Our series on ASN’s 50 greatest NFL championship competitors of the past 50 years continues with No. 40 Danny Copeland, originally published on Jan. 18.
Danny Copeland’s NFL career was brief, but memorable. He won a Super Bowl with the Washington Redskins and wedged his name into the notable moments of the Redskins rivalry with the Dallas Cowboys.
Copeland was the starting strong safety for the Redskins, who defeated the Buffalo Bills 37-24 in Super Bowl XXVI in Minneapolis. It was the last of the franchise’s and coach Joe Gibbs’ three Super Bowls, and the second of Buffalo’s four consecutive losses in the title game.
Copeland was a ninth-round pick by the Cleveland Browns in 1988, following a standout career at Eastern Kentucky. He was All-Ohio Valley Conference for two years, an Academic All-American, and still holds school single-season records for kickoff returns and return yards. He was voted to the school’s all-century team.
Copeland didn’t stick with the Browns, but caught on with the Kansas City Chiefs, where he played two years. Before full-on free agency, he was a Plan B free agent, one of several the Redskins brought in to shore up their defense before the 1991 season.
Washington led the NFL in points scored and its defense was third in yards allowed. Copeland finished the season with 125 tackles. The Redskins dominated their two NFC playoff games, but faced a different challenge in Buffalo’s no-huddle offense that featured three wide receivers.
With time to prepare, the Redskins’ defense adjusted. Copeland didn’t play as much as usual in the Super Bowl, as the Redskins often employed a third cornerback to counter the Bills’ extra receiver. They intercepted Bills’ quarterback Jim Kelly four times and sacked him four times. Meanwhile, the offense rolled out to a 17-0 halftime lead and 24-0 lead to start the third quarter.
The following December, Copeland became a part of Redskins-Cowboys lore when he recovered a fumble in the end zone for the winning touchdown in a fierce 20-17 win at old RFK Stadium. It was the end of a crazy play, in which Cowboys’ quarterback Troy Aikman was strip-sacked in the end zone. Running back Emmitt Smith picked up the ball, but he, too, fumbled and Copeland snagged the loose ball from between a player’s legs.
In fact, Copeland was celebrating the touchdown at midfield, while officials were trying to locate the ball among a pile of players in the end zone. Teammate Monte Coleman raced out to tell Copeland to get back to the end zone and show officials the ball. He did, and officials eventually ruled a touchdown.
Copeland retired in 1994 at age 28, after just five seasons, citing concerns about injuries. He had a pinched nerve in his neck and a neck sprain, as well as a hip flexor strain, causing him to miss games in both the 1992 and ’93 seasons. He reconsidered briefly, but the Redskins released him.
Copeland cherished his stint with the Redskins, in no small part due to his respect for Gibbs.
“Joe Gibbs is a people person,” Copeland told the Thomasville (Ga.) Times-Enterprise in 2005. “He had no problems bringing the best out of people because he knew how to treat them. He’s big on praise, he’s big on applause and he’s big on reward. He’s a great guy to work for.”