Golden Football Magazine
NFL Championship Games
This series covers the history of the NFL through the prism of its yearly championship games.
Note: The gray boxes contain asides that provide interesting material but could be skipped without losing the continuity of the article.
Super Bowl XXII - Denver Broncos vs Washington Redskins: 1st Half
The Washington fans in the crowd of 73,302 saw their Redskins suffer through a disastrous opening period on a beautiful San Diego day with temperature at 60° at kickoff.

Quarter 1

Rich Karlis kicked off for Denver to Ricky Sanders, who returned 16y to the 17. Out came rookie RB Timmy Smith instead of George Rogers, who was still banged up from three injuries during the season. Smith went to work right away, carrying twice for 6y. Then QB Doug Williams dropped back to pass and, with blitzing LB Rick Dennison in his face, flipped to his safety valve, WR Gary Clark, who dropped the ball. The play was an omen for what was to come for the Redskins in the first 15 minutes of play. So Steve Cox punted to the Denver 44.
Clark had developed a reputation for both huge plays and careless drops. "With Gary Clark," said Williams, "you just keep throwing the ball in his direction and hope that the next time he catches the ball."

Ricky Sanders returns the opening kickoff.
Denver started with a bang. From the shotgun, QB John Elway dropped deep, looked left to move the free safety, then threw long down the right sideline to streaking rookie WR Ricky Nattiel who caught the ball in stride behind CB Barry Wilburn for the earliest touchdown in any Super Bowl game. Karlis kicked the PAT. Broncos 7 Redskins 0 (13:03)

Ricky Nattiel escapes Barry Wilburn's tackle for the game's first touchdown.
Elway said afterward that the first play "wasn't something that we had planned. Dan (Reeves) just told me two seconds before I went out, to run a 'go' route. I didn't know which way I was going to go."
Wilburn made no excuses for getting burned. "I gave them that touchdown. They caught me sleeping. We started with a zone, and I came out a little lax, and he blew by me." He would allow Nattiel only one more catch the rest of the game.
Sanders could take the kickoff no further than the 15 this time. Smith touched the ball on three straight plays. Although he had only one reception for 2y during the season, he took a swing pass for 9y. Then he ran for a first down at the 30. After Timmy ran for four more, NT Greg Kragen knocked down Williams' pass. Then it was Sanders' turn to drop a pass, bringing on Cox, who punted 42y to Kevin Clark, who returned it 9y.
After an incompletion, Elway flipped off his back foot over the middle to WR Mark Jackson to the Washington 37. Then Denver pulled the old flea flicker. Continuing to operate from the shotgun formation, Elway handed to RB Steve Sewell, who headed left, then turned and threw back to Elway all alone on the right side for the first pass reception by a quarterback in Super Bowl history. John sped for 24y to the 13.
Dan Reeves: "They made a heck of a play to stop that from being a touchdown."

Steve Sewell passes to Elway, who escapes Charles Mann after receiving the flea-flicker.
Redskins defensive coordinator Richie Petitbon's game plan was to do very little stunting and not as much blitzing as usual. He wanted his linemen to rush straight, keep in very strict lanes "so Elway won't be able to scramble like he can."
The beleaguered Redskin defense rose up and held Denver to a field goal. After a draw to RB Sammy Winder gained only one, Elway fired to Sewell in the right flat for six more. Then NT Dave Butz spoiled a quarterback draw by coming off a tackle-tackle stunt and dropping Elway for a loss of one. So Karlis knocked through a 24y field goal. Broncos 10 Redskins 0 (9:09)
Washington's defensive coordinator Larry Peccatiello smelled out the quarterback draw that had been so successful for Elway. "They send out four wide receivers. Generally, we match up with four corners. I told Richie (Petitbon, who signaled the defenses from the sideline), 'They're going four, let's stay base. Quarterback draw.'"
No team in Super Bowl history had ever come back to even tie a game when trailing by seven points, much less 10.
Coach Dan Reeves later said, "If John had gotten the first down, and we could have gone on and scored the touchdown, maybe things would have been different. A 14-0 lead that early in a game sometimes can make a team get desperate."
Sanders stood at the goal line awaiting the kickoff. "We need a big play," he thought to himself. "Make something happen." "Something almost did," he said later. "Something terrible." Disaster nearly struck the Redskins on the kickoff return.
Sanders took the ball on the two and ran out to the 16 where he fumbled when hit by RB Ken Bell. A scramble ensued that took the officials several minutes to unpile. "It was probably the biggest pileup in Super Bowl history," said Al Michaels, announcing the game on ABC-TV. The Broncos kept signaling they recovered. The refs huddled and listened to the replay official, who finally ruled it was Washington's ball with LB Ravin Caldwell getting credit for the disputed recovery.

