How would you like to be Denver Broncos coach Dan Reeves, who has to draw up a Super Bowl game plan that takes into account not only the likes of Dexter Manley and Doug Williams, but also a collection of numbers so far down on the Washington Redskins roster that you need a shovel to reach them? Who were those obscure Redskins defenders who raised such hell with the Minnesota Vikings and beat them 17-10 in Sunday's NFC Championship game? Where did they come from?
From the far end of the Washington bench, that's where. Skins defensive coach Richie Petitbon sent in the no-names in waves and gave them a game plan that was wild and unorthodox. "Oh, we used the whole package today," said Washington middle linebacker Neal Olkewicz. "Safeties coming in and playing linebacker, five-man fronts, four-man, three-man sets with four linebackers, we did it all. We blitzed more than we have all year."
Said Viking quarterback Wade Wilson, "I was facing a bunch of guys I'd never seen." One of them was rookie safety Clarence Vaughn, who barely got enough playing time for his varsity letter this season. On Sunday he took over as the regular nickelback and made some big plays, including a sack and a couple of hits that turned receptions into drops. Another was Ravin Caldwell, a linebacker who spent 1986 on injured reserve and who hurt himself again this season when he made a tackle in the preseason without his helmet. Caldwell got a sack against Minnesota, plus a few hurries. Kurt Gouveia, another backup linebacker, was also injured for all of '86 and got minimal playing time this season. He had a sack on Sunday, too.
But at the end, when Minnesota had the ball on the Skins' six and a shot at tying the game, All-Pro Darrell Green, the cornerback with the sore ribs and breathtaking speed, saved the day. On fourth-and-four, Wilson tried a curl pass to halfback Darrin Nelson, whose route took him just short of the goal line. Nelson dropped the ball as Green made the hit. It was a bang-bang play, and it ended a game that wasn't very artistic, but certainly was unusual.
The Redskins had one fewer sack (eight) than their quarterback, Williams, had completions. The Skins put together only two real drives all day. They ran off six straight three-and-out series in the second half, and for the first time, Williams, who ended up completing nine of 26 passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns, heard boos from the RFK Stadium crowd. But the offensive line contained the Vikings' big pass rushers, Chris Doleman and Keith Millard, and Williams was never sacked.
Moreover, the Washington pass rush refused to give Wilson time to go deep. As a result, Anthony Carter, who had set a postseason record with 227 pass-catching yards against the San Francisco 49ers the week before, was not the weapon Minnesota hoped he would be. He was covered by Green, who wasn't fully recovered from the painful rib-cartilage injury he had suffered the previous week while making an extraordinary 52-yard TD punt return against the Chicago Bears. Bending over was a problem. So was straightening up. And running 50 yards to stay with a burner like Carter? Well, the Skins would have to see. Green took a pregame shot of a painkiller and lined up against Carter, man-for-man. Washington's defensive scheme called for Green to cover the MDR (Most Dangerous Receiver) wherever he was on the field.
Partly because of Green's courageous coverage and the pressure on Wilson, the Vikings went deep to Carter only once, late in the third quarter, and the pass was incomplete. Carter caught seven passes, but for only 85 yards. The Redskins' all-out defensive scheme was not the only reason he wasn't more effective. Minnesota had chosen an ultraconservative offensive design as well.
In the old days, when Jerry Burns was the Vikes' offensive coordinator, they ran one of the most imaginative attacks in the business. Option plays, inside reverses, three-back sets, power-I alignments, no-back alignments—you name it, they did it. For a few years Minnesota battled the San Diego Chargers for the honor of passingest team in the NFL.
But, when Burns became the Vikings' head coach last season, he turned the offense over to Bob Schnelker, and it fell more into line with traditional NFL thinking, particularly in short-yardage situations. The Vikes became predictable. In a late-season loss to the Bears, for instance, Minnesota was stopped four times on goal-line running plays and then three more times when it tried to kill the clock with runs. One first down, one dink pass, and the Vikes would have won, but they went traditional and lost.
The same kind of thinking haunted them again on Sunday. They had third-and-one on the Skins' 33 on their first possession. Washington's pass rush hadn't gotten nasty yet. Wilson was making yards on his scrambles. But the drive ended when D.J. Dozier tried to go off-tackle and was stuffed for a two-yard loss. As we shall see, Minnesota would later make a similar mistake in a much costlier situation.
Immediately thereafter, Washington drove 98 yards for the game's first score, 49 of those yards coming on runs. Minnesota plays a four-man line, but it uses an odd front in which one tackle, Henry Thomas, lines up over the center. The alignment creates a soft, or weak, side, and that's the side the Redskins attacked. When the Vikes compensated by shifting their line just before the snap, the Skins ran the other way. Washington then burned the Vikings with a 28-yard end around by Ricky Sanders. Williams completed the drive with a 42-yard touchdown throw to running back Kelvin Bryant.
