SAN DIEGO — Barry Wilburn knew it was not his fault. At least, not all his fault.
But there he was, on the heels of Denver's Ricky Nattiel as he was racing into the end zone to complete a 56-yard scoring pass from John Elway on the Broncos' first play from scrimmage.
If San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium had a carpeted surface, Wilburn would probably have felt like crawling under it.
You see, a trailing defensive back is assumed to be a guilty party. A crowd of 73,302 and the eyes of the world saw Elway and Nattiel seemingly make toast of Mr. Wilburn.
"Aha," they would conclude, "Elway's gonna pick on Wilburn and stay away from Darrell Green on the other side."
Green, after all, was the Redskins' Pro Bowl cornerback.
And Green knew what the situation had been. The Redskins were in a zone. Wilburn should have had help from somewhere.
"They caught us asleep," Wilburn said. "It was a great call. We were in a zone and I kind of relaxed. If we had been in a man(-to-man coverge), I would have been up."
It would seem there is too much security in a zone defense, too much of a feeling that . . . help will come from somewhere.
And this was such an embarrassing way to start. There had been so much ballyhoo about this Elway character. And there he was, in the Redskins' faces on that very first play. More precisely, in Wilburn's red face.
"Darrell Green came over and told me cornerbacks have to bounce back," Wilburn said. "That's the sign of a good cornerback."
And Barry Wilburn, for all of the publicity and accolades tossed at Green, is a very good cornerback. Green may be going to the Pro Bowl, but Wilburn led the Redskins with nine interceptions.
In this game, Wilburn would make his mark. He would more than atone for that opening mistake that did not really belong to him.
Back in man-to-man coverage, he found comfort.
"We usually play man-to-man 85% to 90% of the time," Wilburn said. "We just cover the receivers and hope the line puts some pressure on the quarterback."
Denver and Elway were really starting to feel the pressure in the second quarter. That opening hurrah almost seemed like a last hurrah.
Washington had reversed a 10-0 deficit and had raced to a 28-10 lead. Elway needed to get something on the scoreboard before halftime. But Miracle was his middle name, right?
Elway dropped back from his 40, looking for Nattiel on a streak down the right sideline. Wilburn was there, this time in man-to-man coverage. No help was coming, and he didn't need it.
"We both went up for it," Wilburn said, "and I got it."
Given possession on their 21, the Redskins scored again before halftime. This was a twist of fate that seemed to seal the Broncos' doom.
And yet Wilburn wasn't done. He stopped Denver's first drive of the second half with another interception.
"I don't know if it was overthrown or underthrown," he said. "It was coming right to me, so I went up and caught it."
Easy. Piece of cake. Just don't make Barry Wilburn stand back there in a zone. Makes him sleepy. Even in a Super Bowl.