Saturday, September 16, 2006

Cowboys & Redskins: Part III - The Future Is Now

Prominent Washington lawyer Edward Bennett Williams assumed management control of the Redskins in 1968. He, along with fellow board member Jack Kent Cooke, exerted more control over the Redskins in 1962 when they pushed owner George Preston Marshall to acquiece to the government's demand to integrate the team. Cooke and Williams felt that Marshall was on the wrong side of the issue, both because of the the threatened eviction from government-owned DC (later RFK) Stadium, and because the Skins were fielding a less competitive team without Negro talent.

After watching Tom Landry's success in Dallas, Williams pushed for an upgrade in coaching and achieved spectacular success when he lured Vince Lombardi out of retirement to coach the Skins. The Redskins were a competitive 7-5-2 in 1969, their first winning season in 14 years. The shock of Lombardi's untimely death in 1970 numbed the franchise almost as much as it did the Green Bay Packers.

When Los Angeles Rams coach George Allen became available in 1971, Williams jumped at the chance to bring him to Washington. Allen amassed a 49-16-4 record in five years with the Rams.
"I gave Coach Allen an unlimited budget and he exceeded it." -- Edward Bennett Williams

Over The Hill. Allen believed in veteran players and traded draft choices to get them, especially for players he had a relationship with, like Jack Pardee, Ron McDole, and Verlon Biggs. He was heavily criticized for signing aging "has beens" to big contracts. Orthodox philosophy was to build through the draft for the future. Allen countered that you never knew how a rookie would turn out. A high prospect player could get injured. Young players make mistakes. He wanted proven talent. He wanted immediate results. "The future is now" he famously said.

The results were immediate. The Redskins became periennial contenders through the '70s. Allen went 67-30 in his stay with Washington. The league was shocked that a group of "has beens" could be so successful. Pundits referred to Allens' crew as "The over the hill gang" named for a popular made-for-TV movie of the same name. That story, starring Walter Brennan, was about a group of broken down, retired Texas Rangers who brought law and order to the West.

America's Team. Ironic that the 1970s Redskins would be identified with TV Texas Rangers. The Dallas Cowboys emerged as "America's Team" and the road to the playoffs went through Dallas. Allen used that to motivate his team. To Allen, it was not enough just to beat Dallas, the Redskins had to beat Dallas' record. Every game to him was a Dallas game. Every loss was a killer.
"Every time you lose, you die a little. Not all of your organs, but a portion of you; maybe just your liver." -- George Allen

Everyone can see. There was a second influence that brought the Redskins-Cowboys rivalry to prominance and it was huge. NFL Commissioner Pete Rozell worked tirelessly to promote the league and by 1970 had signed national TV contracts with the networks that brought huge audiences to the game. The contract also launched Monday Night Football.

Television is all drama and stars. For drama, the networks wanted games that influenced the playoff race and it wanted identifiable rivalries. And recognizable personalities. There was eccentric, secretive, highly competitive George Allen developing a legitimate challenger to America's Team. TV maximized rivalries. Oakland vs. Kansas City (actually, John Madden's Oakland vs. anybody) and Minnesota vs. Green Bay held appeal. But Washington vs. Dallas could feed the TV beast with Allen vs. Landry, Over The Hill Gang vs. Doomsday Defense, Stauback vs. Kilmer/Jurgensen, Drew Pearson vs. Charley Taylor and an early touch of Red vs. Blue -- another irony given the Redskins history under Marshall.

The rivalry was already intense to Redskins and Cowboys followers. National TV made it famous. As the national audience tuned in to the intensity, there was Allen who was making the games meaningful to the post-season. Allen is forever tied to "making" the Redskins-Cowboys rivalry.

Redskins and Cowboys. The Redskins did not disappoint. They stunned the Cowboys 21-16 in the first meeting in 1971 and were greeted by 10,000 delerious fans who welcomed tham home at the airport. Landry won the rematch 13-0 enroute to Super Bowl VI.

The highpoint of Allen's tenure in Washington was the 1972 team that was 11-3 and got as far as Super Bowl VII. The Cowboys were off to a 20-7 lead in the game at RFK when the Redskins pulled out a 24-20 win. It was the first time anyone was aware that the stadium could be made to shake. Dallas won the rematch in Dallas 34-24, but both teams made the playoffs, Washington as division champs.

That set up one of the most famous events in Redskins lore, the 1972 conference championship game. Washington held home field advantage and the Over The Hill Gang held Dallas to 73 passing yards. Charlie Taylor caught two touchdown passes from Billy Kilmer. With Curt Knight's four field goals, the Redskins crushed the Cowboys 26-3.

The Skins under Allen were always a playoff calibre team, but never made it all the way back after '72. (Among the NFC East contenders was Don Coryell's St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals took the division in 1974 and '75. Coryell had on his staff a promising young offensive coordinator named Joe Gibbs. For more of Gibbs' story, look here.)

The Over The Hill Gang had several memorable games with the Cowboys. Ken Houston's mano~a~mano stop of Walt Garrison at the one yard line on a Monday Night game comes to mind. We don't speak of the Clint Longley game around here. By 1977, the Gang really was showing the effects of age and were swept by the hated rivals.

Allen left the Redskins to return to the Rams for what he thought was a better deal. He would call that a mistake. But his effect on the Redskins survived his departure. Jack Pardee and Richie Pettibone, both Allen disciples, coached the George Allen defense into the 1990s. Then, ex-Cowboys offensive coordinator Norv Turner came along and changed everything.

Damned Cowboys won again.

For the official Redskins summary of the rivalry, look here.

For a graphic depiction of the rivalry, look here.

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