Super Bowl XXII will be the March of Dimes Super Bowl. Everybody will be asked to make a contribution. Situation substitution will prevail, creating all sorts of alignments and player combinations on both offense and defense. First-and-10, second-and-medium, third-and-long—the down and distance will determine the players who'll be on the field and the formation in which they'll be playing. Coaches love the ins and outs of situation substitution, or as they put it, "We like everybody to make a contribution." Now pass the hat, because this is one Super Bowl in which just about everyone will get to play.
Players you have never heard of will be assigned key roles. Neither the Denver Broncos nor the Washington Redskins come into the game with an aura of greatness. You can say that they're interesting teams. They were tough when they had to be, at times courageous, and they are certainly exciting. But great?
The New York Giants had an air of greatness about them as they entered last year's Super Bowl. Well, they at least had a great defense, which set the tone for the entire team. The Chicago Bears, who won Super Bowl XX, were a great club. The Pittsburgh Steelers fielded four great Super Bowl teams; the Green Bay Packers and Miami Dolphins had a couple each; and the Raiders had their share. Great teams have been upset in Super Bowls—the Baltimore Colts by the New York Jets, the Minnesota Vikings by the Kansas City Chiefs—but before the game, people are usually asking the same question: Who can lick the bully?
It's different this time. For one thing, this Super Bowl matches the team that tied for the NFL's third-best regular-season record (Washington) against the team that had the fourth-best (Denver). In the previous 12 Super Bowls, the team that had the best record or one that had tied for it was in the game. Often those teams didn't do much situation substituting—to wit, the Giants and Bears. But on Sunday in San Diego, you'll see myriad substitutions.
The brightest star going into the game is, of course, Denver quarterback John Elway. Let's look at what he will be working with. In addition to the standard two-wideout formation, the Broncos have a two-tight-end alignment and ones with three, four and even five wideouts. In the five-wideout setup Steve Sewell moves from halfback to wide receiver. Elway will throw to the Three Amigos—Vance Johnson, Mark Jackson and rookie Ricky Nattiel—as well as to Steve Watson.
Defensively, Washington will counter with—let's start up front and work back—a pair of tackles, Dave Butz and Darryl Grant, to stop the run (with Dean Hamel ready to spell either of them) and a pair, Markus Koch and Steve Hamilton, to stop the pass. Against the Vikings in the NFC Championship, all five tackles got serious playing time. At middle linebacker will be either Neal Olkewicz, a run stopper, or Rich Nilot, a pass defender. Then there's Ravin Caldwell, the blitz specialist who lined up all over the place and sometimes replaced Mel Kaufman, the left linebacker. Right linebacker Monte Coleman plays on every down.
Let's see, how many Washington defenders is that? I count 10, and we haven't even gotten to the secondary. The nickelback (or fifth defensive back) is usually the first defensive sub on the field. Three different people have manned the position for the Skins in the last three games, and each has been bigger than his predecessor.
The first was Dennis Woodberry, a slender cornerback. Then, in the playoff victory over the Bears, 190-pound Brian Davis, who intercepted a pass deep in Chicago territory to open the second half, took over. Woodberry also made his presence felt at nickelback with a late interception. In that game, left cornerback Darrell Green suffered a rib-cartilage injury, which, for a while, Washington thought might sideline him for the NFC Championship. The Redskins planned to replace him with Davis and play Woodberry at nickelback. But guess what? Neither Davis nor Wood-berry saw much action. Green played the entire game, and the new nickel man was 202-pound rookie Clarence Vaughn. A converted inside linebacker, Vaughn had a sack against Minnesota.
So what will Washington throw at Denver in San Diego? That remains a mystery. Defensive coach Richie Petitbon spent many years playing for George Allen, who is from the keep-'em-guessing school, so he isn't saying. "It's the old George Allen approach," says Denver coach Dan Reeves. "Present a constantly changing picture. I'm sure a lot of those new people they ran in against the Vikings, like Caldwell and Vaughn, were there to create confusion. When you're getting ready for a team, you base a lot on number recognition, and let's face it, some of those numbers are hard to recognize."
Petitbon employs many of Allen's techniques. He occasionally goes with a five-man line, which shifts to a three-man front; he puts constant pressure on the pocket; and he has a cornerback, in this case Green, cover the opposition's MDR (most dangerous receiver) all over the field. If he's 100% on Sunday, Johnson will be the Broncos' MDR.
