The 1976 Washington Redskins were a team of proud veterans struggling to hang on in a tough division at a time when playoff berths were at a premium. They made it to the postseason for the fifth time in six years thanks to a memorable stretch drive led by 37-year-old quarterback Billy Kilmer.
Washington was coming off an 8-6 year (it was not until 1978 that the NFL began playing 16 regular season games). Head coach George Allen had led the team to the playoffs in his first four years in charge (1971-74) and the Super Bowl following the 1972 season. But the age of the defense, the non-playoff year and tough NFC East rivals in the Dallas Cowboys and St. Louis Cardinals—at a time when only one wild-card berth per conference was available—didn’t augur well for ’76.
The Redskins won four of their first six games, but there were reasons to be concerned. The schedule was soft, with five of the games against teams that would be sub-.500 and another against the soon-to-be 7-7 Chicago Bears. What’s more, the wins against the woeful New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles were by the hair of the ‘Skins teeth. At a time when parity in the NFL was nowhere close to what it is today, a team couldn’t use the “just win and go home” mantra quite as easily as today.
Monday Night, October 25, saw a downpour hit Washington D.C. as the Cardinals came to town for a big game for an ABC audience. St. Louis was 5-1. Dallas had won the previous day to get to 6-1. If the ‘Skins lost this game at home tonight, you might as well put another non-playoff year in the books.
Washington trailed 10-6 in the third quarter, but St. Louis was having a little trouble hanging on to the football—like eight lost fumbles worth of trouble. Plus two more interceptions. I’m going to take a cautious guess that the historical track record of teams that lose the turnover battle 10-3 is not very good.
The Redskins got the lead 13-10 on a touchdown run by Mike Thomas, on his way to an 1100-yard season and Pro Bowl trip. Then Eddie Brown electrified the crowd at old RFK Stadium with a 71-yard punt return for a touchdown that sealed a 20-10 win and kept the season alive.
Subsequent events made it look like Washington had only gotten a stay of execution rather than really saving their season. Kilmer had thrown for fewer than 100 yards in the St. Louis game. The weather might have provided a valid excuse in that game, but there was none when he turned in a similar clunker on November 14 against the Giants. The ‘Skins lost 12-9, fell two games back in the playoff race with four to play and young Joe Theisman was starting to get snaps at quarterback.
November 21 was the chance to make a last stand. Washington traveled to St. Louis where the wind was blowing at 17 mph. Allen, notorious for relying on veterans, chose Kilmer to make the start. The game didn’t begin well, with Jim Hart tossing a 48-yard touchdown pass to explosive running back Terry Metcalf, but the ‘Skins fought back.
This was a team with a lot of proud veterans on defense—Linebacker Chris Hanburger and strong safety Ken Houston would make the Pro Bowl at ages 35 and 32 respectively. Pat Fischer, 36-years-old, was still fighting the good fight at corner. Diron Talbert was 32 and still anchoring a defensive tackle spot. Allen even brought in an old enemy—free safety Jake Scott had been Super Bowl MVP for the undefeated Miami Dolphins in 1972 when they beat the Redskins. 1976 saw Scott come over to the burgundy and gold.
It was a defense that had built its reputation under Allen as “The Over-The-Hill Gang.” This writer’s father loved them. I wore a Hanburger sweatshirt and Redskins helmet to go trick-or-treating every year and have stayed a Redskins fan to this day. And this defense wasn’t going to go quietly into the good night.
The Over-The-Hill Gang kept St. Louis out of the end zone the rest of the game. Kilmer relied on his running game, with Thomas and 27-year-old John Riggins leading the way for an attack that piled up 247 yards. The Redskins won 16-10. They were still a game back of St. Louis and needed help with three weeks to go, but Washington still had life.
Kilmer still had life too. Washington took care of two easy games, but unlike the start of the year, they looked like a real playoff-caliber team. Kilmer threw six touchdown passes in the two games, the offense put 51 points on the board and when Dallas knocked off St. Louis, the Redskins got control of their playoff destiny when they entered the season finale at 9-4.
What the Cowboys giveth the Cowboys could taketh away though. Washington would have to win in Dallas in Week 14, and while their archrival had clinched the NFC East, the #1 seed in the NFC playoffs was still up for grabs.
Washington trailed 14-10, but with Kilmer providing some real air support for the offense, the runners eventually found room to move. Thomas would rush for 66 yards and catch seven passes. Riggins ran for 95 yards, and the ground game took it over down the stretch. The Redskins won 27-14 and had made the playoffs.
It was an unlikely run for Kilmer and a most deserving one for a quarterback that always had to fight for everything, first against franchise legend Sonny Jurgensen and then the up-and-coming Theisman. It all came to crashing an end six days later in Minnesota. The Vikings dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides, built a 35-6 lead and won 35-20. Kilmer threw for 298 yards, but just didn’t have the help on this day.
What the wily veteran quarterback had done though, was author one last great memory in a fine career, as the improbable four-game win streak and playoff berth is an underappreciated moment in Washington Redskins history.