It was at this point that Petitbon began to insert his no-names, inexperienced people who might get burned but could create havoc. Vaughn, the nickel-back, had been an eighth-round draft choice out of Northern Illinois. "He was a fly-around-the-field type of guy," says general manager Bobby Beathard, "a guy with exceptional speed [4.45] who made tackles all over the place."
Caldwell, a fifth-rounder in '86 out of Arkansas, came in for left linebacker Mel Kaufman on passing downs. In the opening preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, he had his helmet stripped away on a kickoff, but he made the tackle anyway. When he regained consciousness, he learned he had also forced a fumble. Gouveia, a linebacker at Brigham Young, was an eighth-round pick in 1986 and a spot replacement at times this season.
With its infusion of new blood, the defense intensified its rush. Dave Butz, the 37-year-old tackle, got two sacks and knocked down a pass. The ends, Manley and Charles Mann, combined for two sacks. The linebackers penetrated and jammed the lanes, leaving Wilson, a deft scrambler, no escape. The weakness in this scheme was that the cornerbacks were left in single coverage.
"During the week they told us, 'Work on your techniques. You're going to have to cover your guy by yourself,' " said the Redskins' right corner, Barry Wilburn. "So we were ready, especially for the deep passes. When they didn't throw long, we figured they were playing mind games with us, trying to lull us to sleep, and the deep stuff would come later. It never did."
The Vikings didn't generate any offense until late in the second quarter, when two plays got them a 7-7 tie. The first was a 36-yard pass to tight end Steve Jordan, who grabbed the ball away from Washington linebacker Monte Coleman. The Vikes then got the touchdown on a 23-yard pass to wideout Leo Lewis, who fed Wilburn an inside-outside move.
At halftime Minnesota adjusted its game plan. Wilson, who had been sacked six times, would now work off a short, three-step drop, instead of his normal five-to-seven steps. He would concentrate on inside crossing patterns or dump off passes to the backs. The idea was sound, but the execution was lousy. No one could hang on to the ball. Nine Vikings passes were dropped in the second half.
Williams, meanwhile, was having troubles of his own. When he wasn't missing his receivers, the Minnesota coverage was forcing him to throw the ball away. "No, I never thought of replacing him with Jay Schroeder," said Redskins coach Joe Gibbs later. "Doug knew what he was doing. He never lost his poise. When he had to throw the ball away, he did it. It might have looked bad from the stands, but there was a reason. When a quarterback comes off the field, you look at his eyes, and sometimes you see indecision or confusion. There was never anything I saw in Doug's eyes that made me worry."
The Vikings made the only first down of the third quarter, but the Redskins went ahead 10-7 by converting an interception into a 28-yard field goal. Then early in the fourth quarter the Vikes got two big plays from Carter: a 26-yard punt return and a 23-yard catch off an underneath crossing pattern that put Minnesota on the Washington 30. Six plays later the Vikings had a first-and-goal on the Skins' three. Minnesota brought in its goal-line offense and proceeded to repeat past failures.
Rick Fenney, the Vikings' 240-pound fullback, was held to two yards on two shots up the middle, and Dozier picked up nothing going over left tackle. So Minnesota kicked a chippie field goal to tie the game at 10-10. Who knows what would have happened if the Vikes had used a little imagination and scored a touchdown. Their defense, which was beginning to tire, might have sucked it up with a four-point lead and held. Instead the Redskins responded with their only drive of the second half, going 70 yards in eight plays for a touchdown. Wideout Gary Clark raced 43 yards with a hitch-and-go pass to set up his seven-yard scoring catch.
Minnesota got the ball back on its own 33 with 5:04 to play. Nine plays and five completions, all short stuff inside, took the Vikings to the Washington six, where they had second-and-four with 1:05 left. After two incompletions Minnesota faced fourth-and-four. Carter lined up on the left side, against Green, with Coleman defending inside. The play was 83-option. It called for Carter to take Green into the end zone and for Nelson to run a shallower pattern along the goal line. On the sidelines Gibbs knelt in prayer. Upstairs, Beathard was thinking, "We've got to win the coin toss in overtime. Let's get our best coin-toss caller in there." Anyway, that's what he said he was thinking.
Petitbon called for a zone defense, which was unusual in that situation. The book says to play man-to-man on the goal line. "When Carter lined up over me," Green said later, "I thought, 'This is Anthony Carter. They've got to come this way.' Carter tried to drive me deep in the end zone, away from the coverage on Nelson, but he didn't have enough real estate to work in. The ball came so quickly to Nelson that all I could do was react. I don't know whether he dropped it first or I knocked it loose."
Carter said he could have gotten open for a fade pass in the corner of the end zone. Wilson wasn't sure. Besides, his throw to Nelson could have worked. "The play was the right one," he said. "The ball was in Darrin's hands."
"I had it on my fingertips," Nelson said. "When it hit the ground I knew the game was over."
The Skins won with defense and depth. They alternated defensive tackles, making sure players like Butz, who played his finest game of the season, stayed fresh. They forced the Vikings out of their game plan and made Wilson change his style. The Redskins have won ugly all season, even when nothing seemed to be working. They did it again on Sunday in their biggest game of the season. Now they have only one to go.