Gary Clark: A Look Back at How Redemption Fueled a Super Bowl Run

By: Tre Coleman & Marshall Wharam

In the storied history of the Washington Redskins there are numerous names that come to mind when fans begin reflecting on the glory days of the 1980’s and early 90’s. Joe Gibbs, Joe Theismann , Art Monk, John Riggins, Darrell Green, Dexter Manley, and The Hogs are some of the more prevalent to name a few. However, there is another name that is as widely respected despite not possessing the same level of acclaim or universal accolades as those mentioned; that would be Gary Clark.

Drafted by the Redskins in the 1984 supplemental draft out of nearby James Madison, Clark was a mercurial 5’9 fireplug that played the wide receiver position with a chip on his shoulder the size of Mount Everest. His temper at times could be as volatile as Mount Doom, matching the intensity he played the game with. As a wide receiver for the Redskins, Clark was a superior route runner and vertical deep threat who was as tough going over the middle as any player in the history of the game. Despite his size, he was routinely asked to make catches on slants, in-cuts, shallow crosses and other in-breaking routes; and he did so fearlessly without hesitation. Making a living between the hashes was an underrated aspect of Clark’s game. It was also supremely impressive given that he played in an era when defenders had free reign to blast receivers into the next area code with impunity once the ball was snapped. To fully appreciate the talent of Clark it is important to have a background on how he was utilized. From 1978 to 1985, Don Coryell changed offensive football forever with “Air Coryell” also known as the “Vertical Offense.” Joe Gibbs comes from the Coryell tree of coaches. The system was the first of its kind to make a defense defend the entire field. As a rule of thumb, most concepts required two WR’s stretching vertically. Known for attacking the deep and mid-range areas of the field, the Coryell offense also changed looks by constantly motioning WR’s, TE’s, and running backs to dictate coverages. This clever pass attack was married to a power running game. The Coryell offense was brought to DC, where Joe Gibbs mastered the single back formation. From this look and through motioning, Clark played the role of stretching the field and unlocking the potential of a unit that would go on to win two Super Bowls during his tenure.

During his time with the Redskins, Clark was the yin to Monk’s yang serving as the primary deep threat, clutch 3rd down chain-mover and match-up nightmare anytime he lined up in the slot. It could be argued that out of The Posse (Monk, Clark and fellow speedster Ricky Sanders) that Clark was the receiver that struck the most fear in the heart of opposing defensive backs and coaches due to his competitiveness and ability to consistently produce big plays. Clark’s exploits on the field did not go unnoticed by opposing coaches either. Legendary former New York Giants head coach Bill Parcells had this to say about Clark, “'Great quickness, good deep speed, catches the ball well.'' High praise from an opposing coach not known for giving many accolades throughout his Hall of Fame career. Having to face him twice a season, Parcells knew better than most of how effective Clark could be. However, he was not the only legendary coach who heaped praise on Clark. His protégé, and current multiple Super-Bowl winning New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who served as the Giants defensive coordinator under Parcells also recognized Clark’s talent. When asked by local New York media why Clark was so tough to defend, Belichick replied, ''Good quickness, deceptive speed, good anticipation of the ball, very tough to jam at the line.'' Despite the praise, many pundits attributed that much of Clark’s production was due to the attention that was paid to Monk and Sanders, which to some degree could be argued. Monk was the quintessential big bodied possession receiver that excelled at moving the chains and was the top option on critical downs. Clark understood the importance of Monk’s presence. ''He always gets double coverage,'' he said when asked about Monk, ''so I get single.'' Sanders was the prototypical deep threat that punished defenses vertically that focused too hard on Monk or Clark, and was as slippery and elusive as they come after the catch. The three receivers complemented each other well, with Clark serving as the jack of all trades, capable of running any route as well as blocking effectively in the running game. This alone is reason enough to believe that Clark would have stood out no matter where he played given his tremendous ball skills, ability to separate, toughness and passion. Monk was the Hall of Famer, but Clark may have been the key. Quietly, he was one of the game's best deep threats during an era when the Redskins were regularly competing for titles. A quick look at his numbers will provide some insight to his tremendous productivity.

In 167 games played Clark produced 699 catches for 10,856 yards and 65 touchdowns. His best season, which was the 1991 Super Bowl season, Clark caught 70 catches for 1,340 yards and 10 TDs. That's an astounding 19.14 yards per catch average. Clark was instrumental in the Super Bowl XXVI victory over the Buffalo Bills with 7 catches for 114 yards and a touchdown. Clark has been retired for 22 seasons and still ranks 46th in catches. He left an indelible mark on the game over his 11 year career. His yards per reception for his career put him in elite company. Clark (15.5ypr), Michael Irvin (15.9ypr), Randy Moss (15.6ypr). His 65.0 receiving yards per game put him on par with Steve Largent (65.4ypg), and James Lofton (60.1ypg). Clark only missed 9 games over his 11 year career. As a 5’9 receiver in late 80’s the early 90’s, this is very impressive. Especially considering the black and blue nature of the NFC East, a division known during that time for its ultra-physical nature. Let's take a look at two high profile receivers who came after Clark for comparison:

DeSean Jackson: 127 games, 498 catches, 8,819 yards, 46TDs.

