The arrival of George Allen in the nation’s capital had brought winning football for the first time since World War II, as Allen led the Redskins to the playoffs in 1971. But Allen had still never won a playoff game, either here or in an otherwise successful run with the Los Angeles Rams. The city of D.C. was thirsting for more. The coach and the fan base got more, when the 1972 Washington Redskins became the first team in franchise history to reach the Super Bowl.
Washington opened the season with a high-profile Monday Night visit to Minnesota and old Metropolitan Stadium to face Bud Grant’s Minnesota Vikings. Special teams made the difference—Bill Malinchak blocked a first quarter punt for the Redskins and recovered it for a touchdown and an early 7-0 lead.
The ‘Skins fell behind 14-10 in the third quarter, but a pair of fourth quarter touchdown drives put them in control and they hung on 24-21. The stat sheet wasn’t pretty—quarterback Billy Kilmer struggled to a 7/17 for 57 yards outing, while counterpart Fran Tarkenton was 18/31 for 233 yards. Washington got strong running from Larry Brown, with 105 yards, but a tag-team of Viking backs had 182. Turnovers were not decisive. It was the blocked punt that really swung the game.
It sounds strange to say this, given Washington won a high-profile MNF game and then won 10 of their first 11 games, but the ‘Skins did not start the season well. Minnesota would end up struggling to a 7-7 finish, one of the rare instances through the 1970s that they didn’t own the NFC Central (the current teams of the NFC North). Nor were the next two weeks all that impressive
After beating a bad St. Louis Cardinals team 24-10, Washington inexplicably lost to the woeful New England Patriots, blowing a 14-0 lead. The Redskins trailed 24-21 and Malinchak almost saved the day again, blocking a punt in the end zone. But it rolled out the back for a safety and Washington lost by a point. The Redskins were 2-1 and looking most unimpressive in the process.
A quarterback controversy was now in place. Sonny Jurgensen, now 38-years-old, was still beloved the Redskin faithful and Allen gave him the job over Kilmer. “Jurgy” led the team past a terrible Philadelphia Eagles team 14-0, and then the offense finally got untracked in a 33-3 win at St. Louis. The Redskins looked to be coming together as the Dallas Cowboys—the defending Super Bowl champions—arrived at RFK Stadium in a battle for first place in the NFC East.
Dallas came out of the gates strong, with three good drives. But the Redskins defense made key stops in the red zone and the game was still a manageable 13-0 when Washington started to turn it around. Jurgensen threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to Brown. With the score 20-7, Brown took off on a 34-yard scoring jaunt. And trailing 20-17, Charlie Harraway ran in for a fourth quarter touchdown and a 24-20 win. Washington was alone atop the division.
Jurgensen was an effective 11/16 for 180 yards, but the story of the game was Brown. The 25-year-old running back ran for 95 yards and 100 more receiving, in an era where all-purpose backs were decidedly not the norm. Brown ended the year with over 1,200 yards rushing and won the MVP award. It’s fair to say that the first big push of his MVP campaign came in this October 22 win over Dallas.
The town was in love with Jurgy and rightly so, for the way he was playing. It had the making of a storybook season for the old veteran. But Hollywood endings often clash with real life, and this was one of those cases. Early in the following week’s game at the New York Giants, Jurgensen tore an Achilles tendon. He was done—for all practical purposes, his career over. Kilmer had to take over what was again a very promising season.
Kilmer had plenty going for him. The defense was the third-best in the NFL, anchored by 1st-team All-Pro linebacker Chris Hanburger. In addition to Brown’s MVP year, the Redskins had a quality veteran receiver in Charley Taylor, bound for the Pro Bowl himself. And center Len Hauss was the best on the offensive front. All of these component parts continued to mesh after the injury to Jurgensen, and Kilmer himself drastically elevated his play.
Brown took over the Giant game after the injury to Jurgy and rushed for 191 yards, a 23-16 Redskin win that really wasn’t that close. Kilmer completed 7/16 passes the following week at the New York Jets, but those seven completions produced a whopping 222 yards, and included a 70-yard scoring strike in a 35-17 win. The Redskins completed a three-week Big Apple trifecta by again beating the Giants, this time with Kilmer throwing for 256 yards.
A Monday Night home date with the mediocre Atlanta Falcons saw the Redskins fall behind early, 10-0, but Kilmer threw third-quarter touchdown passes to Brown and tight end Jerry Smith. The defense forced four turnovers in a 24-13.
Dallas had been keeping pace, remaining one game out, but on Thanksgiving, the Cowboys lost at home to the San Francisco 49ers. The door was open for the Redskins to take firm control of the NFC East, but they had to beat the Central-leading Green Bay Packers. They did just that in a 21-16 home win. Neither team ran the ball well, but Kilmer was 14/21 for 158 yards and no interceptions.
Washington had the tiebreaker advantage on Dallas, due to a superior conference record, and they could clinch the division on December 3 in Philadelphia. If the Redskins didn’t get it done here, the lead would be cut to one game, the tiebreaker dynamics would shift back to the Cowboys (by virtue of Washington losing a divisional game) and set up a battle the following Saturday in Big D for the division.
The Redskins made sure that didn’t happen. They took a 10-7 lead in the first half at Philly, and then took over the second half. Kilmer’s renaissance continued, with a sharp 12/15 for 155 yards performance. Washington won 23-7, and at 11-1 had clinched the division.
Homefield advantage was not a factor, as the NFL used a rotation system among division winners to determine playoff matchups and venue, so there was nothing left to play for. Washington dropped its final two games and got ready for the playoffs.
Christmas Eve Sunday came, and the Packers were back in D.C. for the divisional playoff round. After a scoreless first quarter, Green Bay drove into the red zone, but settled for a field goal. Kilmer then stepped up and hit wide receiver Roy Jefferson on a 32-yard touchdown strike.
It was all the Redskins defense needed. They collared the Packer running game, allowing just 78 yards on the ground. Green Bay quarterback Scott Hunter was out of his element against this defense. Brown ground out 101 yards and Washington churned out a 16-3 win.
Now it was time for a showdown with Dallas. Redskins Nation came to RFK on New Year’s Eve hoping to have two reasons to party at night. The combination of Kilmer and the defense did it again.
Another scoreless first quarter gave way to a second quarter where a deep Washington drive ended in a field goal. Then Kilmer rifled a touchdown pass to Taylor. The Redskin defense was again collaring an opposing running game. Washington didn’t run well themselves—Brown had 88 yards, but it took 30 carries to get them—but Kilmer was completely outplaying his counterpart Roger Staubach.
Staubach was held to 9/20 for 98 yards, while Kilmer coolly completed 14/18 for 194 yards. And he threw one more touchdown pass to Taylor, a 45-yard strike. Taylor had a huge day, with seven catches for 146 yards. Washington pulled away to a 26-3 win and it was time to start the party in D.C.
Two weeks later in the Los Angeles Coliseum, the party ended at the hands of the undefeated Miami Dolphins. Kilmer threw three interceptions and Washington couldn’t stop Dolphin running back Larry Csonka, who rushed for 112 yards. The most aggravating interception came early in the fourth quarter—trailing 14-0, Kilmer saw Smith wide open in the end zone. The pass hit the crossbar, which was then situated on the goal line and fell incomplete. One play later, Kilmer was picked. The final was 14-7.
Washington may not have won a Super Bowl, but they had built on the previous year’s success, won playoff games and at least won an NFC crown. Brown, Kilmer and Allen enjoyed their career high points in 1972.