Bruce Klosterman (97), Ken Bell (35), Jeremiah Castille (28), Anthony Jones (82), and Terry Orr (87) go after the fumble, but somehow Ravin Caldwell, not even in the picture, recovered it for Washington.
Bell swears to this day that he recovered the ball for Denver but claims Ravin Caldwell and Terry Orr, two Washington reserves, wrestled it away from him.
Reeves: "We actually came out (of the pileup) with the ball, yet they replayed it and ended up giving them the ball. The official who came over couldn't tell me why they overturned it. ... It didn't make any sense."
Coach Peccatiello: "Up in the press box, it was obvious that Denver recovered. I was just s---ting. But a scrum evolved. The officials are picking guys off the ball. We took the ball away somehow. I think Ravin Caldwell went in there and stole the ball out of somebody's arms. If they get that play, I think we lose the game."
Coach Gibbs said later "I didn't know if we could have overcome 17-0. It was a crucial recovery for us."
LB Karl Mecklenburg nailed Smith for a loss of four. Then DE Rulon Jones tackled Kelvin Bryant for -2y. On 3rd-and-16, Williams fired to WR Art Monk wide open on the 30, and the eight-year veteran sped to midfield for a gain of 40.
Williams pointed to the completion to Monk as a turning point in the game. "It got us out of terrible field position and got our passing game going. Before that, our receivers had been nervous and were dropping the ball."
was asked afterward if he considered lifting Williams in favor of Schroeder?
"No, my concern was with the dropped passes. My real concern was on defense, with Elway so hot. I was afraid he'd keep putting points up on us."
Sanders took a reverse to the right and was looking to throw. With CB Mark Haynes blanketing Clark, Sanders salvaged a 4y gain out of the play. Two incompletions brought Cox out for his third punt of the quarter, a 35-yarder that Clark returned to the 28.

L: Williams passes. R: Art Monk catches a first quarter pass.
Gibbs was asked afterward if he considered lifting Williams in favor of Schroeder?
"No, my concern was with the dropped passes. My real concern was on defense, with Elway so hot. I was afraid he'd keep putting points up on us."
Denver continued their momentum, making first downs on their first two snaps. Under center for a change, Elway handed to Gene Lang twice for gains of 11 and 13 to the Washington 48. After overthrowing Nattiel, John flipped a shovel pass to Sewell that gained 18 to the 30. Following two more overthrows, the desperate Redskins defenders got a big play as S Alvin Walton ran across the formation from right to left and looped into the backfield to sack Elway for a loss of 18 to move the ball out of field goal range. So P Mike Horan came in for the first time and punted out of bounds on the 16.

L: Alvin Walton sacks Elway; R: Williams drops back.
Washington's possession started promisingly with Sanders taking a quick pass for nine and Smith zipping through left tackle for 25y to midfield. But hold the phone. TE Don Warren was called for holding to put the ball back on the 15. Following another drop, this one by Sanders, Williams found Bryant over the middle for a first down at the 35. But that good play was followed by a bad one, Jones sacking Williams for a loss of 10. To compound the misery, Doug lost his footing as he went back to pass and fell awkwardly as Jones arrived. Jay Schroeder warmed up hurriedly on the sideline and came in on the next play when Williams limped off. "I didn't know if I would be able to play another down."
It was Mecklenburg's turn to get another sack for a loss of eight. On 3rd-and-28, the comedy of errors continued when Bryant caught the dropsy disease. So Cox used his weary right leg for the fourth time in the period.
Concerned about his inept offense, Gibbs walked over to the Hogs when they came off the field. "What's going on up front?" he asked.
The Redskins had prepared for Denver's relatively basic 3-4 defense they had employed all season. But they had installed a new 46-style defense with several stunts designed to flummox Washington's offense.
C Jeff Bostic grabbed a dry-erase board, sketched out Denver's new alignment against the Redskins' formation, and waited for Joe's response. Already renowned for his on-the-fly thinking and second-half adjustments, Joe pondered awhile and said, "Here's what we're going to do. When we get the ball back, we're going to run a hitch, get some momentum. Then we're going to run the 40/50 Gut ... after we finish running the Gut, we'll run the counter and ball 'em up inside."
Nearby, Williams talked with doctors, tried to put weight on his sore leg, then lightly jogged and jumped around. Assistant offensive coach Jerry Rhome called down from the press box to check on his quarterback. "Jerry, they'd have to cut off both legs for me not to go back out there," vowed Doug.
He had a personal reason for returning to the game."I wouldn't have cared who the backup was that day, I wanted to finish the game," Williams recalled. "But if I could not have finished the game, I certainly would have preferred (third-string QB Mark Rypien) going in if it had come down to that. Because the year before, we played the Giants for the NFC Championship Game, Schroeder had gotten hit hard, knocked woozy, barely getting off the ground. ... Schroeder waved me off. It was an embarrassing time for me ... and I never forgot it."

