kinds.

"But this year, almost from day one, the players have taken it upon themselves and we've had a great feeling on this team. Hey, it's easy to coach that way. You point them in the right direction and they take off. That's great, if you can get that. I'd like to have it again next year, but I don't know if you capture it very often," he said.

Going into this season, the Redskins had won one playoff game since winning Super Bowl XXII and had been only six games over .500 -- 28-22 -- the past three seasons. This season, they're 14 games above .500.

The most logical explanation for the togetherness that produced such positive results this season is that the Redskins have a blend of veteran players who know they're running out of years and young players who have the incentive of trying to win it for the first time.

Gibbs knows better than anybody that it might be difficult to get the same feeling back next year.

"Sometimes having a great year ruins you for the next year. Some of the toughest things to handle are adversity and prosperity. You get to thinking you're better than you are and that kills you off. You can get off on the wrong foot . . . and a few guys may not like each other and a couple of guys are mad about their contracts and a couple of other guys [think] they should be playing and that starts up and then you lose a game and everybody jumps on you for that and the next thing you know, you've got a mess going. You can get there in a hurry," he said.

Gibbs, though, has another week before he has to start worrying about next year.

Right now, the Redskins can savor how far they've come by playing well together.

"At this point, we're one of the two best in 1991," Millen said.

On Sunday, the Redskins will try to become the best.

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