September 18, 2010

1972: Plays by Special Teams Key Redskins Win Over Vikings

Among the notable achievements of George Allen’s football coaching career, he was an innovator in the development of special teams play and had been the first to hire an assistant coach specifically to handle special teams (Dick Vermeil, who would go on to have a prominent coaching career of his own, in 1969 while with the Rams). On September 18, 1972 special teams play led the way to an opening game win for the Allen-coached Washington Redskins against the Minnesota Vikings.

Allen had come to Washington in 1971 after being fired a second time by Rams owner Daniel Reeves (the first time a revolt by the players led to his rehiring). Despite a 49-17-4 record and two playoff appearances over five years, Allen’s intensity and penchant for total control of the organization led to friction with the Rams owner. Allen was hired by the Redskins, who had posted winning records only four times since last appearing in the postseason following the 1945 season. With his attention to detail, motivational skills, and win-now approach exemplified by committing to veteran players who came to be known as the “Over-the-Hill Gang”, Allen guided Washington to a 9-4-1 record and wild card playoff spot in ’71.

The Redskins faced a significant challenge in taking on the Vikings at Metropolitan Stadium in a Monday Night Football contest. Under Head Coach Bud Grant, Minnesota had won the NFC Central for the second consecutive year in ’71 (fourth straight counting the pre-merger 1968 and ’69 seasons) and now had QB Fran Tarkenton back on the team after a five-year hiatus with the Giants. The defense was already well established as one of the league’s best, and it was anticipated that upgrading the offense could only make the Vikings an even more formidable contender.

Washington won, 24-21, and to be sure their ground-oriented offense played a big part by gaining 146 yards. RB Larry Brown (105 yards on 21 carries) and FB Charley Harraway (42 yards on 9 attempts) each scored a fourth quarter touchdown to seal the victory. However, Minnesota outgained the Redskins, 382 yards to 203, had more first downs (26 to 11), and sacked QB Billy Kilmer four times while Washington’s defense failed to get to Tarkenton at all. Indeed, Kilmer completed just 7 of 17 passes for 57 yards with an interception while WR Roy Jefferson led the club’s receivers with 4 catches for 38 yards.

By comparison, Tarkenton completed 18 of 31 passes for 233 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions; he connected with WR John Gilliam on an 11-yard TD pass that put the Vikings ahead in the third quarter, and threw a four-yard touchdown pass to FB Bill Brown late in the game that pulled Minnesota to within three points. WR Gene Washington gained 70 yards on three receptions, Gilliam pulled in four passes for 53 yards and the TD, and Brown caught 5 passes for 47 yards and a score.

The Vikings also did well rushing, with 182 total yards on 43 attempts. FB Oscar Reed led the team with 68 yards on 12 carries, Clint Jones added 66 yards on 21 rushes that included a TD, and the mobile Tarkenton ran three times for 35 yards.

What made the crucial difference for the Redskins were key plays by the special teams. Less than three minutes into the game, Bill Malinchak (pictured at top), a marginal seven-year backup wide receiver who had only been activated from the taxi squad a few days earlier, blocked a Minnesota punt and returned it 16 yards for a touchdown and early 7-0 lead for Washington.

With eight seconds left in the second quarter, DB Ted Vactor blocked a 44-yard field goal attempt by the Vikings’ Fred Cox. Then in the fourth quarter, it was Malinchak making another big play when he recovered a fumble on a kickoff return by Clint Jones at the Minnesota 18 yard line to set up a nine-yard touchdown run by Harraway that proved to be the game-clinching score (Brown had just capped a 58-yard drive with a three-yard TD run to give the Redskins the lead).

It was no accident that Malinchak had been playing on special teams against the Vikings; when asked afterward why he had been reactivated for the game, Coach Allen said “because he’s a good special teams man.”

Minnesota’s Grant was well aware afterward of how the special teams plays had affected the game when he summed up that “giving up two fumbles, a blocked punt, a missed field goal, a blocked field goal – the accumulation of that was too much to overcome.”

It was the beginning of a big year for Washington’s “Over the Hill Gang”. They posted an 11-3 record to win the NFC East and advanced to the Super Bowl, although they lost to the undefeated Miami Dolphins. Minnesota had a disappointing 7-7 tally, finishing third in the NFC Central.

Larry Brown (pictured at left) led the NFC in rushing with 1216 yards in an MVP season (Associated Press, NEA, Bert Bell Trophy) in which he also was selected to the Pro Bowl for the fourth consecutive year. He was second in the league in all-purpose yards (1689). Bill Kilmer may not have thrown the prettiest passes, but he operated well enough in Allen’s conservative offense to lead the league in passing (84.8 rating), touchdown tosses (19, tied with Joe Namath of the Jets), and TD percentage (8.4).

Fran Tarkenton performed well even though the Vikings offense as a whole didn’t, ranking second in the NFL in pass attempts (378) and completions (215) and third in passing yards (2651) and passer rating (80.2). He tossed 18 touchdown passes (just behind Kilmer) against 13 interceptions. However, the running game was beset by injuries and the vaunted defense suffered something of a letdown as Minnesota lost five games by a field goal or less.

Bill Malinchak managed to play ten seasons in the NFL, six with Washington, and it was his ability to make plays on special teams that kept him around for so long.