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Free-Fall from the Top
Jill Lieber
January 28, 1991
It has been only three years since Dong Williams (left) and Timmy Smith shone in Super Bowl XXII for the Redskins, and already their NFL careers seem long over
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January 28, 1991

Free-fall From The Top

It has been only three years since Dong Williams (left) and Timmy Smith shone in Super Bowl XXII for the Redskins, and already their NFL careers seem long over

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Last February, the Redskins left Williams unprotected during the Plan B free-agent signing period, but with his $1.2 million salary, brittle knees and questionable back, no other team expressed an interest in signing him. On March 30, Gibbs told Williams the Redskins were placing him on waivers, preferring to go with their young quarterbacks, Rypien and Stan Humphries, a 1988 sixth-round pick. Soon after, the team signed 33-year-old backup quarterback Jeff Rutledge, a Plan B free agent who had been left unprotected by the New York Giants. Williams, who is 17 months older than Rutledge, was devastated. And 10 months after his release, he is still upset about how the Redskins treated him.

"Joe lied to me," Williams says. "Don't tell me you're going with a youth movement and sign Rutledge. Don't tell me you can't bear to see me as a backup. I have no problem with Rypien and Humphries. I came in as a backup [to Jay Schroeder]."

The Redskins had serious doubts that Williams could have accepted a backup role. In addition, Gibbs expressed concern about Williams's health. But Williams says, "Joe has a short memory. When he says it has to do with my back, he forgets that he played me eight weeks after back surgery. He didn't worry about my health at that point."

In truth, Williams no longer could play without suffering severe lower back pain. In April, the Los Angeles Raiders invited Williams for a tryout, and he had to take two pain relievers to get through that workout. The Raiders did not offer him a contract. Even today, the back pain, which extends down Williams's right leg, limits him to being on his feet for only 20 minutes at a time. He has to take pain relievers to play a round of golf.

Williams also wonders why the Redskins didn't offer him a job in the organization befitting his status as a Super Bowl hero. In interviews, Williams has suggested that Redskins officials begrudged him the publicity he received from community work he did in Washington, and he has leveled vague charges of racism against various members of the organization. The Redskins deny these charges and cite them as evidence of a growing bitterness on Williams's part that they feared could have led to divisiveness on the team. "When he couldn't play, there were a lot of things that changed in Doug," says one Redskins source. "There was a lot of resentment. It became a black-white issue on the team."

Today, Williams sometimes sounds confused about his abrupt fall from grace in Washington. Having spent 11 seasons in the pros—five with the Tampa Bay Bucs, two in the USFL and four with Washington—he questions why Gibbs didn't place more value on his leadership capabilities in the locker room, especially among black players. In one breath, he allows, "I know I can't play anymore." In the next, he says, with some rancor, "I understood what my Super Bowl ring meant when I was released. It symbolized what it took to get there, what was inside my heart. I was the MVP. I worked in the community. And they still cut me. I'm just a number. When you go in you're a number, when you leave you're a number."

The borrowed late-model compact eases up to a toll booth at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. Timmy Smith digs into the pockets of his ripped blue jeans for a couple of bucks and mistakenly pulls out two tickets to the Phoenix Cardinals-Dallas Cowboys game that will be played a few days later, on Dec. 16. "I got them from one of the players to give to a friend," he says. "I don't go to games. I don't want to sit in the stands and have people ask me why I'm not playing. I feel like I slipped off the Empire State Building and landed flat on my face."

Ask NFL player-personnel directors why Smith was out of football 2½ years after his stunning performance in the Super Bowl, and they cite a lack of discipline and concentration, and a love for late-night partying.

"Teams questioned my work habits, and there were rumors that I was supposed to have been on drugs," says Smith, now 27. "But I've never flunked a drug test. My big problem is, I've never gone in and spoken up for myself. If teams don't want me, O.K., say that. If they don't think I have talent, O.K., say that. But don't go around making stuff up."

Caught up in the Super Bowl XXII afterglow, Smith reported to the Redskins' training camp the following summer 25 pounds overweight. Although he rushed for more than 100 yards in two of the first three games of the 1988 regular season, his mind seemed to be elsewhere. In the second game of the season, against the Pittsburgh Steelers, he was ejected for bumping an official during an argument with him. Three weeks later against the New York Giants, on a key down in the closing minutes of a game the Redskins would lose by a point, Smith cut inside on a running play designed to go outside.

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