The fan base of Washington had been riding high since George Allen arrived in 1971, making the playoffs each of his first four years as Redskins head coach, and reaching the Super Bowl in 1972. The streak finally came to an end, as the 1975 Washington Redskins were the odd team out in a tough three-team race in the NFC East at a time when only four teams per conference qualified for the postseason.
Washington was not loaded with talent, but they had proud veterans. On defense, that started with linebacker Chris Hanburger and strong safety Ken Houston, both All-Pros, and it included corners Pat Fischer and Mike Bass.
Offensively, it started with 36-year-old quarterback Billy Kilmer and included Pro Bowl receiver Charley Taylor. The offensive line didn’t produce a Pro Bowler, but they blocked well enough to allow some dynamic youth, in the person of rookie running back Mike Thomas, to rush for over 900 yards in a schedule that was then only 14 games.
The offense came exploding out of the gate, dropping a combined 90 points in wins over bad teams in the New Orleans Saints and New York Giants, both at home. Taylor was getting help at wideout with 25-year-old Frank Grant, who had the first of what would be two productive seasons in the nation’s capital.
A trip to Philadelphia for Week 3 in early October produced a costly 26-10 loss. The Redskins turned it over six times, and the fact it was a divisional game would haunt them later in December.
The St. Louis Cardinals had won the NFC East the prior year, while the Redskins had been the wild-card (each conference was then a three-division format similar to how major league baseball looks today). The Cardinals came to old RFK Stadium for a Monday Night battle. The Cards were also 2-1, although their loss—an overtime defeat at the Dallas Cowboys, the third team in this NFC East dogfight, was considerably better than Washington’s.
Washington led the Monday Night game 10-3 at the half and was completely shutting down St. Louis’ talented running back, Terry Metcalf. But Metcalf did on special teams what he couldn’t do out of the backfield, and returned the opening kick of the second half for a touchdown. The teams traded touchdowns after that, and it was 17-17 going into the fourth quarter.
The Redskins defense delivered, intercepting St. Louis’ Jim Hart three times and getting five turnovers in all. Thomas rushed for 100 yards, including the tiebreaking touchdown and Washington won 27-17.
But the good times didn’t last. The Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans) were an up-and-coming team and on their way to a 10-4 season. They forced Kilmer into a 12-for-29 passing day and beat the ‘Skins 13-10 in the Astrodome. Washington bounced back against a bad AFC team in the Cleveland Browns, recovering four fumbles in a 23-7 win.
The Dallas Cowboys were coming to town on November 2. The Cowboys had been the odd team out of the playoffs in ’74 and were 5-1, leading the NFC East. After an early Redskin field goal, Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach threw for one touchdown and ran for another. Trailing 14-3, the game and season was starting to look bleak for Washington.
Kilmer responded by hitting Grant for a 46-yard touchdown pass and the lead was down to 17-10 by the half. Kilmer later connected with Charley Taylor to tie the game. The quarterback then appeared to make a fatal mistake, throwing a Pick-6 deep in his own end.
In spite of the Washington defense having taken over since the second-quarter Cowboy burst, the ‘Skins trailed 24-17. But while Kilmer was often erratic, he was never without spunk. And he led a drive that was capped off with a seven-yard TD pass to tight end Jerry Smith with 1:52 left that tied the game.
Staubach gave Dallas a fair chance to win it, but a 38-yard-field goal was missed in the closing seconds. Then in overtime the Cowboys again reached midfield. Washington’s two best defensive players came up with the play of the game.
Hanburger blitzed and as Staubach released, his arm was hit by the linebacker. The ball floated and Houston came up with it. He returned it back to midfield, and Staubach then was whistled for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike call. It took Washington ten plays to go the 36 yards, but Kilmer snuck it over from the one and the Redskins had a 30-24 win. The NFC East was a three-way tie at 5-2 halfway through the season.
Washington’s road game with the New York Giants was a little lackluster and they needed a couple fourth quarter touchdowns to pull out a 21-13 win. It was the classic “sandwich” game, stuck in the midst of a tough stretch of games, so a win was a win. The next two games didn’t turn out quite as well.
November 16 was the return visit to St. Louis, and circumstances forced the Redskins to rely on journeyman quarterback Randy Johnson. He played pretty well and threw for 252 yards, including a 36-yard touchdown pass to Taylor. It was the defense that failed the ‘Skins on this day. Jim Otis ran for 109 yards for St. Louis, and Mel Gray got the same amount receiving. Hart led a fourth quarter drive to tie the game 17-17 and St. Louis won it in overtime.
The fate of overtime turned against Washington the following week at home against an Oakland Raider team that was a perennial playoff participant under John Madden. Raider running back Pete Banaszak ran for three early touchdowns and the Redskins trailed 20-9 at the half. Kilmer rallied the troops hitting Grant from 33 yards for one score and ultimately pulling even, 23-23. But Kilmer was erratic—18-for-39-while counterpart Ken Stabler was efficient, at 20-for-32. Oakland won in overtime.
Now the season was on the line and the parade of tough games continued. The Minnesota Vikings were on their way to a league-best 12-2 record and quarterback Fran Tarkenton would win the MVP. The scrambling quarterback showed why. Even though Kilmer threw a pair of second-quarter touchdowns and the Redskins led 21-0, Tarkenton threw for 357 yards and eventually put his team ahead 30-24.
Once again, Kilmer, flaws and all, delivered a winning drive. He found Grant on a 15-yard touchdown pass and with their 31-30 win, the ‘Skins were 7-4 and still alive.
The Atlanta Falcons were a bad team, but they nearly destroyed the Washington season. Kilmer had to reach deep, go 25/38 for 320 yards and outgun young Falcon quarterback Steve Bartkowski for a 30-27 win. The Cards beat the Cowboys head-to-head on the same day. It set up the Redskins’ Week 13 trip to Dallas with both teams at 8-4.
The stakes were simple—the winner would wrap up a playoff berth. The loser, so long as St. Louis also won (they did), was out. It was a de facto playoff game. For Washington, this is where the loss to Philadelphia hurt double, as it put them behind Dallas in a tiebreaker if the head-to-head games were split.
Kilmer and Grant hooked up for an early touchdown pass and with a 10-0 lead, the outlook was promising for the Redskins. Staubach then hit Golden Richards on a 57-yard touchdown strike, and later ran for another touchdown.
The game was still a competitive 14-10 in the fourth quarter, but Washington couldn’t run the ball, while Dallas would pile up over 200 yards on the ground. The dam broke in the final quarter. The Cowboys got a field goal, then got an insurance touchdown. Then they got an in-your-face touchdown when a Kilmer interception was returned for a score. The final was 31-10. The run of playoff berths under Allen was over.
Washington essentially mailed in their final game, an ugly 26-3 home loss to Philadelphia. St. Louis took the NFC East title, but lost the first playoff game to the Los Angeles Rams. Dallas took the wild-card route to the Super Bowl, the first time to do so, before losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Allen and the Redskins would both be back. For the present though, the immediate aftermath of 1975 was a bitter taste in the mouth.