SPORTS

The Canadian pack

Mark Rypien takes aim at the Super Bowl

JAMES DEACON January 27 1992
SPORTS

The Canadian pack

Mark Rypien takes aim at the Super Bowl

JAMES DEACON January 27 1992

The Canadian pack

SPORTS

Mark Rypien takes aim at the Super Bowl

A year after the beginning of the Gulf War, Washington is still using the Smart Bomb. It is currently deployed by Mark Rypien, the 29-year-old Canadian quarterback of the Washington Redskins, to penetrate opposition defences in Washington’s pursuit of its third Super Bowl championship in nine years. The Redskins’ coach, Joe Gibbs, calls Rypien the most intelligent quarterback he has ever worked with. And Washington’s backup quarterback, Jeff Rutledge, a 13-year veteran, says that he has never seen anyone throw the long bomb with the touch and accuracy of Rypien.

The most recent use of the Smart Bomb took place during the National Football Conference (NFC) championship game on Jan. 12 in Washington. In the third quarter, with his ground game stymied by the tenacious Detroit Lions, Rypien reared back and tossed a 45-yard pass that dropped with laser-like precision into the hands of fleet receiver Gary Clark in the end zone. Minutes later, Rypien deftly lofted a 21-yarder to Art Monk in the back comer of the end zone for another touchdown. With that 41-10 victory, Washington emphatically claimed its place in the Jan. 26 Super Bowl against the Buffalo Bills of the American Football Conference.

Super Bowl XXVI, which will be played in Minneapolis, may be the most eagerly anticipated championship game in National Football League history. Since the Redskins’ openingday 45-0 trouncing of the Lions last Sept. 1, football analysts have predicted that the Washington club, whose owner is Canadian-born Jack Kent Cooke (page 40), would be the one to beat in the NFC. Those same analysts also correctly predicted that the Bills would return to the Super Bowl after their final-second defeat last year against the New York Giants.

This year’s contest will match quarterback Jim Kelly, running back Thurman Thomas and the Bills’ explosive no-huddle offence against a Washington defence anchored by such all-stars as end Charles Mann, linebacker Wilber Marshall and comerback Darrell Green. Rypien and the relentless Redskin offence will face linebacker Cornelius Bennett and the attacking Buffalo defence. Those battles should provide a welcome change for fans who a year ago endured the studiously boring style of the Giants, who employed a punishing running game to beat the Bills.

By his playoff and regular-season performances, Rypien, a soft-spoken native of Calgary who grew up in Spokane, Wash., has emerged as one of the league’s best quarterbacks. “He’s a god here,” said Mohammed Elewonibi, a reserve tackle from Kamloops, B.C., who, with Rypien and defensive end Markus Koch, a native of Kitchener, Ont., make up the Canadian contingent of the Redskins. Added Elewonibi: “As far as this town is concerned, Ryp walks on water.”

It was not always like that. Rypien began the 1991 season vilified by Washington’s rabid and impatient fans for not being good enough. He became the Redskins’ full-time starting quarterback in 1989, and his first two seasons were, he acknowledged in a Maclean ’s interview last week, inconsistent. He would show great promise in some games, then stumble the next. His pre-season critics contended that two years at the helm of the Redskins was long enough for the six-foot, four-inch, 234-lb. quarterback to learn the intricacies of the position. Rypien endured the fans’ harsh judgment, and even agreed with the criticism. “It takes time to become an NFL quarterback,” Rypien said during the interview at the Redskins’ practice centre in Herndon, Va., outside Washington. “But, hey, it gets to the point where it’s put-upor-shut-up time.”

He put up. For one thing, Rypien held out in contract talks, demanding to be paid the $1.6 million a season that is the average for NFL quarterbacks. The Redskins initially refused, but ultimately agreed to a one-year deal that paid Rypien a base salary of $1.4 million this season. The implication, says Rypien, was that he had a year to produce, or find somewhere else to play. He may not have to look, after finishing the regular season rated second only to Steve Young of the San Francisco 49ers in the NFL’s statistical measurement of quarterback efficiency. Rypien completed 249 of 421 passes for 3,564 yards, 28 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions in leading the Redskins to a league-best 14-2 won-lost record. In the playoffs, he exercised a cool authority over the Redskins’ complicated offence in victories over the Atlanta Falcons (24-7) and Detroit.

By his birthright and his preference, Rypien’s emergence as an NFL star is unlikely. If he had stayed in Canada, he said, “I probably would have played hockey.” In Spokane, he took up baseball, basketball and, only reluctantly, football. “I played football because all the kids were doing it, and it was something to do,” he said. “But I hated it—the contact, getting hit, trying to hit somebody. It hurts. I was a wimp back then, a real skinny kid.”

An all-around athlete, Rypien was a point guard on his high school’s state championship basketball team in 1981, was scouted for the major-league baseball draft and was recruited by more than 100 U.S. colleges after being selected a high-school all-American in football. He chose to take a football scholarship and study physical education at Washington State University in Pullman, where the starting running back at the time was another Canadian import—Rueben Mayes, from North Battleford, Sask., who went on to star with the New Orleans Saints. Rypien did not start at quarterback until his junior year, but he was impressive enough to warrant a sixth-round selection by the Redskins in the 1986 draft of college players.

With the Redskins, Rypien became the thirdstring quarterback, and did not get to play a regular-season game until the 1988 season. Jay Schroeder, upset at having lost his first-string quarterback position to Doug Williams, had been traded to the Los Angeles Raiders. Then, four games into the season, Williams had an emergency appendectomy. Rypien, thrust into the pivotal role, proceeded to astonish his coaches, teammates and himself by completing 70 of 116 passes (60.3 per cent) for 1,075 yards and 12 touchdowns in the first four games he started. In the league’s statistical ratings, the unheralded Rypien was suddenly the No. 1 quarterback.

It did not last long. He suffered a shoulder injury in his fourth game and did not reclaim the starting position until the next season. He was selected to play in the Pro Bowl all-star game that year, but many fans still booed him at Washington’s Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium when he made bad plays. “For a while there, I got the fumbles,” he said. “I would try to hang on to the ball, try to make that extra play. Or I would throw an interception.” There were more boos in 1990 when, hampered by an injury to his left knee, his performance sagged. “People get a first impression of you and figure that you will never get it done,” he said. “But I learned, and was patient.”

Despite this season’s success, Rypien downplays his own performance. He points to the quality of his offensive line and its blocking ability, which enables the running game to flourish while protecting him from opposing pass-rushers. He credits members of the coaching staff for their preparation of the players and the game plans. And he praises owner Cooke for giving the team the financial resources to acquire the players and equipment needed to help it win. Cooke attends practices at least once a week, Rypien says, adding: “He’s a guy who wants this team to win.”

Although Rypien has spent 24 years in the United States, he says that he has never considered giving up his Canadian citizenship. “That’s where I’m from,” he says. “Why would I want to give up my heritage?” Rypien recalls that he used to fish for trout in the Elk River in southeastern British Columbia every year with his father, who died of a heart attack four years ago at age 52. Now, Rypien takes his wife, Annette, and his two daughters, Ambre, 3, and Angela, 1, to the Elk.“It’s beautiful there,” he said. “They love it.”

Regardless of the Super Bowl’s outcome, Rypien says that he will remember this as the year he came of age as an NFL quarterback. “I’m excited about where I’m at, what I’ve done and where I am going to go,” he said. But he added that he knows that, in the fickle world of football, a player is only as good as his last game. And that matters even more when the game in question happens to be the Super Bowl.

JAMES DEACON in Herndon

JAMES DEACON