George Allen had arrived in the nation’s capital prior to the 1971 season and he made the Washington Redskins a winner. The next five seasons saw Allen go 58-25-1, make the playoffs four times (at a time when only one wild-card per conference qualified) and reach the 1972 Super Bowl. But Allen was clashing with ownership and the 1977 Washington Redskins team would be the coach’s last ride.
The Redskins were a defensive-oriented team under Allen, who had been the defensive coordinator for George Halas’ 1963 Chicago Bears championship team. The 1977 Washington Redskins finished fourth in the NFL in points allowed, in spite of having only one Pro Bowler—strong safety Ken Houston-on defense.
For all the defensive prowess, there were problems on the other side of the ball. Washington ranked 21st in points scored, and had a quarterback controversy behind wily veteran Billy Kilmer and up-and-comer Joe Theisman.
Kilmer was the starter when the season began and it didn’t begin well in a visit to the Meadowlands to play the New York Giants. It took to the fourth quarter for the Redskins to get their first points of 1977, though a sudden flurry gave them a 17-10 lead before the ultimate lost on a late field goal.
Three straight wins followed, including victories over average teams in the Atlanta Falcons and St. Louis Cardinals, each of whom would finish 7-7, then a road shutout of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers an expansion team on their way to 0-14. Even here, the offensive problems showed—in an era where NFL expansion teams didn’t get nearly the help they do today in stocking their rosters, the ‘Skins mustered only ten points in a shutout win.
The Dallas Cowboys were always the enemy, especially in the era of Tom Landry and Roger Staubach and 1977 was perhaps the best team of this period in Cowboys’ history. The Redskins went to Big D and were handled 34-16.
That loss could have been managed. What was inexcusable was a home defeat the following week to the Giants. New York finished just 5-9 and not until 1981 would they become competitive. Kilmer played an acceptable game—20/39 for 217 yards was tolerable in the era when defenses could get much more physical with receivers than is the case today. But there was no running game, the Redskins lost three fumbles and they lost the game 17-6.
With the team 3-3 and the season hanging in the balance—with only 14 games on the schedule and only one wild-card available, there wasn’t the same kind of margin for error that exists today—Allen gave Theisman a chance.
The young quarterback promptly hit Pro Bowl tight end Jean Fugett for two first-quarter touchdown passes in a 23-17 win over a Philadelphia Eagles team that was gaining steam under Dick Vermeil and would be in the playoffs one year later.
Theisman was back under center for a Monday Night trip to play the Baltimore Colts, en route to another division title in what was a successful era for the franchise an hour north of the Redskins. When you can’t run the ball, it makes little difference who the center is, and the ‘Skins couldn’t that night losing 10-3.
Mark Moseley, one of the last straight-on placekickers to ever play in the NFL, saved the season a week later in Philadelphia, nailing a 54-yard field goal to get a 17-14 win. A Monday Night date with the Green Bay Packers finally saw a semblance of a running game—Mike Thomas ran for 81 yards—and the defense led the way to a 10-9 win.
Now it was Thanksgiving weekend and Dallas came to town, the Cowboys not having yet intruded on the Detroit Lions’ tradition of hosting a game on Thursday and making it their own. Theisman played well—17/35 for 231 yards and outplayed Staubach. But the Redskins couldn’t finish the deal and dropped a tough 14-7 decision.
With the season now in the balance—the Redskins would need to win their final three games and get help—Allen went back to his veteran. Kilmer would get the start. It was a fitting choice for a head coach who was so averse to youth that he consistently sought to trade his draft picks. Allen’s defense was still keyed by vets like 33-year-old Diron Talbert at defensive end and 34-year-old Mike Curtis at linebacker.
The vets found a way to dig deep. They went to Buffalo and won 10-0. Then they went to St. Louis, where the Cardinals still had a longshot playoff chance and the defense intercepted St. Louis quarterback Jim Hart three times. Kilmer played mistake-free and the ‘Skins won 26-20.
It was down to the final week of the regular season. Washington needed to beat the Los Angeles Rams—champions of the NFC West—to stay alive. And the Chicago Bears needed to lose.
Kilmer went 12/21 for 144 yards and the Redskins jumped out quickly 17-0, then held on for a 17-14 win. Meanwhile, the Bears were in danger. Their game had gone to overtime. There was just one problem—the opponent was the Giants. Since when had the Giants brought the 1977 Washington Redskins anything positive? It wouldn’t be today. Chicago won 12-9 in overtime.
The two losses to a bad New York team, when just a split would have resulted in a playoff berth was a bitter ending. Allen ranks second to only Joe Gibbs on the list of Washington Redskins head coaches. Allen had a great run, and a nice season in 1977, but it ended a little too soon.