There are certain plays that define a player’s career. Sometimes those plays go under-the-radar and you never hear a word about them from the media such as an offensive lineman laying a key block that sets up “70 Chip” or a special teams ace pinning back his ears and bedeviling a speedy return man for a negative return.
For others such as quarterback Robert Griffin III and Hall of Fame cornerback Darrell Green, each week seems/seemed to produce yet another iconic play or moment that will live on in franchise lore for eternity.
25 years ago in an NFC Divisional Game against the Chicago Bears, Green’s already growing status officially reached legendary with one punt return.
In the second round of the playoffs, the NFC East champion Washington Redskins met the NFC Central champion Chicago Bears in a matchup of 11-4 teams. The winner of the game would face the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game after they knocked off the San Francisco 49ers the night before.
Both teams featured top-10 offenses and top-10 defenses, making the thought of predicting the score nearly impossible. Instead of a Goliath vs. Goliath matchup on either side of the ball, the game came down to a special teams play in the third quarter.
During the regular season, Green had returned only five punts. With an expanded role on the defense, head coach Joe Gibbs didn’t want to put his best player in a return role, increasing his risk of injury.
In the playoffs however, win or go home breeds on-the-fly coaching decisions. Sometimes they work exactly as crafted and other times they go horribly wrong.
In the third quarter of 14-14 game, Gibbs decided to call on the NFL’s fastest man to return a punt.
Gibbs’ choice to have Green line up deep worked out—sort of.
Here’s an excerpt from Redskins Historian Mike Richman’s The Redskins Encyclopedia about what was going through the mind of both Gibbs and Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka before and during the play:
“You put him back there, and he gets hurt, now you lose your top cover guy,” Gibbs said in looking back. “But when we got to the playoffs, particularly that year, we said if it was a crucial part of the game, we’d put Darrell back there and run the risk.”
“Ditka remembers challenging his punter, Tommy Barnhardt, to kick it to Green despite his athleticism. “I was probably stupid enough to do that,” Ditka said. “You have an ego and you trust your team so much and say ‘We can stop that guy.’ We probably should have punted away from Green, but we didn’t. Every game is made by one or two plays. He made a play that made that game.”
The rest of course is history, as Green eluded several Bears and within a few ultra-fast steps cleared traffic and raced towards the end zone. Halfway there, he started holding his rib cage–an iconic image that will forever live in NFL history.
No he wasn’t celebrating—he was never that type. He was holding his side due to sprained rib cartilage.
And I thought typing through a paper cut was tough.
CHIME IN: Do you remember the moment? If so, tell us what was running through your head during the return.
Tags: Chicago Bears, darrell green, Robert Griffin III
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