Turn the teams around, put Washington on offense and Denver on defense, and you get a similar flow of substitution traffic. Quick now, who is Anthony Jones? O.K., he's a backup tight end who started for the Skins in the NFC title game—for blocking purposes. The pass-catching tight end is Clint Didier, who usually starts along with another tight end, Donnie Warren, in Washington's one-back offense. George Rogers is the tailback early in the game. Timmy Smith, who's smaller but zippier, relieves him. Kelvin Bryant is the pass-catching tailback. Like Denver the Redskins also will use formations with two, three and four wideouts, provided Art Monk's knee is healthy.
The Broncos counter in passing situations with all sorts of changes. Two defensive linemen, Greg Kragen and Andre Townsend, come out. One is spelled by Freddie Gilbert. Rulon Jones switches from end to tackle, and a pair of linebackers, Karl Mecklenburg and Michael Brooks, line up in down positions at the ends. Rick Dennison comes in as the only linebacker, and Jeremiah Castille and Randy Robbins, or maybe Tyrone Braxton or Bruce Plummer, join safeties Dennis Smith and Tony Lilly in the secondary. Confused?
So what's going to happen when all these formations and substitutes square off against one another? Elway proved in last year's AFC Championship game and Super Bowl that the greater the pressure, the better he performs. Everyone knows he's best at scrambling and buying time. He waits for one of the Amigos to pop free and then throws a bull's-eye on the run. Further, he's always a threat to take off downfield. One way to defend against that is to have a man shadow him wherever he goes. The Seattle Seahawks tried covering Elway with linebacker Brian Bosworth in the opening-day meeting between the two teams, but the rookie wasn't ready for such an arduous assignment, and Elway had a big day. The next time Seattle faced Denver, Bosworth contained Elway, and the Seahawks won.
The Skins have never gone for shadowing players, but in a big game you never know. They shut down another scrambler, Minnesota's Wade Wilson, by using a wild assortment of blitzes. Linebackers, safeties, the nickelback—they all came at Wilson, but they were sound enough to hold their lanes and shut off his escape routes. Petitbon threw another wrinkle at the Vikes, and it, too, proved effective. He put a linebacker over the offensive tackle and stationed right end Dexter Manley outside the tackle, which allowed Manley to take a wider than usual rush.
What Petitbon counted on—and he was right—was that the Vikings would have trouble picking up Washington's blitz schemes because the crowd noise in RFK Stadium would drown out Minnesota's offensive calls. That's why he gambled with blitzers like Caldwell and Vaughn. Petitbon got another bonus when Butz turned out to be too much for Viking guard Greg Koch and collapsed the pocket from the inside as well.
Super Bowl XXII fans won't do the Redskins' work for them. The noise factor should be negligible. And the Broncos have come up with a surprisingly effective right guard, former Bear Stefan Humphries, who should match up well against Butz. Look for Butz to line up over the center, Mike Freeman, who's quick but light (256 pounds), and for Washington to use an odd-front defense most of the day. The Skins will put heat on Elway, but he can create time himself. He'll try to go to his MDR, Johnson, who's especially dangerous in the four-receiver set, in which he goes in motion and then either turns upheld or continues across the field.
The Green-Johnson matchup should be one of the best of the day. Green is one of the NFL's best cornerbacks. He plays seven to 10 yards off the receiver and closes fast. He has gotten into trouble in bump-and-run coverage, but he's effective with a little cushion. Washington's other cornerback, Barry Wilburn, is just the opposite. He's bigger and more physical than Green, and bump-and-run is his forte. The closer the ball gets to the Redskins' end zone, the better he plays. Witness his 100-yard interception return in Washington's regular-season victory over Minnesota.
Behind this pair is one of the league's best safety tandems. The free safety, Todd Bowles, has done an excellent but unsung job covering for Wilburn's and Green's occasional gambles. Strong safety Alvin Walton is close to All-Pro level. Walton is an all-out player who can knock the ball loose in either run support or pass coverage.
The Broncos' rushing attack, which is of the trapping and influence variety, might annoy the Skins, but it won't win the game for Denver. Washington is very sturdy against the run. Not so Denver. Once upon a time the Broncos had the best short-yardage defense in the NFL, but this season, in nonstrike games, they were 20th in rushing TDs allowed. That's their worst ranking in the 19 years that Joe Collier has been handling the Denver defense.
