SAN DIEGO — For John Elway, it was like a science-fiction trip back to Stanford. This was a pro club beating a college-caliber club. This was the way the old Baltimore Colts, favored by 18, were supposed to trample on Joe Namath in Super Bowl III.
With Doug Williams at quarterback Sunday, the Washington Redskins were probably the best-balanced group in Super Bowl history--the best passing team that could also run the ball with great distinction and play defense awesomely.
They were in any case the most lethal all-around football team since the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s.
En route to a surprisingly easy, 42-10, win over the Denver Broncos, the Redskins first had to take Elway out of the game, which they did before the end of the first quarter, though he led at that point, 10-0.
Could Williams rally his jittery teammates? This was Williams' first National Football League championship game--his first start under all this pressure. From his first minute in this stadium, he had played nearly flawless football--but the rest of the Redskins hadn't. Would he join them or pick them up?
With breathtaking suddenness, Williams picked them up, throwing four touchdown passes in the second quarter to make it another Super Bowl rout.
Elway, the one-man Denver team, may have been the best football player on the field--but he wasn't the better team. His ability was irrelevant. He had too many college players around him.
The extraordinary balance of the Redskins includes the talent in their front office, headed by General Manager Bobby Beathard, and on their coaching staff, headed by Joe Gibbs.
When the Redskins lost Joe Theismann at quarterback, Beathard imported Jay Schroeder, and when Schroeder couldn't quite do it, Beathard found Williams.
When John Riggins retired, Beathard brought in George Rogers at fullback, and then Kelvin Bryant, and when they couldn't quite do it, Beathard found Timmy Smith in the fifth round last spring.
In the period that the Redskins have located two above-average quarterbacks, the Raiders, among many others, have been unable to locate even one. The Raiders passed on both Schroeder and Williams.
And, among many others, the Broncos--who needed him desperately--passed on Timmy Smith.
Beathard makes a study of the United States Football League, he makes a study of free agents, he looks for help under bushes and barrels and rocks.
Then Gibbs takes Beathard's raw talent and coaches it into a powerhouse.
With smart coaching, Williams is a quarterback who can do it all. He had proved this two weeks ago in the National Conference title game against the Minnesota Vikings, when many fans wondered why Gibbs didn't pull him in the second quarter, or the third.
What most fans overlooked was an obvious fact: Williams was throwing the ball straight against Minnesota; it was his receivers who were misplaying it.
They misplayed it again in San Diego, to begin with, when Williams kept plugging away, hitting Art Monk with a timely pass for a first down on third and 16, finding a third target when he had to, or a fourth, throwing soft and straight when he had to, bombing the Broncos when he could.
So this was Williams' second straight big game in a series of big games for the Redskins--a series in which, as a football team, they have been clearly on the come. It was in the Super Bowl that they arrived.
Under Gibbs, in other words, the Redskins peaked at just the right time, always the mark of good coaching.
In Timmy Smith, a new Redskin running star emerged in this game. But the offensive system was already in place for him. What Smith did was make the system work as Riggins never did with his famous straight-ahead force.
The Redskin running attack is basically a two-play system. The Redskins have a power play that is straight out of single-wing football, with a blocker or two leading the runner into the hole. And they have a counter play.
Smith made most of his yardage on counters--taking a step one way, then hitting back into the off-side hole behind a tight end playing fullback and pulling guard Raleigh McKenzie.
It succeeded for two reasons: The Redskins run it with as much power as they do their power play, and they were running it against a very small defensive team.
The Broncos had to react quickly to Washington's power or be run over. Then when Smith slanted back on counter runs, they couldn't handle him.
On his 58-yard touchdown trip, Smith breezed through a Denver defense whose front seven individuals that time were slanting hard to Washington's left side as Smith changed direction on a counter play and streaked right.
A small defensive team can't routinely play head up against an offensive line as massive as the Redskins'. It has to slant much of the time. The Redskins, ready for this, beat Denver's stunts, tricks and slants with ease--not entirely because they were the larger team but because they were just as smart as a famously smart opponent.