George Allen was an established winner as a coach. Allen had been the defensive coordinator for George Halas and the Chicago Bears’ 1963 NFL champs. Allen got his opportunity to be a head coach for the Los Angeles Rams and from 1966-70 he went 40-13-1. But a power clash and playoff losses left him without a job. The Washington Redskins had a franchise on hard times and needed a coach.
Just how bad Washington was at this time needs to be emphasized. Since 1955, the Redskins had produced only one winning season—that came in the one year they lured Vince Lombardi away from the Green Bay Packers, before Lombardi died of cancer. The last time the ‘Skins had back-to-back winning seasons? It hadn’t happened in the postwar era, the last instance being 1944-45.
Allen was legendary for his disdain of rookies and half of the starting lineup for the ’71 Redskins would be 30-years-old or older. That included 32-year-old Billy Kilmer at quarterback. It also included two veterans on defense that would be vital parts of this franchise’s future.
Jack Pardee played linebacker and would later succeed Allen as coach. Richie Petitbon was in the defensive backfield and would one day be the right-hand man to Joe Gibbs in this franchise’s glory run of 1981-92. Both Petitbon and Pardee had played for Allen in Chicago and had his trust.
It was not a lineup stacked with talent. Larry Brown rushed for 948 yards and made the Pro Bowl, but he was the only one to do so. The Redskins won with veteran guile and coaching.
The schedule was soft early on, with both games against a bad St. Louis Cardinals team in the first five weeks, along with road trips to the New York Giants and Houston Oilers, two more bad teams. But the Redskins had also been one of those bad teams for a long time now, and when they swept those four games, it certainly sent a message.
The message was made stronger by what happened right in the middle of those first five weeks. Week 3 was a road game with the Dallas Cowboys, the defending NFC champion. Playing at the Cotton Bowl, the ‘Skins got a 57-yard touchdown from Charlie Harraway early on. Harraway ran for 111 yards and Brown chipped in 81 more. Washington shut down Dallas back Calvin Hall and their quarterback tandem of Roger Staubach and Craig Morton. The final was 20-16 and the biggest moment of Washington’s 5-0 start.
A road trip to play the Kansas City Chiefs ended in a tough 27-20 loss. The Redskins led 17-13, before two fourth quarter touchdown passes from Len Dawson did them in. Actually, what did them in for the game as a whole was an inability to stop the run—KC’s Ed Podolak rushed for 110 yards while Washington couldn’t get a ground game going. Still, a defeat to playoff-bound team on the road was hardly a disgrace.
Washington got a sloppy win over the woeful New Orleans Saints to bounce back. The 24-14 result was never in serious doubt, but the ‘Skins committed six turnovers. It set the tone for a poor three weeks that put Allen’s early success at risk.
Seven more turnovers came in a home game with the mediocre Philadelphia Eagles. Kilmer threw four interceptions, but the defense kept the team in the game. The quarterback tossed a 32-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to escape with a 7-7 tie in the days prior to the existence of overtime.
One week later, the team was beaten in the trenches by the Chicago Bears. They gave up 205 yards on the ground while generating only 88. Even though the ‘Skins led 15-3 in the third quarter, the inability to control the point of attack cost them in a 16-15 loss.
Meanwhile, Dallas was coming on strong. Head coach Tom Landry had dropped his quarterback tandem and settled on Staubach. The Cowboys came into a November 21 date at RFK Stadium with a 6-3 record, while the Redskins clung to first place at 6-2-1.
Kilmer played an efficient game, going 10/16 for 118 yards and no interceptions. So did Staubach, at 11/21 for 115 yards and no mistakes. The problem is that the Redskins again could not run the ball—only 27 yards for Brown—while the Cowboys generated at least enough to put a few points on the board and they won 13-0.
Dallas would not lose again, en route to the first Super Bowl title in franchise history. Washington was fighting for survival at a time when only one wild-card team qualified for the playoffs.
Allen’s veterans righted the ship in consecutive wins over the Eagles and Giants, neither a blowout, but both done reasonably comfortably. It set the stage for the most dramatic of all scenarios—Allen returning to Los Angeles in what was close to winner-take-all for the playoffs…and on the Monday Night stage.
The Redskins, at 8-3-1, led the wild-card race, but the Rams were a game back and could simultaneously pull even and take the tiebreaker if they won this game. The Detroit Lions came into the week a game back, but their loss on Sunday further clarified the stakes for the Monday night battle. You couldn’t have scripted this any better if you tried.
Kilmer had Washington on the move early, but Rams corner Kermit Alexander picked off a pass at his own 18-yard line and 82 yards later was in the end zone. It would be Kilmer’s last mistake on what ended up being one of the best nights of his professional career.
The quarterback hit Roy Jefferson on a 70-yard touchdown strike to quickly tie the game up. The teams traded field goals and then Washington unleashed. Kilmer hit Clifton McNeil on a 32-yard scoring pass. The quarterback again hooked up with Jefferson, this time on a short touchdown pass. In between the two TD passes, Brown ran one in.
It was 31-10 and though the Rams rallied with consecutive touchdowns, Washington’s Speedy Duncan put the finishing touches on the win with a 46-yard interception return. Kilmer finished 14/19 for 246 yards and three touchdowns, completely outplaying the more heralded Roman Gabriel, who was an erratic 17/44 for 219 yards and three interceptions. But no one would argue the night belonged to Allen, who had his revenge on Los Angeles.
The victory clinched a playoff berth for the Redskins. They still had a shot at the division title, but Dallas won the ensuing Saturday to wrap up the NFC East, so the ‘Skins had nothing to play for when they took the field Sunday in a season-ending loss at Cleveland.
Washington was heading west to meet the San Francisco 49ers. They took the field in the final game of the divisional round weekend that then opened the playoffs. The first day of the postseason had been on Christmas Day and produced the game that still stands as the longest in NFL history, when the Miami Dolphins beat Kansas City. Dallas also won, so the Redskins took the field on December 26 knowing they could get a third game with their archrival with a win.
The game started well, with Kilmer finding Jerry Smith on an early touchdown pass and it was 10-3 ‘Skins at the half. But the quarterback wasn’t nearly as efficient as he’d been two weeks earlier in Los Angeles. Kilmer struggled to an 11/27 day and only 106 yards. Brown was able to find a little running room though, with 84 yards and even when San Francisco’s John Brodie heated up two third quarter touchdown passes, it was still a game 17-13.
Washington was punting from their own end zone in the fourth quarter when the ball was fumbled. San Francisco recovered it in the end zone. Though the Redskins rallied for another touchdown, that was the death knell. The season ended with a 24-20 defeat.
It was still an amazing first year for Allen in Washington. They’d made the playoffs and won a memorable Monday Night game to do it. Winning football was back for the Redskins, and this time it was going to stay for a while. One year later, the team would make their first Super Bowl and Allen never had a losing season during his seven-year run.