So the Redskins will pound Denver on the ground, right? Nope. The Skins don't pound people anymore. That era ended with John Riggins. Excluding strike games, they have scored one fourth-quarter rushing TD this season. Washington is an average running team (12th in nonstrike games this season, 17th last season) with an average tailback, Rogers. Smith is quick, but he's a rookie and has yet to master the intricacies of the passing game, particularly picking up blitzers. Bryant is a pass-catcher, period.
Ricky Sanders or Monk, working out of the slot, could pose big problems for the Denver secondary. So could Gary Clark lined up outside. But the man who undoubtedly will feel the most pressure to perform will be Washington's Doug Williams. By game time he will have answered countless questions about how it feels to be the first black to quarterback a team in the Super Bowl.
Williams is tough, physically and emotionally. After all, he survived five seasons in Tampa Bay. He should have plenty of time to throw—if the Broncos rush by conventional means. The Skins' front wall, particularly guard Raleigh McKenzie, an emerging star, is a fine pass-protecting unit. And when Warren stays in to block, it is almost invulnerable. Collier, however, has been known to open games with unorthodox blitzes. For example, he threw a cornerback blitz at quarterback Bernie Kosar in the opening moments of the AFC Championship and got a turnover with it. That's the only way Denver will put pressure on Williams.
Williams is a streak thrower, and when he gets hot, few people can gobble up yards as quickly. How about this one: Tampa Bay versus Oakland in the Oakland Coliseum, Oct. 18, 1981. In the first half Williams completed just two of 10 passes for 10 yards, and the Bucs were losing 15-0. Then he caught fire, going 14 for 20 for 325 yards, and by the end he had moved Tampa Bay into chippie field goal range. But the kick was blocked, and the Raiders won 18-16.
"Did you see that guy, did you see what he did to us?" a shaken Al Davis said afterward. It could happen again. But the guess here is that Denver will win 38-31 in a shootout.
Elway (left), who's most dangerous when he is scrambling, can put points on the board in a hurry, as can the rifle-armed Williams.
[See caption above.]
Johnson, Denver's MDR, is no amigo of...
...Green's, though they'll be close Sunday.
DENVER BALL, FIRST-AND-10: Denver's 89 can come in for 33 and become a second tight end; the Skins' 51 is inside 72 so 72 has the outside lane to rush the passer.
DENVER BALL, LONG YARDAGE: The Broncos can create a five-wideout look by lining up 30 wide; 31, 34 and 46 have all started at nickelback for Washington of late.
WASHINGTON BALL, FIRST-AND-10: The Skins' 82 is mainly a blocker, while 86, who can line up as a third wideout, is a receiver; the Denver defense is suspect against the run.
WASHINGTON BALL, LONG YARDAGE: Washington's 24 is used almost exclusively as a pass receiver; on passing downs the Broncos may make switches at eight positions.
Manley could have a harder time reaching the passer than he did against the Vikings.
The Three Amigos plus Watson (above) give the Broncos a potent four-wideout attack.
INS AND OUTS OF THE SUBSTITUTION BOWL
82 Vance Johnson
70 Dave Studdard
54 Keith Bishop
62 Mike Freeman
79 Stefan Humphries
76 Ken Lanier
88 Clarence Kay
80 Mark Jackson
7 John Elway
23 Sammy Winder
33 Gene Lang
84 Ricky Nattiel
81 Steve Watson
30 Steve Sewell
89 Orson Mobley
72 Dexter Manley
77 Darryl Grant
65 Dave Butz
71 Charles Mann
51 Monte Coleman
52 Neal Olkewicz
55 Mel Kaufman
28 Darrell Green
45 Barry Wilburn
23 Todd Bowles
40 Alvin Walton
74 Markus Koch
64 Steve Hamilton
34 Brian Davis
31 C. Vaughn
46 D. Woodberry
84 Gary Clark
66 Joe Jacoby
63 Raleigh McKenzie
53 Jeff Bostic
69 RC Theilemann
73 Mark May
82 Anthony Jones
86 Clint Didier
83 Ricky Sanders
81 Art Monk
17 Doug Williams
85 Don Warren
38 George Rogers
36 Timmy Smith
89 Anthony Allen
24 Kelvin Bryant
75 Rulon Jones
71 Greg Kragen
61 Andre Townsend
50 Jim Ryan
98 Ricky Hunley
77 Karl Mecklenburg
73 Simon Fletcher
45 Steve Wilson
36 Mark Haynes
22 Tony Lilly
49 Dennis Smith
90 Freddie Gilbert
56 M. Brooks
28 J. Castille
55 Rick Dennison
48 R. Robbins