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After Three Decades of Losing, They Were Known as the Deadskins. Now a Controversial Coaching Genius Had Them Poised to Take On the Enemy.
We all felt this was our year, right from the start. After a preseason game against the Dolphins, we were telling them and they were telling us, "See you at the Super Bowl."
—Redskins safety Brig Owens on the 1972 season
OR LOYAL FANS OF THE REDSKINS, IT had been a long wait between championships.
Thirty years earlier, the Sammy Baugh-led Redskins had won the 1942 National Football League title by beating the Chicago Bears, 14-6, at DC's Griffith Stadium. An overflow crowd of 36,000 watched the game on a raw December day. The players wore leather helmets. Official programs sold for a dime.
For the next three decades, Redskins fans watched their team go from powerhouse to laughingstock. There were no title games, no championships. From 1955 to 1969, not even a winning season. As Washington Star columnist Mo Siegel put it, the Redskins had been replaced by "the Deadskins."
"Back then," says Jerry Olsen, head of the Redskins alumni association, "you could get all the season tickets you wanted."
Lean years. But on an overcast December afternoon in 1972, with more than 50,000 roaring Redskin fans who'd paid $12 to $17 a ticket packed into RFK stadium, all that was about to change.
It was the game my father wanted, playing the Dallas Cowboys for the conference championship in front of a home crowd. They were the defending Super Bowl champion, it was New Year's Eve, and the noise level was unbelievable. The stadium literally rocked.
—US Senator George Allen Jr., recalling the scene at RFK on December 31, 1972
THE COACH WHO BROUGHT TITLE FEVER back to the nation's capital was a 54-year-old defensive genius with a flair for building winners and creat-ing controversy.
George Allen had come to Washington in 1971, brought here by Redskins president Edward Bennett Williams, a tenacious trial lawyer who shared his new head coach's passion for winning. Not that Allen had been Williams's first choice.
Two years before, Williams had lured Vince Lombardi out of retirement in the hope that the legendary coach could do for the Redskins what he had done for the Green Bay Packers in the 1960s. Washington fans, according to Richard Whittingham's team history, Hail Redskins, saw Lombardi's arrival in town as "the coming of St. Vince."
Lombardi did work wonders in 1969, as the Redskins finished the year 7-5-2 (up from 5-6-3 the year before) and sent six players—Sonny Jurgensen, Larry Brown, Jerry Smith, Chris Hanburger, Pat Fischer, and Len Hauss—to the Pro Bowl.
Redskins fans had reason to believe their team was on its way back, ready to make a run for the conference title the next year. But Lombardi's death from cancer two weeks before the 1970 season began ended that dream. Ed Williams's team, under interim coach Bill Austin, finished the year with six wins and eight losses.
Then came Allen, who had proven himself a winner as defensive coordinator for the 1963 NFL champion Chicago Bears and as head coach of the Los Angeles Rams. But what really stirred the hopes of Redskin diehards was the new coach's answer to whether the coming season would be a year of building for the future.
No, said Allen. As far as he was concerned, "the future is now."
He sent future draft choices around like pellets from a shotgun. When he was finished, he had taken the team from a young, rebuilding group to a covey of veterans known as the Over-the-Hill Gang.
—Dave Slattery on George Allen's preseason trades in 1971
THOSE WHO THOUGHT ALLEN'S FUTURE-is-now response was mere locker-room talk soon learned otherwise. It was the new coach's battle plan for taking on Tom Landry's Cowboys, the team to beat if the Redskins had any hope of going to the Super Bowl.
"George liked veterans," recalls Mike Bragg, Redskins punter during the Allen era. "He wanted players who knew and bought into his system. The longer a player had been around, the fewer mistakes he'd make."
Which explains why, in the months leading up to the 1971 season, the Redskins were involved in 19 trades. Future draft picks were spun off for proven players like Billy Kilmer, Roy Jefferson, Ron McDole, Richie Petitbon, and—from the Rams—veterans Jack Pardee, Myron Pottios, and Diron Talbert.
The "Deadskins," wrote Mo Siegel, had been transmogrified into the "Ramskins." Many questioned Allen's wisdom in trading away young prospects for players whose best days seemed behind them.
"An aging team is the least of my worries," the coach told reporters. "If you do things right, you don't have to build and rebuild to field a winner. We have a solid club in Washington. They win because they want to win."
And win Allen's team did, bringing home a 9-4-1 record and a 1971 playoff berth. The Cowboys would win the conference title and the Super Bowl, but the Over-the-Hill Gang had served notice that things would be different the following year.
I'll tell you how important this Dallas game is: If I have to, I'll meet Tom Landry on the 50-yard line and we'll fight it out, man to man.
—George Allen opening a Redskins team meeting in 1972
"YOU NEVER KNEW WHAT HE'D COME up with next," says all-pro halfback Larry Brown, smiling at the memory of George Allen's motivational ploys. "He was fun to play for—all business, but a lot of fun."
