Seeing the Los Angeles Rams in helmets with the white horns decal Thursday night instead of the yellow or gold horns that they’ve worn for most of their existence, jogged memories of a Redskins win over those white horned Rams 45 years ago this week. Though it was only a regular season game, it proved to be a turning point from the perennial losers of the 1950’s and 60’s to a consistent championship contender over the next two decades. With a 38-24 win at the Los Angeles Coliseum on December 13, 1971, the Redskins earned a spot in the postseason for the first time since 1945. “The future,” as coach George Allen had promised when he was hired 11 months earlier, was indeed, “now.”
Allen in fact, delivered on that promise right from the jump of the 1971 season. It opened with three road games. And after making it three straight wins with a 20-16 victory at Dallas, more than 5,000 fans greeted the team plane when it arrived back at Dulles Airport. The streak continued with home wins over the Oilers and Cardinals and at the height of the Vietnam War, America took notice of the only 5-0 team in the NFL. Allen’s picture and “Future is now” slogan ran on the cover of Newsweek magazine – big stuff in those days.
The Redskins seemed well on their way to 6-0 when a 36-yard touchdown pass to Charley Taylor just before halftime in Kansas City gave them a 17-6 lead. Unfortunately, Taylor broke his ankle on the play and was lost for the season. The Redskins not only lost the game 27-20, but now would have to go the rest of the way without one of their best offensive weapons. The impact was immediate. They beat a really bad Saints team the following week, but then managed only one touchdown over the next three weeks, going 0-2-1. It looked like the carriage had turned into a pumpkin. The Redskins were 6-3-1 after a 5-0 start. There was only one Wild Card team in each conference in those days, so the playoffs were looking like a long shot.
Division games against Philadelphia and New York proved to be the get-well remedy. They outscored the two teams 43-20 to get to 8-3-1, setting the stage for a game just outside of Hollywood that had all the elements of a good movie script. Allen had been fired by the Rams the year before despite stellar regular seasons all six years he coached there. Friction with the owner and lack of success in the postseason proved to be Allen’s undoing. Now he was going back in a revenge game that could put his team in the playoffs and knock the Rams out of the hunt. Plus the game was on Monday Night Football, which was in its second year – the first year with the legendary booth trio of Frank Gifford, “Dandy” Don Meredith and Howard Cosell. And yes, even 45 years ago, pregame trash talk happened. Rams quarterback Roman Gabriel said, “George Allen might walk off the field with a football in his mouth.”
The Rams were dressed in all white, including the white decals, which were featured on their helmets from 1965-73. The Redskins wore their familiar burgundy jerseys and gold pants. Under the Monday Night Football spotlight it was a beautiful sight. That was, until Kermit Alexander intercepted a Billy Kilmer pass and returned it 82-yards for a touchdown to give the Rams a 7-0 lead. Kilmer answered with a 70-yard touchdown pass to Roy Jefferson and it was game on. Clifton McNeil, who had replaced Taylor in the starting lineup, caught a 32-yard touchdown pass and Larry Brown took it in from a yard out to give the Redskins a 24-10 lead as they went into the dressing room for halftime. Having never seen a Redskin playoff team in my lifetime, I wasn’t going to bed and I’m sure most of the D.C. area wasn’t either.
Anybody that did, would have missed Dandy Don chortling at a kid in a Rams uniform who was twice as big as the other kids in the punt, pass and kick competition at halftime. Turned out to be Andy Reid, who would get even bigger and win big decades later as coach of the Eagles and Chiefs.
Third quarter, it got even better for us Redskin fans. Mike Bass intercepted a Gabriel pass and three plays later, Kilmer threw a five-yard touchdown pass to Jefferson to make it 31-10. But the football gods never make it easy for you when you’ve gone more than a quarter of a century without a winner. Sure enough, the Rams recovered a fumbled punt near midfield to set up a three-yard touchdown pass to tight end Bob Klein, who was lying flat on his back when he caught it. At 31-17 it was on to the fourth quarter.
Gabriel got the Rams offense rolling, throwing passes to Lance Rentzel and Jack Snow to set up a one-yard scoring run by Willie Ellison, who had set the NFL single game rushing record the week before with 247 yards against New Orleans. Now it was 31-24 and anybody who was thinking about going to bed, was abandoning those plans. Redskins kicker Curt Knight could have sent us to slumber, but missed a 43-yard field goal with just over four minutes left and missed again from 39-yards with just over two minutes left.
Gabriel, who had been the MVP of the league, just two years earlier, went to work on trying to tie the score. With 35 seconds left, he had the Rams 61 yards away from the end zone. Gabriel threw a pass to fullback Larry Smith that never got there. Speedy (his real name is Leslie) Duncan stepped in front of the pass and took it 46 yards for the clinching score. You could hear the roar from Roanoke to Rockville. The Washington Redskins were in the playoffs for the first time since Harry Truman was in the White House.
I was among the bleary eyed at Kensington Junior High School the next day, but what the heck, so were the teachers. It had been worth staying up past midnight. It was even sweeter when the Washington Star was delivered to our house on Walnut Hill Road the following day. The afternoon paper featured a cartoon of Gabriel staggering off the field with a football in his mouth.
The Redskins lost a meaningless game to Cleveland the following week to finish 9-4-1, their first nine-win season since 1940. Their Super Bowl dreams ended with a playoff loss in San Francisco the day after Christmas, but this was a winning organization again. Over the next 21 years, the Redskins would be in the playoffs 12 times, winning five NFC championships and three Super Bowls. And it all started 45 years ago this week with a win over that team with white horns on its helmet.