Today in Sports History: January 31st

Don Beebe slaps the ball away from Leon Lett in Super Bowl XXVII. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Stringer)

1/31/1988 - Redskins dominate Broncos in Super Bowl

The Washington Redskins destroy the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXII. The Broncos got out to a 10-0 start, but Washington tallied 35 points on five touchdowns in a record-setting second quarter that blew the game wide open. When it was all said and done, the Redskins had trounced Denver, 42-10, and the game's MVP went to the man everyone had talked about for weeks and weeks: Doug Williams.

Williams tallied 340 passing yards, four touchdowns and, more significantly, was the first black quarterback to ever play in a Super Bowl. Now he was the first black quarterback to ever win a Super Bowl and the first to win the MVP. In the NFL, African-Americans regularly filled almost every spot on the football field. But at the quarterback position, the position filled by the face and leader of the team, this was not the case; of the 28 teams in the NFL, only three started a black quarterback in 1987.

''I don't think the Redskins brought me in to be the first black quarterback to be in the Super bowl,'' Williams, who had a root-canal less than 24 hours before the game, was quoted in the New York Times. ''They brought me in to be the quarterback of the Redskins.''

While Williams flourished in the big game setting, John Elway -- his quarterback counterpart, who many believed to be the best player in the game -- was dreadful, completing only five of 24 passes at one point and finishing with a touchdown and three interceptions. It was a performance that would dog him for the next decade, until he finally won it all.

Williams' feat was particularly impressive because he wasn't even the Redskins' starter at the beginning of the season. In the first game of the year, Jay Schroeder, the No. 1 quarterback on the depth chart, had separated his shoulder, allowing the 32-year-old Williams to take over. Williams had spent his first five seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and then migrated to the Oklahoma Outlaws of the USFL after the NFL gave up on him. And although Schroeder later came back and started most of the games, he was never healthy enough to displace Williams as the Redskins' postseason quarterback.

Williams won only five more games the rest of his career. He split time in 1988 with the Canadian-born Mark Rypien, and lost the job to him early in 1989. Rypien would help the 'Skins win a Super Bowl in 1992.

1/31/1993 - Lett's fumble highlights blowout

The Buffalo Bills play in their third consecutive Super Bowl, and for the third straight year they lose to a different team from the NFC East. In '91 they lost to the Giants, in '92 it was to the Redskins, and in Super Bowl XXVII the Bills went up against the Dallas Cowboys, who began their ascension as the team of the 90's. Dallas throttled the Bills, 52-17, and vindicated the new ownership that had replaced coach Tom Landry with Jimmy Johnson in 1989. Troy Aikman, the Cowboys' 26-year-old quarterback, completed 22 of 30 passes and threw for four touchdowns to come away with the MVP.

"Early on, the whole team was a little uptight," Aikman told the Associated Press. The Bills were the first team to score, and the Cowboys only led 14-7 after the first quarter. "I really had to talk myself into staying relaxed out there. This is the greatest feeling that I've ever had in my life and I wish every player could feel it."

Although their margin of victory was less than the 45-point crushing the 49ers dealt the Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV, the Cowboys still obliterated the Buffalo Bills, who had been the favorites coming into the game. Michael Irvin caught six passes for 114 yards and two touchdowns, while running back Emmitt Smith ran for 108 yards and a touchdown and became the first regular season rushing leader to win a Super Bowl.

The Bills turned it over a record nine times, and the Cowboys capitalized by scoring off five of them. Thurman Thomas came up small, producing only 19 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries, while quarterback Jim Kelly got hurt in the second quarter and was replaced by backup Frank Reich, who -- in Kelly's absence -- had led the team to their first two wins of the postseason, including a 32-point comeback over the Houston Oilers.

"It's a very humbling experience," said Reich, who completed 18 of 31 passes and threw for 194 yards, a touchdown and a pair of interceptions. "As happy as I felt after the Oiler comeback win, I feel that disappointed right now."

"We turned the ball over nine times," said Kelly, whose year ended when linebacker Ken Norton Jr. fell on his right knee -- the same knee that had kept him out of the first two games. "You can't beat a college team doing that."

Ironically, in game so dominated by the Dallas Cowboys, it was a miscue from the winning team that was the lasting image of Super Bowl XXVII. Late in the fourth quarter, with the game already decided, Cowboys defensive tackle Leon Lett recovered a fumble at the Dallas 35 and was all alone as he raced down the sideline for a potential record-setting touchdown. As he reached the 10-yard line, he slowed down and watched himself on the scoreboard, extending his arms and preparing to mimic Michael Irvin's celebration dance. But his slowdown allowed Bills receiver Don Beebe, who had been catching up to him the entire time, to reach out and slap the ball away just before he crossed into the end zone. The play was ruled a touchback, depriving Lett of a TD and the Cowboys from a Super Bowl record 59 points.

 (In his final NFL game, John Elway wins a Super Bowl, securing his legacy as one of the greatest ever. Photo by Al Bello/Allsport)

1/31/1999 - Broncos win back-to-back

John Elway adds a final accomplishment to his lauded NFL career as the Denver Broncos beat the Atlanta Falcons, 34-19, in Super Bowl XXXIII. At 38 years of age, Elway became the oldest Super Bowl MVP in history by completing 18 of 29 passes, throwing for 336 yards and a touchdown and also rushing for a TD. After repeated failures in the early half of his career, Elway finished his time in the NFL in style: winning back-to-back Super Bowls.

The predominant storyline coming in was whether or not it'd be Elway's last game, which it was. The other subplot of Super Bowl XXXIII was the animosity between Elway and Falcons coach Dan Reeves, who had previously coached him in Denver from 1983 to 1992. In 1993, when the Broncos fired Reeves, Elway had responded by saying, "These last three years have been hell. I know I would not have been back here if Dan Reeves had been here. It wasn't worth it to me. I didn't enjoy it. It wasn't any fun, and I got tired of working with him."

"Just tell him it wasn't exactly heaven for me either," Reeves had answered when he heard his comments. "One of these days I hope he grows up. Maybe he'll mature sometime."

In the end, it was Elway who got the last laugh.

As evidenced by the three games above, the Super Bowls in the 80's and 90's weren't exactly competitive, nor for that matter were the ones in the 60's and 70's. Twenty-four of the first thirty-three Super Bowls were decided by double-digits, and even the ones that weren't were hardly pulse-pounding classics; twenty- and thirty-point blowouts were common, so much so that of the first thirty-three Super Bowls, there were more games decided by twenty points (10) than were by a touchdown or less (8).

Thankfully, the games got significantly better when the calendar turned over to 2000. The next decade produced several close Super Bowls, with five of them considered among the greatest of all time (XXXIV, XXXVI, XXXVIII, XLII, XLIII).

Further reading:

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