Brig Owens nods in agreement, remembering the day Allen said he'd go head to head with the Cowboys coach.
"He told us he'd been taking martial-arts lessons with Jhoon Rhee in case he had to fight Landry," recalls Owens. "Rhee held up a board for him to break, and he broke it. But when Rhee held up two boards, George hurt his hand and left the room. When he came back with the hand bandaged, somebody called out, 'That Tom Landry's pretty tough, George.' We all broke up."
But the Redskins got the message. "He'd do whatever it took to get our attention," says Brown. "Special awards, game balls, TV sets for big plays—he was big on incentives. But in his own way he could be tough as Lombardi."
Mike Bragg tells the story of how Allen tested him in a game that began with Bragg on the sidelines with a sprained ankle.
"It was preseason, so I thought I'd give it a rest, and the trainer agreed," Bragg recalls. "But late in the game Marv Levy came over and asked if I felt I could go in and punt. I told him yes, if I had to, but the leg wasn't 100 percent."
Levy, the special-teams coach, heard Bragg's answer and rephrased the question: "I don't think you understand, Mike," he said. "George wants to know if you can punt, because if you can't, he's going to bring in somebody who can."
Bragg went into the game and boomed a 50-yard punt, with enough hang time to prevent a runback.
"We knew that everything George did was for a purpose," says Bragg. "Football was all he ever thought about, and when he said, 'Losing is like dying,' he really meant it. But when we won, nothing was too good for his players."
Team owner Ed Williams, who held the Redskin purse strings, once said with bittersweet humor, "I gave George an unlimited expense account and he exceeded it in two weeks"—a testimonial to Allen's reputation as a "player's coach."
Whatever games Allen played to keep his troops in a winning frame of mind, he was less successful at getting Washington sportswriters on his side.
"George came from the old-fashioned-coach's school that believed if a reporter lived in Washington and worked in Washington, he shouldn't write anything critical about the Redskins," recalls Jan Rus, an Allen friend dating back to the coach's Los Angeles days. "He had a passion for secrecy, and when he discovered that reporters didn't see things his way, he reacted. Sometimes he overreacted."
The result was that Allen alienated some of the Redskins press corps. Long-term, the image still remains of Allen as a dour, tunnel-visioned paranoid, like his friend in the White House, Richard Nixon.
Not accurate, says Rus, who introduced the Redskins coach to Nixon. "In George's case it was more like Charlie Wilson, the Eisenhower Defense secretary, who said, 'What's good for General Motors is good for the country.' George thought what was good for the Redskins was good for the city and couldn't believe that others didn't see it the same way."
This is just another championship game to us. The Redskins have never been in one. They're the only team and Allen is the only coach in this league we don't like, and you can quote me on that.
—Dave Manders, Cowboys center, 1972
YOU CAN BELIEVE GEORGE ALLEN'S SPIRits were lifted when he read that quote in the Washington Post before the NFC title game of 1972. It confirmed everything he'd been telling his Redskins team: The Cowboys don't respect us, they don't like us. This is more than a game, it's a war.
Circle the wagons. It was Allen's way, as one of his coaching assistants tells it, of motivating his troops: "He'd say, over and over, the only people the Redskins had on their side were the Washington fans. It was us against the world, no holds barred."
High on the Redskins enemy list, according to Allen, was Pete Rozelle, the National Football League commissioner. Rozelle, the Redskins coach told his players, was constantly plotting against them in cahoots with Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm. That was why Dallas always played "soft" schedules and Washington kept getting fined by the league for "trivial" infractions like trading away draft picks they didn't have and not following league rules regarding team introductions before a Monday night game.
The trade infraction could be explained by Allen's shuttling draft picks so quickly that it was hard to keep up with what picks his team had on any given day; the Monday-night flap by his ignoring league orders to highlight big-name stars in pregame ceremonies.
Instead, the Redskins coach introduced his special team—the kamikaze players used on kickoffs and punts. Allen considered his special teams the key to winning, second only to hard-nosed defenders. Offense? All George Allen wanted from his offense was no-mistakes football. Nothing flashy, no "gimmick" plays.
Which explained why, with two winning quarterbacks available, Allen was happier with blue-collar Billy Kilmer on the field than when Sonny Jurgensen, the purest passer in the game, was calling plays—his plays, not Allen's—from the huddle.
FUTURE SHOCK ROCKS RFK NOW
—Headline, Washington Post,
December 31, 1972
"AT LAST, THE GAME SO MANY HOPED would take place is at hand," wrote Post reporter Ken Denlinger. "Dallas vs. Washington for the National Football Conference championship… . Tom Landry vs. George Allen, Roger Staubach vs. Bill Kilmer, Lance Alworth vs. Jack Pardee."
In Dallas, home of what the NFL had labeled "America's team," Cowboys fans were also focused on the title game.
