1973 Washington Redskins: A Tumultuous Road To The Playoffs

The 1973 Washington Redskins were coming off a Super Bowl trip, and had consecutive playoff seasons in their two years with George Allen as head coach. 1973 was a good year—they again made the playoffs in an era when only four teams per conference qualified—but inconsistency at bad times, the loss of the running game and a merry-go-round at quarterback prevented them from reaching the previous year’s heights.

Start reading today. 

Running back Larry Brown was the league MVP in 1972, but struggled through much of ’73. The problems of the running game—no Pro Bowlers on the offensive line—were overshadowed by Allen’s juggling of veteran quarterbacks, Sonny Jurgensen and Billy Kilmer.

The latter started most of the games, but “Jurgy” was a fan favorite in the twilight of his career and still started some of the Redskins’ biggest games. Even with the running game going in starts and stops and the quarterbacks seemingly in rotation, the Redskins were still able to produce the sixth-most points in the NFL.  A Pro Bowl year from veteran receiver Charley Taylor marked him as a steady contributor amidst the chaos.

It seems odd that the offense ranked the same as the defense, because the D was a little more stacked. Linebacker Chris Hanburger was a first-team All-Pro and the secondary was filled with ballhawks. Ken Houston was an All-Pro at strong safety, Brig Owens roamed at free safety while Pat Fischer and Mike Bass manned the corners.

The Redskins opened the year with a soft schedule, but did not take full advantage. A season-opening route of the San Diego Chargers was followed by a loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, on their way to a 4-9 season. It was here that Jurgensen began getting a lot of playing time, as he threw 18 passes, while Kilmer threw 22.

Jurgensen got the start at Philadelphia and threw two touchdowns in a 28-7 win. It set the stage for a Monday Night battle in RFK Stadium with the Dallas Cowboys coming to town. The Redskins had beaten the Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game the year before, and Dallas was 3-0.

The game was a defensive war, and Dallas led 7-0 in the fourth quarter. Jurgensen stayed in the game the whole way, testament to how much more rope he had than Kilmer. Jurgy flipped a one-yard scoring pass to Taylor to tie the game.

Washington was getting destroyed on the ground, but they were making up for it with stellar pass defense. Fittingly, the game’s decisive play was Owens picking off a pass and taking it 26 yards to the house. The Redskins won 14-7.

Easy victories over the New York Giants and a revenge home game with St. Louis moved the Redskins to 5-1. Then a disastrous road trip to New Orleans went down. Both quarterbacks played and neither played well. Running against a bad defense, Brown carried 12 times for six yards. The Redskins lost 19-3 in a game that would haunt them all the way into the postseason.

To make matters worse, the loss came right before a road trip to play the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday Night. The “Steel Curtain” that would win four Super Bowls in six years in the 1970s wasn’t in full bloom, but it was close—the Steelers had made the playoffs the year before and it was one year after this that the dynasty run would begin. The Monday Night game in the Steel City was not well-played, with four turnovers apiece, and the Redskins lost 21-16.

Washington was able to right the ship and win four games against beatable opponents. Kilmer played extremely well in San Francisco, throwing for 267 yards and beating the 49ers 33-7. The running game finally had a big breakout on Thanksgiving Day in Detroit. Brown and Charlie Harraway led an attack that piled up 202 yards at old Tiger Stadium in a 20-0 win.

But the most notable game in this four-game stretch again involved a quarterback change. The Redskins fell behind the Giants 24-13 in RFK. Kilmer was 6-for-15, though he had thrown for 138 yards. Allen called Jurgy’s number and the old vet came through, as did Brown. Washington drove for two fourth quarter touchdowns, with Brown running for one and catching a 16-yard toss from Jurgensen to win the game 27-24.

There were two games left and though Washington was 9-3, they weren’t home free for the postseason. They had a road trip to play the 8-4 Cowboys coming up, and Dallas would take the tiebreaker if they won—a consequence of the Redskins losing that game in New Orleans. Furthermore, the surprising Atlanta Falcons and could jump up and steal the wild-card spot.

It was a late Sunday afternoon kickoff in Dallas and the game couldn’t have gone worse. The Cowboys again pummeled the Redskin defense on the ground. Washington again could not answer with a running game of their own. And this time, Staubach was sharp, while Jurgensen was not. The final was 27-7, with the Redskins’ only points coming on a blocked punt in the fourth quarter.

Fortunately, Atlanta had also lost, so Washington was in good position to still make the playoffs. Although here again, losing to New Orleans had introduced an element of chance—the tiebreaker would come down to net points, and while Washington looked in good shape there, it was close enough that Atlanta could still make it interesting.

Redskins fans with the benefit of current knowledge are painfully aware that the 1979 team was in great shape on the points differential battle coming into a season finale, only to get their hearts ripped out.

The easy way to deal with all that was to win the game in Philadelphia. It didn’t start well—the Eagles jumped out to a 10-0 lead, but after a tumultuous year, Kilmer took over. He threw for 251 yards and rifled four touchdown passes. Brown stepped up at the big moment and ran for 150 yards. The Redskins won 38-20 and were going to the playoffs. Dallas took care of St. Louis to win the NFC East.

Divisional round weekend began Saturday afternoon in Minneapolis, with the Redskins meeting the Vikings outdoors at old Metropolitan Stadium. Brown ran like his 1972 self, producing 115 yards and rushing for a second quarter touchdown that made it 7-3. Kicker Curt Knight drilled a 52-yard field goal and a 42-yarder, and Washington led the NFC’s top seed 13-10 in the fourth quarter.

Then Fran Tarkenton ripped the hearts out of the nation’s capital. The scrambling quarterback, one of the best in the league, threw for 222 yards on the day, a high number in this era of running offenses and physical defenses. He found John Gilliam twice for touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Kilmer threw a 30-yard scoring pass of his own to Roy Jefferson, but the Vikings won 27-20.

It was a changing of the guard in the NFC, as Minnesota would go on to do what Washington did—first defeat Dallas in the NFC Championship Game, then lose to the Miami Dolphins in the Super Bowl.

The 1973 Washington Redskins were a good team, and anything but boring. The ending was disappointing, but Allen continued to deliver playoff berths.