Gary Clark: 167 games, 699 catches, 10,856 yards, 65TDs

Hines Ward: 217 games, 1,000 catches, 12,083 yards, 85TDs.

When taking into account the era Clark played in, he stacks up favorably to some of the game's best. He was the key that unlocked the deep element of the Gibbs’ version of Air Coryell. A dangerous vertical receiver, Clark’s ability to stretch the field played perfectly into the strengths of Monk. He was relentless as a wide receiver, often saving his best football for when it mattered most. Clark played in 14 playoff games as a Redskin and amassed 58 catches for 826 yards and 6 touchdowns in those contests. His impact went beyond the numbers, as there is no way to quantify how he changed coverages. It didn’t matter if he was singled, doubled or bracketed Clark somehow always found a way to get himself open at the most critical junctures in the game. A trait that all great wide receivers possess. When asked about this he was candid, ''I don't have that good speed, but I can use quickness to get off the ball and I have a knack for finding open holes in a zone.'' That knack would prove to be of immeasurable value to the team during a pivotal moment in the 1991 season.

Despite being commended for his play from teammates and opponents, it wasn’t enough for Clark who was his own toughest critic. What he perceived as failures in big moments fueled his drive for greatness. It began with a dropped deep pass on a day he was held without a catch in the 1986 NFC Championship Game against the Redskins NFC East rival the New York Giants. This moment would foreshadow future events that would turn the fortunes of the team in seasons to come. It was on that blustery day which produced winds that swirled with the force of miniature hurricanes, Clark had one of the poorest performances of his career. He believed that the deep pass he had dropped from then Redskins quarterback Jay Schroeder could have turned the tide in a game that resulted in a 17-0 shutout.  When asked about whether he had put the drop behind him a few years later, Clark was blunt. “You can’t. You messed up. Plus the Giants fans kept reminding me.” Even though the Redskins had went on to win the Super Bowl in 1987, Clark’s disappointment in his performance against the Giants festered. Fast forward to the 1991 season, Week Nine against the hated Giants. Coming into that Sunday night game the Redskins had lost six straight to the Giants, something that was definitely not lost on Clark who like many, saw the game as important for the psyche and overall confidence of the team to exorcise past demons. The Giants had physically dominated the Redskins during that six game stretch, and that fact had left many fans wondering if the team could finally get over the hump and prove themselves as legitimate contenders. From the start of the game, it appeared to be more of the same. At the half the Giants had gained 207 yards while only allowing the Redskins 35 yards.  The Redskins appeared listless on offense and defense, while Clark dropped yet another would-be touchdown pass from Mark Rypien in the second quarter and couldn’t handle another in the third. ”Emotionally, it was devastating,” Clark said when asked about what was going through his mind after the drop. “I’ve gone through it before and there’s nothing anyone can say to you. You just curse yourself a little and go on.” When asked later by reporters if it reminded him of the ’86 title game he didn’t hold back. “Yeah, I thought of the ‘86 title game,” he said. “It was a similar pattern too, only that one was sort of a fade. But the wind was blowing and I was hurt. This time, the one in the first half, I had no excuse. The one in the second half, if I’d dropped that one, it would have been hard to go back to D.C. I would have had to file a change of address and everything.” Clark would go on to prove his resilience and atone for the earlier drops when it mattered most. Towards the end of the third quarter the offense and Clark would come alive, seemingly reinvigorated by the hard running of rookie running back Ricky Ervins who jumpstarted the ground game. With Ervins commanding attention on the ground, Clark’s found redemption as he served as the catalyst for the passing game. His sliding 7-yard touchdown reception from Rypien in the back of the endzone got the Redskins on the board and capped a 20 play 84 yard drive. The touchdown gave the team new life and galvanized the defense to produce another stop; which they did on the very next Giants drive, forcing them to punt.  With the Redskins defense putting the clamps on the Giants offense, Clark and the Redskins offense would serve up the knockout blow to their defense. After an incompletion by Rypien and a 2 yard loss for Ervins, the Redskins faced 3rd and 12. On the ensuing play Rypien rolled left and threw a deep pass to Clark down the right sideline, who juggled it on the 3 yard line momentarily before racing into the endzone. That score would prove to be the backbreaker for the Giants and gave the Redskins the lead for good. When Clark raced down the sideline past Giants cornerback Everson Walls for the tide-turning score, he also simultaneously outraced the demons that dogged him in New York in rout to one of the most important touchdown catches of his career.

The touchdown catch was not only important to Clark getting the monkey off his back for his performance in the 86’ championship game, but was also crucial in giving the team the confidence it needed moving forward. The win proved that the Redskins were a legitimate force and title contender to the rest of the NFL. Beating the Giants who had won six straight games against them demonstrated to the team and the rest of the league that they were more than capable of going toe to toe with the bullies of the division and coming out victorious. The resolve shown by Clark after a tough start in that game is symbolic of everything that made him the player he was known for while donning the burgundy and gold. Clark’s natural ability, mental and physical toughness came through in a time when most athletes would have checked out. It is a testament to his greatness that one of the smallest men possessed the biggest heart in a game full of giants. It is no coincidence the Redskins were Super Bowl champions in his All-Pro season, as he was the driving force. He is simply one of the best Redskins of all time. When you take a trip down memory lane, make sure you stop to appreciate Gary Clark.