"In almost every statistical area the Cowboys and Redskins are well-matched," wrote the Dallas Times-Herald's Frank Luksa, noting the similarity in the team's season records: Washington would enter the game at 11-3, Dallas at 11-4, each team having peaked in winning playoff games against the Green Bay Packers and the San Francisco Forty-Niners.
Both teams had quarterback problems—Jurgensen was on crutches and Staubach had been hampered by injuries throughout the season. But it was Staubach who had come off the bench to beat the Forty-Niners the week before, and it would be derring-do Roger, as Post columnist Shirley Povich reported, whom Landry would call on to "lead the Cowboys' assault against the Redskins."
Going to a hobbled Staubach instead of a healthy Craig Morton to quarterback the big game was a judgment call on Tom Landry's part, but it was one that could be defended. Where the usually cautious Cowboys coach slipped up was in answering a reporter's request to compare his starting quarterback to the Redskins' Billy Kilmer.
"Kilmer's a great team leader," Landry said, "but Roger's a better football player."
If Kilmer didn't see Landry's quote, you can believe Allen brought it to his attention. "Damn it," Billy the Kid would say after the game, "that fired me up."
KILMER GAINS SUPER STATUS
—Headline, Washington Post, January 1, 1973
LANDRY'S GAME PLAN CALLED FOR shutting down Larry Brown and the Redskins' ground game, forcing Kilmer to pass. On paper the strategy made sense: Whenever the two rivals met, the Cowboys gave up big yardage to Brown, who would end the season the league's Most Valuable Player. As for the threat posed by Kilmer's arm, the Redskins quarterback himself joked that he threw "the wobbliest passes in the league."
Pressured by Dallas's vaunted Doomsday Defense, led by Bob Lilly, Lee Roy Jordan, and Jethro Pugh, the Redskins quarterback wouldn't have time to get the ball to his star receivers, Charley Taylor and Roy Jefferson. Or so went the theory.
For more than a quarter, Landry's game plan worked, though Washington's Over-the-Hill defenders—Ron McDole, Manny Sistrunk, Diron Talbert, and Verlon Biggs up front, with Jack Pardee, Myron Pottios, and Chris Hanburger backing up the line—were throttling the Cowboys' offense. Staubach, when he had time to look downfield, would find his receivers covered by a smothering Redskins secondary—Pat Fischer, Mike Bass, Brig Owens, and Roosevelt Taylor.
It had turned into a defensive battle—the kind George Allen relished. Then, ten minutes into the second quarter, Redskins kicker Curt Knight broke the scoreless tie with an 18-yard field goal to put Washington up, 3-0. RFK stadium rocked, with fans on their feet calling for more, more.
Allen had predicted it would take 24 points to win the game. His team was still 21 short.
I guess this makes us dynasty breakers.
—Jack Pardee during the Redskins' postgame celebration
THEY WOULD COME, 21 AND MORE, IN a way no one—least of all the Dallas secondary—expected. Kilmer—wobbly-passing Billy—threw two touchdown passes, the first a bullet to Charley Taylor from the Cowboys' 15, the second a Jurgensenlike 45-yard spiral, also to Taylor, to break the game open in the fourth quarter.
At the end of the day—with the stadium lights on and a cold drizzle falling—the Cowboys had failed even to stop the Redskins' running game, with Brown grinding out 88 yards, only 8 fewer than the total yardage of Calvin Hill, Walt Garrison, and the Dallas backfield.
Final score, with the help of four Curt Knight field goals: Washington 26, Dallas 3.
HAPPY 1973! WE'RE A WINNER AT LAST
—Headline on a front-page David Broder story, Washington Post, January 1, 1973
"I'M GOING OUT WITH MY FAMILY," George Allen said after the game. "We're going to the Shoreham and have a bottle of Pol Roger. You might say it's an over-the-hill bottle of Champagne."
George Allen Jr., on the sidelines with his father that day, remembers his dad's reaction to the euphoria that spread across the city after the game. "Those were difficult times for Washington," recalls Virginia's junior senator. "The community seemed divided, but you'd never have known it that night or for days afterward. My father talked a lot about that—not the game but how the Redskins had brought everyone together."
In his story for the Post, David Broder described the spirit of the nation's capital on that New Year's Eve:
"At Fran O'Brien's club, 200 fans on chartered buses burst in after the game, wearing Redskin burgundy and gold hats, Redskin parkas, and Redskin blazers, shouting, shoving, singing… . At Duke Zeibert's, the place was mad."
The Redskins would lose the Super Bowl to the Miami Dolphins, 14-7. It was a heartbreaker, redeemed only by the fact that the team that beat Washington remains the only team in NFL history to go through a season undefeated.
But despite the anguish of a coach for whom losing was "worse than dying," George Allen's Over-the-Hill Gang of 1972 is still remembered as one of the greatest teams in the 70-year history of the Redskins—the team that made the future now. *