On February 6, 1969 the owner of the Washington Redskins, Edward Bennett Williams, introduced Vince Lombardi as the team’s new head coach, executive vice-president, and part-owner at a press conference held at the Sheraton-Carlton Hotel, two blocks from the White House.
The 55-year-old Lombardi was hardly an unknown quantity to the assembled media, and his quip that “to set the record straight, I can’t walk across the Potomac even when it’s frozen” reflected the high esteem to which he was held, as well as the high expectations that accompanied his arrival in Washington. He had led the Green Bay Packers to an 89-29-4 record from 1959 through ’67, winning six Western Conference titles in those nine seasons and five NFL Championships. Three of those league titles were consecutive and the last two were topped by victories in the first two Super Bowls. He stepped down as head coach at that point, although he remained the team’s general manager in 1968.
Restless in a front office role, Lombardi was open to a return to coaching, and while rumors had him going to any one of several teams with coaching vacancies, he had hit it off well with Williams, who offered an ownership share in the team in addition to complete control over personnel. There had been a delay in the hiring due to the Packers being slow in agreeing to release Lombardi from his contract, which had five years left to run, but the way was finally cleared for him to move on (Phil Bengtson, who had succeeded Lombardi as head coach, took over the GM duties as well).
Green Bay had been a losing team in the decade preceding his arrival, and now Lombardi would be taking over a Washington club that had not finished with a winning record since 1955. Most recently, they had gone 17-22-3 in three years under the guidance of Lombardi’s predecessor, Otto Graham, and the best record was 7-7 in the first of those seasons. The team had featured the passing game, with QB Sonny Jurgensen throwing to an excellent group of receivers that included split end Charley Taylor, flanker Bobby Mitchell, and TE Jerry Smith. But Jurgensen was coming off of a sub-par, injury-plagued season in ’68 and Mitchell, moved back to his original position of halfback, was less productive while Smith was shifted to flanker. Moreover, Jurgensen would be 35 by the opening of the 1969 season and Mitchell 34, and there was much speculation as to how the paunchy quarterback, known for his after-hours carousing, would get along with the strict head coach, who nevertheless spoke highly of him during the introductory press conference.
In his remarks to the assembled media, Lombardi also emphasized the need to improve the running game, and Washington’s had been mediocre in recent years. In 1968, HB Gerry Allen led the club with 399 yards while averaging 3.2 yards per attempt. The line had talent, most notably Pro Bowl center Len Hauss. The defense gave up 4683 yards and 358 points in ‘68, but had able performers at linebacker and in the backfield. OLB Chris Hanburger was outstanding, and Lombardi coaxed 35-year-old MLB Sam Huff out of retirement to lend his veteran presence. Pat Fischer and Rickie Harris were capable cornerbacks, and SS Brig Owens intercepted eight passes.
“As of now everybody turns out fresh and with a new start,” summed up Lombardi regarding the personnel that he was inheriting. “That’s the only decent thing to do. This is a new regime.”
The Redskins got off to a 4-1-1 start in 1969 before giving up 41 points apiece in losses to the Colts and Cowboys, with a tie against Philadelphia in between. The end result was 7-5-2, a notable improvement and similar to the 7-5 record in Lombardi’s first year in Green Bay.
Sonny Jurgensen was healthy and benefited from Lombardi’s coaching, leading the league in overall passing in addition to attempts (442), completions (274), completion percentage (62.0), and yards (3102), although he was also sacked 40 times. While Bobby Mitchell retired during training camp, ex-Packer Bob Long caught 48 passes for 533 yards (11.1 avg.) in his place at flanker. Charley Taylor was solid once again with 71 receptions for 883 yards (12.4 avg.) and eight touchdowns and Jerry Smith was a consensus first-team All-NFL selection at tight end with his 54 catches for 682 yards (12.6 avg.) and nine TDs.
Gerry Allen and FB Henry Dyer were the starting running backs in the season-opening game, but they were replaced by HB Larry Brown and FB Charley Harraway in the second half, and it was Brown and Harraway the rest of the way. Brown, a rookie eighth round draft choice out of Kansas State, excelled once Lombardi recognized that a hearing problem caused him to be habitually late off the snap count and had him fitted with a hearing aid. He led the team with 888 yards on 202 carries (4.4 avg.), which was the highest rushing total for a Washington running back in 18 years, and added another 302 yards on 34 catches. Harraway, who had spent his first three seasons with Cleveland, gained 428 yards on the ground and caught 55 passes for 489 yards while proving to be an able blocker.
Len Hauss again went to the Pro Bowl, but the offensive line lacked overall consistency. The defense, while improved, still had holes, giving up 319 points. The pass rush was lacking but, on the upside, Chris Hanburger was joined by rookie Harold McLinton at linebacker, with good results, and the backfield remained a strong suit, with Pat Fischer and Mike Bass at the corners and Brig Owens and Rickie Harris at safety.
Unfortunately for the Redskins, and tragically for Lombardi, there would be no second season to build upon the initial success. The legendary coach was diagnosed with cancer the following June and died on September 3, 1970. Bill Austin, an assistant coach in Green Bay who reunited with Lombardi in Washington following a head coaching stint with the Steelers, guided the club to a 6-8 record in ’70 and it would be another coach, George Allen, who would take the Redskins to the playoffs in 1971 and the NFC Championship in ‘72. Larry Brown, Charley Harraway, and Harold McLinton, as well as Charley Taylor, Jerry Smith, Len Hauss, Pat Fischer, Brig Owens, and Chris Hanburger, would be part of those playoff teams (so would Sonny Jurgensen, but as an injury-plagued backup to Bill Kilmer). In his brief stay in Washington, Vince Lombardi managed to lay groundwork that Allen would be able to build upon.