The Redskins managed to pack more misery for themselves into the final minute. From his 44 after the punt, Elway threw an incompletion, but LB Neal Olkewicz was called for roughing the passer. Winder ran up the middle for no gain as the quarter mercifully ended for the Redskins. Broncos 10 Redskins 0

Washington defense swarms Sammy Winder.
First quarter stats
First Downs: Broncos 7 Redskins 3
Rushing Yards: Broncos 24 Redskins 3
Passing Yards: Broncos 118 Redskins 60
Time of Possession: Broncos 5:29 Redskins 9:31
Washington T Joe Jacoby said, "I think we were pressing. We were too tight in the first quarter."

Quarter 2

The Redskins could do nothing right in the first quarter. In the second period, they could do nothing wrong.
Continuing to take a deep drop, Elway threw incomplete to Nattiel. Thus began the quarter with the biggest offensive explosion in Super Bowl history. Mann's sack of Elway on the next play was negated by an offside penalty. John then flipped a shovel pass to RB Tony Boddie, who dropped it. So Horan punted into the end zone.
Doug said after the game, "I felt if I could walk I could set up. No matter what the pain was."
Gibbs had no hesitation. "As soon as we got the ball back, Doug was going back in." According to Williams, Joe told his quarterback, "Just get in there. We're going to get this sucker running."
Denver LB Karl Mecklenburg: "We took a lot of pride in our defense that year. We were aggressive, closing to the ball quickly, gang tackling. We were really proud of our defense...and then the second quarter started and everyone got a little dizzy."
Look out, Broncos. The roof is about to fall on you.
Fortified by painkillers, Williams returned to action after his injury was diagnosed as a hyper-flexed left knee. Before Doug took the field, assistant head coach Joe Bugel, following Gibbs's new game plan, told Doug, "How about Charlie Hitch?" It was a conservative call, a 5y out pattern to Sanders. But as Ricky lined up, he noticed CB Haynes moving directly in front of him. "Here comes a bump," Sanders figured. Seeing the press coverage that Sanders saw, Williams changed the play at the line of scrimmage. Instead of a short hitch, he would throw a deep fade to Sanders. So he yelled the audible "Charlie 10" and gave Sanders a subtle head-nod. Williams faded to pass, planted on his gimpy right knee, and threw effortlessly toward Sanders streaking down the right side past Haynes. "It hung there for me so pretty, just waiting to be plucked from the sky," Ricky said. He took the ball in stride at midfield and ran untouched into the end zone. Just like that, Washington exceeded its total yardage in the entire first quarter by 20, and the 80y touchdown matched the longest completion in Super Bowl history. Ali Haji-Sheikh converted. Broncos 10 Redskins 7 (14:07)

