Sonny Jurgensen was one of the great quarterbacks in NFL history, and has a plaque in Canton. His last ride came with the 1974 Washington Redskins. And at age 40, Sonny was often called on in relief of starter Billy Kilmer. “Jurgy” started some of the season’s significant games and he was critical in pushing the Redskins into the playoffs for the fourth straight year under head coach George Allen.
The lack of a running game was a problem regardless of who was under center. Larry Brown, the league MVP during the team’s Super Bowl run of 1972, slipped to 430 rush yards. There were no Pro Bowlers on the offensive line, the norm during the Allen era. Jurgensen and Kilmer made up for it by spreading the ball around to three different receivers—Pro Bowler Charley Taylor, Roy Jefferson and tight end Jerry Smith, who had a career second wind at age 31 after a few dry years under Allen.
Washington ranked fourth on offense, and they ranked the same on defense, thanks to a veteran core that stayed mostly the same during the Allen years. Chris Hanburger was an All-Pro linebacker and Ken Houston was the same at strong safety. Pat Fischer and Mike Bass were steady at the corners, and Diron Talbert had a Pro Bowl year anchoring the defensive front.
Opportunistic defense made its presence felt immediately when Bass intercepted a pass in the first quarter of Week 1 and took it to the house. The Redskins beat the Giants in the old Yale Bowl, where New York played while Yankee Stadium was under remodeling.
The opportunism turned against the ‘Skins in a Week 2 home game against the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cards scored early on a 71-yard fumble return, and also got a 75-yard touchdown run from running back Terry Metcalf. St. Louis did nothing the rest of the game—Metcalf got just twenty more yards and Jim Hart threw for only 56 yards.
But St. Louis didn’t turn the ball over, the Kilmer-led offense was anemic and Washington lost 17-10 to a team they would be battling all season with for supremacy in the NFC East.
Kilmer got on his game in a Monday Night thrashing of an adequate Denver Bronco team, going 17/23 for 223 yards and two touchdown passes to Taylor. But Kilmer hit his low point in Week 4 and Jurgy made his first appearance.
A road trip at mediocre Cincinnati went horribly. The Bengals’ Lemar Parrish scored on both a punt return and a pick-6. The Redskins fell behind 28-3 and Kilmer got the hook. Jurgensen threw a couple fourth quarter touchdown passes to make the score respectable and he got the start the following week.
And what a start it was—the Miami Dolphins were coming to RFK Stadium, the first time the teams had met since the Dolphins completed their perfect season of 1972 by beating the Redskins in the Super Bowl.
Washington trailed 10-3 in the fourth quarter and then the old veteran came through. He hit Jefferson on a 37-yard touchdown pass and eventually pushed the ‘Skins ahead 13-10. Miami reclaimed the lead, but Jurgy, who threw for 303 yards, led one more drive and threw one more touchdown pass to win it 20-17. He came back the next week and rifled three scoring passes in a 24-3 rout of the Giants.
The Redskins were 4-2 and it was time for the return trip to St. Louis on October 27. The Cardinals were soaring, at 6-0. Jurgensen got the start, but the Cardinals got him early. Roger Wehrli picked off a Jurgy pass and took it 53 yards to the end zone. Then Hart threw a 52-yard touchdown pass to Earl Thomas, as St. Louis built a 16-0 lead.
Jurgensen stayed with it though, and ended up completing 20/29 passes for 201 yards. He threw a short touchdown pass to Brown and the ‘Skins closed to 16-13. But Hart was having an outstanding day, 15/19 for 200 yards and threw a touchdown pass of his own. St. Louis held off Washington 23-20. The biggest stat of the day was zero—for the second straight meeting, the Cardinals did not turn the ball over against the Redskin defense and it’s the reason they swept the season series.
The NFC East race appeared all but over and even a playoff berth—there was only one wild-card in a three-division conference format—looked in jeopardy. Allen went back to Kilmer and the Redskins won in Green Bay 17-6, though it took into the third quarter before Washington put the ball in the end zone and got the lead. When the ‘Skins fell behind at Philadelphia 20-7 in the third quarter the following week, Jurgensen was back in the lineup. He rallied Washington to a 27-20 win.
Meanwhile, St. Louis hit a tough part of the schedule. They lost at Dallas, the division’s traditional power, but who had gotten off to a terrible 1-4 start and was trying to get off the mat. Then the Cards lost at the Minnesota Vikings, who had gone to the Super Bowl in 1973 and would again this year.
Allen went back to Kilmer for the home game with Dallas, and the coach’s decision was vindicated. Kilmer was an efficient 11/19 for 161 yards while counterpart Roger Staubach was 16/38 for 174. Washington won 28-21 and effectively beat back Dallas’ push for a playoff spot.
The ‘Skins beat Philadelphia at home when Larry Jones returned a kickoff for a touchdown in the third quarter to break open what was then a close 13-7 game. It set up a trip to Dallas and one of the most regrettably memorable Thanksgivings in NFL history.
Washington led 16-3, would force five turnovers and had knocked Staubach at the game. But Cowboy backup Clint Longley made a name for himself. He went 11/20 for 203 yards, threw touchdown passes of 35 and 50 yards and Dallas pulled out a 24-23 win. The Cowboys were still a longshot to make the playoffs, but it was apparent that the NFC East runner-up was going to be the wild-card, so neither Washington nor St. Louis were completely out of the woods.
Kilmer got the call for a tough Monday Night road trip at the Los Angeles Rams, a team on their way to the NFC West title. The Rams went ahead 10-0 in the first quarter, but Kilmer struck with three second quarter touchdown passes and a 23-17 win. The victory pushed the record to 9-4 and clinched at least a playoff spot. When St. Louis lost to lowly New Orleans—the second straight week the Cards lost to a bad team—it dropped them to 9-4 and the division race was still open.
Washington hosted lowly Chicago and with the defense picking off four passes from three different Bear quarterbacks, it was an easy 42-0 win. St. Louis beat the Giants and hung on to win the division. The Redskins would go on the road, back to Los Angeles for the playoffs.
Kilmer started and the ‘Skins led 10-7 at half, but they weren’t moving the ball, rushing for just 49 yards. Kilmer was erratic throwing the ball and when a pair of fumbles set up Ram field goals and put Washington down 13-10, you know where the coach was going—he was going to the old warrior one more time.
Jurgensen completed 6/12 passes for 78 yards, and had the Redskins moving toward a tying field goal late in the game. But he also threw three interceptions in the fourth quarter alone and one that ended up in the hands of Isiah Robertson was taken to the end zone. Los Angeles won 19-10.
It was a tough ending, the second straight year the Redskins were in the lead on the road in the second half of an NFC divisional playoff game and ended up losing. But there was also a little magic to the 1974 season. Sonny Jurgensen was never “The Man”, but he got the call often enough and in his final season he helped pushed the Redskins into the playoffs one more time.