Back in Time: Camp 91

If you asked 100 NFL coaches to make a list of they thought the major components to a successful season were, chances are that it wouldn't take very long before 99 of them came up with some variation of, "We need to have a preseason free of distractions, no holdouts. And, while winning preseason games isn't that important, we need to look sharp in those games."

Joe Gibbs certainly would have been counted among the vast majority here; in that respect, he was no different from any other head coach in the league. He was, however, different from the pack in that he was very adept at dealing with the distractions that were a part of life in the National Football League. Perhaps the ultimate disruption is an in-season work stoppage. There have been two such events in NFL history, in 1982 and again in 1987. Gibbs' Redskins won the Super Bowl both of those seasons.

Going into the 1991 season Gibbs' ability to deal with turmoil was again put to the test. While no strike was being threatened, not all of the players were present in training camp. Most notably, starting quarterback Mark Rypien was absent due to a contract dispute.

He missed ten days of camp before agreeing on a deal to report. Rypien wasn't a fan favorite before his holdout and his late arrival to camp in Carlisle, Pennsylvania did nothing to endear him to the spectators at Biddle Field. Every errant throw—and there were a lot of those as Rypien wasn't very sharp—drew boos from the stands, a sound almost never heard in camp.

The spectators weren't the only ones who expressed their displeasure with Rypien. A team official ripped Ryp to the Washington Post, saying that the quarterback was "in for a long year. This holdout was a terrible mistake. He has put all kinds of pressure on himself."

Rypien wasn't the only one whose ability was being questioned. There was a core of players who had spearheaded the team through its run of success, players such as Art Monk, Jeff Bostic, Joe Jacoby and Monte Coleman. Many observers wondered aloud about how much they had left in the tank.

One of those questioning the makeup of the team was owner Jack Kent Cooke. He challenged the makeup of Gibbs' team, even to the point of saying that he preferred the team that Jimmy Johnson had put together in Dallas. The coach assured the owner that he could win with the group that he had.

The team's performance on the field during the preseason did nothing to justify the coach's confidence. All phases of the game looked suspect as they were 1-2 going into the last preseason game against the New York Jets in Columbia, South Carolina. The exhibition should have been a final tune-up; instead, the performance was one of a unit that appeared to be in need of a major overhaul.

In particularly bad shape was the secondary. In three quarters of play, with most of each team's first units on the field, Jet quarterback Ken O'Brien completed 20 of 29 passes for 194 yards. Cornerback Martin Mayhew played so poorly he was benched in the second half.

Defensive coordinator Richie Petitbon was characteristically blunt, saying, "We're just terrible right now."

Rypien didn't have particularly bad numbers in his three quarters, but he did throw an interception that led to a New York field goal.

"I think this is the poorest we've played since my first year here," Gibbs said after the 13-9 loss. "It's just an across-the-board thing. We're not smooth in any area. I don't know what else to say. We've been like this for a couple of weeks now, and I'm not sure why."

Answers had to come quickly. In the hours after the game, the final cutdown had to be made. The team would open up against the Detroit Lions, who were practitioners of the Run-and-Shoot offense, a wide-open passing scheme that put pressure on the secondary, which just so happened to be the team's worst-performing unit.

Gibbs, as was his custom, fretted as he addressed the media in the days prior to the opener, lamenting everything from injuries to tough roster decisions to the poor preseason play. He did show a glint of optimism when he said, "Maybe we can bounce out of it. It's going to take a great effort every week, with us fighting our guts out. . . . Maybe that's the kind of year it's going to be."

Bounce out of it the Redskins did. A little over a week after their dreadful performance in South Carolina, they dominated the Lions 45-0. They never looked back, going 17-2 and winning Super Bowl XXVI. The MVP in that game? Mark Rypien, of course.

Rich Tandler is the author of Gut Check, The Complete History of Coach Joe Gibbs' Washington Redskins. For details on this unique book, visit

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