Ricky Sanders scores Redskins' first touchdown as CB Mark Haynes (36) and S Tony Lilly (22) lag behind.
Sanders said, "Haynes came up and hit me in the chest, but I slipped him."
said afterward that the 80y touchdown pass to Sanders "was the turning point of the whole football game"
Gibbs agreed. "You could see us come alive on the sideline. It was like a fire starting."
Sanders revealed something after the game that partly explained Washington's second quarter resurgence. The new turf installed on the field for the Super Bowl was slippery, possibly from being watered too much or too recently. "I was slipping all over the place," said Sanders. "I just couldn't get my footing. I couldn't get upfield like I wanted to." So he switched to longer cleats, as did a number of other Redskins, some after pregame warm-ups and some during the game. Sanders caught zero passes before the cleat change and nine after it.
DE Charles Mann said he found more traction to pursue Elway with the longer cleats. "The field was young grass, and it was very low-cut. It was fine in the pregame, but I was slipping and sliding like crazy once the game began. You need traction when Elway's out there. He'd give a little head fake, and I'd slip and fall down."
Timmy Smith also changed shoes. "I went out to the field, and it seemed kind of loose. I had to go with taller cleats."
Williams wore molded shoes, which didn't have screw-on cleats. And the shoes may have kept him from injuring his knee even worse when he slipped in the first quarter since longer cleats would have stayed in the turf better, causing a worse wrenching of his knee and keeping him more upright when Rulon Jones smashed into him.
With RDE Dexter Manley dominating Denver LT Dave Studdard to put pressure on Elway, Denver went three-and-out. Starting from his 36 after the punt, Williams called two plays that featured TE Don Warren. First, Warren took a pass over the middle for 9y. Then the 240lb nine-year veteran lined up in the backfield like a fullback and helped open a hole for Smith up the middle for 19y to the Denver 36. A 1y run by Smith that gave him more yards in the postseason than he had gained in the regular season and an 8y carry by Bryant made it 3rd-and-one on the 27. Let Williams tell what happened next. "They brought the linebacker, and I should have thrown to the tailback in the flat. But because they were blitzing, it was man-on-man with their backs on our receivers. I made another automatic adjustment, and Gary Clark beat his guy crossing to the left. I threw the ball into the (front) corner and he dove for it just over the goal line and it was six points." Redskins 14 Broncos 10 (10:15)

L: Art Monk in motion before touchdown pass to Clark; R: Elway escapes Dexter Manley.
Sanders, who had made his reputation catching passes from Jim Kelly in the USFL, started the game because veteran Art Monk was still recovering from an injury. "We have quite a few guys on this team from the USFL who have made a big contribution. This is the best feeling I've ever had."
LB Jim Ryan: "I think that more than anything, I'll remember their second touchdown. We had a delayed blitz on, and I was the guy blitzing. I was oming clean. Then as soon as I get my hands on Williams, he gets that pass off. I don't know how, but he gets it off. Now that rttled me. Made me think. Maybe this thing is not going to go my way." Ryan also recalled, "I think after their first touchdown, we were still confident. The momentum was still on our side, and we were still ahead. But maybe the second one ... you could feel the snowball effect starting to happen."
Redskins CB Barry Wilburn said, "When Ricky Sanders got those seven points back, we knew we could come back and do it. That was probably the biggest play."
On media day the previous day, Timmy Smith had looked for someone to talk to. The rookie running back from Texas Tech didn't seem like much of a story. After all, he had gained just 126y in the regular season. "I spent most of the week just staring at people," recalled Smith. "I was proud just to be there, really. I couldn't blame media people for ignoring me. I hadn't done anything yet."
Needing to regain the momentum, Elway started with a shovel pass to Winder for 26y to the 46. After Winder gained another seven up the middle, NT Dave Butz deflected a pass. Stoddard was hurt on the play and helped to the sideline. Now backup Keith Kartz would have to deal with Manley on the left side, and the Broncos would have to keep a back in on pass plays to help block Manley. On 3rd-and-three, Elway escaped Manley's clutches and took off down the left side for 21y to the 26. But Denver hopes of regaining the lead died when Winder was stuffed at the line of scrimmage and two passes fell incomplete. To make matters worse, Rich Karlis hooked the 43y field goal try.
After Williams connected with Clark over the middle for 16y, lightning struck the Broncos again. Smith roared through the hole created by pulling LT Joe Jacoby and down the right sideline to pay dirt. Redskins 21 Broncos 10 (6:27)

