December 31, 2011

1972: Redskins Dominate Cowboys for NFC Title

In 1971 the Washington Redskins made it to the postseason for the first time since 1945, and in ’72 they were looking to go farther. Head Coach George Allen had shown a preference for utilizing veteran players in his previous coaching stop with the Rams and if anything that inclination had become even more pronounced in Washington. “The Over the Hill Gang” was long on experience. Player for player, they might not have been the most talented team in the conference, but they had plenty of spirit and savvy. The key player on the conservative, ball-control offense was HB Larry Brown, the league’s consensus MVP and leading rusher with 1216 yards. When they passed, they had outstanding wide receivers in Charley Taylor and Roy Jefferson.

33-year-old Bill Kilmer (pictured above), in his second year in Washington after previous stints with the 49ers and Saints, started the season at quarterback over 38-year-old veteran Sonny Jurgensen. While Jurgensen was an all-time great passer, Allen favored Kilmer as being better suited to his ball-control offense, although he was repeatedly booed by the fans. Jurgensen had finally retaken the starting job four weeks into the year, but when the increasingly-brittle veteran suffered an injury three weeks later, Kilmer returned to the lineup and stayed there. He might not have passed often – or with great style – but he ended up leading the league in touchdown passes (19, tied with Joe Namath of the Jets).

Allen built his reputation as a defensive coach, and the defense was the club’s strength. Six of the starters were over 30, including DE Ron McDole; linebackers Myron Pottios, Jack Pardee, and Chris Hanburger; CB Pat Fischer; and FS Roosevelt Taylor, but they were talented and played aggressively. They also were the stingiest unit in the NFC, giving up 218 points.

The Redskins had topped the NFC East with an 11-3 record and won their Divisional playoff game over the Packers without allowing a touchdown. In the NFC Championship game on December 31, 1972 they would be facing their division rivals and defending NFL Champions, the Dallas Cowboys. The Redskins had used a five-man front to beat the Packers (a ground-oriented team with a miniscule passing attack) in the Divisional playoff but were back in their standard 4-3 to face Dallas.

Under Head Coach Tom Landry, the Cowboys had finished second in the division at 10-4 and made it into the postseason as a wild card entry. Player-for-player, they were more talented than the Redskins and were coming off of a thrilling come-from-behind win over the 49ers in the Divisional playoff at San Francisco. Roger Staubach, who became the starting quarterback in 1971 when Dallas won the Super Bowl, had been lost to injury for most of ’72 and replaced by Craig Morton. However, it was the fourth-year veteran out of Navy who relieved Morton and rallied the Cowboys in the dramatic win the previous week, and Landry went with him as the starter in the NFC title game.

There were 53,129 in attendance at RFK Stadium on a dark and misty New Year’s eve. The Redskins took the opening kickoff and Kilmer completed passes of 15 yards to Roy Jefferson and 13 to Charley Taylor to get to the Dallas 41. Three plays later, Kilmer connected with Larry Brown at the 31, but he fumbled and FS Cliff Harris recovered for the Cowboys to end the threat.

Dallas was unable to capitalize – in fact, the defending champs were able to run just six plays in the opening period. The Redskins regained possession and put together a 16-play drive that lasted over nine minutes and led to Curt Knight’s first field goal, from 18 yards in the second quarter for a 3-0 lead. Larry Brown ran for 31 yards in the series and caught a pass for nine. Later in the period, Kilmer connected with Taylor for a 51-yard gain on a fly pattern and then again on a post pattern for a 15-yard touchdown.

Before the half was over, and down 10-0, the Cowboys got off their only meaningful drive of the game, highlighted by Staubach’s 29-yard run on a quarterback draw to the Washington 39. Toni Fritsch kicked a 35-yard field goal. Fritsch had another chance at a field goal on the final play of the first half, but missed from 23 yards – his first failure all year from inside the 30. Washington held a 10-3 lead at halftime, but had been more dominant than the score indicated.

There was no scoring in the third quarter, with the Cowboys unable to move the ball beyond their own 30. An opportunity was missed when Kilmer fumbled at his own 32 and the ball rolled deeper into Washington territory. Two Dallas players had a chance to recover and missed, but the Redskins finally regained possession at their 18. The ensuing punt only traveled to the Dallas 44, and Charlie Waters, a starting cornerback as well as punt returner, fielded the kick and lost yardage to his 39; a clipping penalty took the ball even farther back, to the 24 yard line. In addition, Waters suffered a broken arm on the play.

Charley Taylor had repeatedly burned Waters and now a replacement, Mark Washington, would be entering the contest. On the first series after the new cornerback entered the game, Kilmer went right at him and completed four passes, including one for a 45-yard TD to Taylor two plays into the fourth quarter. That made the score 17-3 and essentially wrapped up the game for the Redskins.

Washington pulled away, scoring 16 points in the final period. Knight (pictured below) kicked three more field goals, from 39, 46, and 45 yards. After an erratic regular season in which he was successful on just 14 of 30 field goal attempts, the fourth-year placekicker had been good on all three of his three-point tries against the Packers and was a perfect four-for-four against Dallas. The final score was a convincing 26-3.

The Redskins held Dallas to just 194 total yards and 8 first downs while accumulating 316 yards and 16 first downs themselves. Each team turned the ball over once, but the Cowboys spent most of the game on their end of the field. The Redskins converted 10 of 18 third downs while Dallas was successful on just three of 12.

Bill Kilmer was highly efficient with his passing, completing 14 of 18 throws for 194 yards with two touchdowns and none intercepted. Charley Taylor (pictured below) was sensational as he caught 7 of those passes for 146 yards and the two big TDs. Larry Brown ran the ball 30 times for 88 yards and caught two passes for 16 more.

For the Cowboys, Roger Staubach was forced to scramble often against the tough Washington defense that kept his receivers well covered. He ended up being successful on just 9 of 20 throws for 98 yards and, while he was the team’s leading rusher with 59 yards on five carries, he was sacked three times. No Cowboy caught more than two passes, with WR Ron Sellers gaining the most yards (29) on his pair. Of the running backs, HB Calvin Hill accumulated the most yards with 22 on 9 attempts.

Said a jubilant George Allen afterward, “I’ve said all along, give me a bunch of older men who have taken care of themselves and I can go all the way.”

Asked why he didn't throw more often earlier, Kilmer said, “you can't go to the well too often. Dallas has a smart team and they'd pick one off if you did it too often.”

Added Kilmer, “I think they thought I was going to go to Roy Jefferson more and that could hurt them, so they covered him more. So I went to Taylor.”

“Washington deserved to win,” said a disappointed Tom Landry. “They were playing excellent football in every phase.”

While the Redskins were NFC Champions, they did not end up with the NFL title. They lost to the undefeated Miami Dolphins in the Super Bowl. In 1973, they reversed places with the Cowboys, who recovered to win the division title, and made it into the playoffs as a wild card. Washington lost in the Divisional round to Minnesota. Dallas again reached the NFC Championship game – and again lost, this time to the Vikings.