Smith breaks loose from LB Jim Ryan (50) and DE Rulon Jones (75).
The touchdown run came on the Redskins' bread-and-butter "Counter Gap" play. LT Joe Jacoby and LG Raleigh McKenzie pull to the right to lead the blocking. But there was hardly anyone to block because the Redskins caught the Denver defense slanting in the wrong direction. "We knew going into the game there was a possibility (of some long runs)," said Jacoby, "because of the way their defense slants. If you catch them in the right slant, there's going to be a hole there."
Washington offensive line coach Joe Bugel said afterward, "We put Timmy in there because we needed someone who was a couple of steps faster than George (Rogers). We told him (Smith) about the start right after the opening kickoff. We didn't want the kid to have time to think about it so much he'd vomit before he left the locker room." Rogers' recurring groin pull was also a factor in the decision to start Smith.
Head coach Joe Gibbs added, "I felt they'd be going to shut down our inside running game. I thought with Timmy we'd be able to get outside early. George was our starter all season, but I went to him and said, 'I think I want to run outside early so I'm going to start Timmy.' It's something you decide late in the week. We expected to go back to George. When I saw how he was running, I wasn't dumb enough to take him out."
When told he would start in the tunnel just before the team took the field, Smith broke into a cold sweat. He tried to mentally review his plays, but his mind was blank. Seeing his consternation, Williams told him, "Hey, Timmy. This is my first Super Bowl. If you fuck it up, I'm gonna kick your ass!"
"That's when my plays started coming back to me," recalled Smith.
But Denver's misery was far from over. When three plays gained just 9y, Horan punted only 29y to the Washington 40.
After an incompletion, Williams found Sanders over the middle for 10y. Then Ricky went in motion to the left side and looped back into the wide-open middle. FS Tony Lilly was playing because the starter, Mike Harden, the team's best defensive back, broke his arm in a playoff game. Lilly came up because of the run fake, allowing Sanders to catch the pass behind him and speed untouched into the end zone. Redskins 28 Broncos 10 (3:42)
To make matters worse for Lilly, he suffered a badly bruised hip in the second quarter and was seen on crutches leaving the locker room after the game.
All four Washington touchdowns in the second quarter came on audibles.
Williams recalled: "You could tell that Denver was deflated. You could look at the players on the field or you could look across the field at Dan Reeves and his coaches and players, and you knew something was going across their minds about how ... they couldn't stop us. But even after four quick touchdowns, I still didn't think that anything special was happening. I just hoped we could get a big enough lead to keep Elway from coming back."
In hurry-up mode, Elway handed to Winder who gained 13 around left end to the 33. Following another overthrow, John tried to hit Nattiel at the left sideline, but CB Barry Wilburn leaped in front of the receiver to snag the ball and just get his feet inbounds at the 21. Surely the Redskins would just run out the clock, right? Not on your life. Smith's 1y run took the game to the two-minute warning. When play resumed, Timmy burst up the middle on another Counter Gap play for 43y to the Denver 35.
Smith breaks into the clear behind Joe Jacoby (66).
Following an incompletion, Williams connected with Sanders for 21y to the 14 and called Washington's first timeout. Then Doug went to Sanders again for seven. After Bryant lost a yard, Williams fired to TE Clint Didier in the end zone. Redskins 35 Broncos 10 (1:04)

Clint Didier receives touchdown pass and celebrates with teammates.
Didier was covered by backup SS Tyrone Braxton because starting SS Dennis Smith had been injured on the previous play. Braxton recalled: "I jogged in with some swagger. I was all hyped-up, like, Here I am, a rookie playing in the Super Bowl! I looked at the Washington huddle and Doug Williams looked at me. The look in his eye was, 'Ah, good. A rookie is in.' I told myself, If they come after me, I'll be ready. Something happened with our coverage, and Clint Didier, their tight end, was open in the end zone. Oh shoot. I ran over to him, but it was too late. Touchdown. I was the closest one there, but Clint wasn't actually my guy. To this day, nobody believes me."
Trying to salvage at least a field goal from the disastrous quarter, Elway passed to Lang for seven and shoveled to Sewell for 10 more. After Denver's final timeout, John hit Jackson for 23y to the Washington 36. But his next pass was intercepted, this time by CB Brian Davis.
Williams took a knee to end the most productive quarter in post-season history.
End of first half: Redskins 35 Broncos 10
A tale of two quarters for the Redskins:
First period: Four possessions, four punts
Second period: Five possessions covering just 5:47 in playing time, five touchdowns
"The bottom fell out," said Denver defensive coordinator Joe Collier. "We couldn't cover anybody. We couldn't stop the run."


Doug Williams calls signals.

Rick Dennison

Gary Clark

Steve Cox

Ricky Nattiel (84) celebrates his touchdown.

Rich Karlis

Ken Bell

Ravin Caldwell

Karl Mecklenburg

Gene Lang

Greg Kragen

Kevin Clark

Mark Jackson

Elway passes in the first quarter.

Sammy Winder

Dave Butz

Kelvin Bryant

Mark Haynes

Gene Lang

Alvin Walton

Mike Horan

Steve Sewell runs with pass.

Williams rares back.

Ricky Sanders on his way to the end zone for Washington's first touchdown.

Ali Haji-Sheikh

Dexter Manley

Joe Jacoby

Raleigh McKenzie

Joe Bugel

Tony Lilly

Barry Wilburn rejoices after his interception.

Tyrone Braxton

Brian Davis