When tight end Fred Davis, Washington’s top pass-catcher, suffered a season-ending ruptured left Achilles during the first quarter last Sunday at the New York Giants in the Redskins’ seventh game of the season, I couldn’t help think but think back 40 years to an eerily similar situation.
Redskins fans who think the current six years and counting without a playoff victory seems interminable don’t know how lucky they are. Washington didn’t win a postseason game from 1943-71 and didn’t even reach the playoffs from 1946-70.
So that 1971 wild-card team meant that the town was buzzing as the Redskins opened the 1972 season. A 24-20 home triumph over archrival Dallas, the defending Super Bowl champion, raised Washington’s record to 5-1 and the excitement to a new level as the Redskins headed to New York to face the suddenly formidable Giants.
A victory at Yankee Stadium would make the Redskins 5-0 in the NFC East. Sonny Jurgensen, the star who had missed all of 1971 with a shoulder injury, was back at quarterback after leading the comeback conquest of the hated Cowboys. But on Jurgensen’s first pass against the Giants, his left Achilles ruptured. His season was over and Billy Kilmer, the surprise hero of the 1971 Redskins, was under center again.
Despite Jurgensen’s Hall of Fame arm, the quarterback didn’t matter that much under conservative coach George Allen as long as Washington had running back Larry Brown. On Kilmer’s first play, he handed the ball to Brown. That would be the case on 29 of Washington’s 53 snaps (he caught passes on two others) as Brown powered for 191 yards and two touchdowns in a 23-16 victory.
“We were an I formation team and most of our plays were designed for Larry,” Kilmer said yesterday. “He was so strong and so quick to the hole, but Larry wasn’t a Gale Sayers type who would maneuver around somebody. He would just run over tacklers. Larry was deaf in one ear, but I don’t remember him ever missing an assignment. He’d stand next to me in the huddle to make sure he heard the play. Larry worked so hard. He always wanted the ball no matter how many times he had carried it.”
During his first five seasons (1969-73), Brown averaged 22 carries per game. In 1972, he ran 285 times, just 13 fewer than league leader Ron Johnson of the Giants despite being rested for the final two games with the NFC East crown sealed. Brown finished just 35 yards behind NFL rushing champion O.J. Simpson of Buffalo, who played in two more games. Brown added 473 yards on 32 catches, giving him an NFL-most 1,689 yards from scrimmage, and scored 12 touchdowns. He would lead Washington to its first Super Bowl. No wonder he was voted the Most Valuable Player, the first Redskin so honored.
“I never worried about how much I was carrying the ball,” Brown said on Tuesday. “On any given play, your career could be over. I was focused on getting the most I could out of every carry and helping the Redskins win. I looked at George Allen giving me the ball so much as a vote of confidence that I could do the job. People said I looked like I was dragging back to the huddle, but I knew I was going to get the ball again so I took my time. Billy didn’t throw spirals like Sonny, but we had won with him so we were confident that we could keep winning. But with Billy in the game, defenses could focus on shutting me down.”
Not that defenses succeeded in that mission, especially not in 1972, and especially not that afternoon at Yankee Stadium.
“That was a very good year for me, especially that Giants game,” Brown recalled. “I knew I was tough and I could block. I was never afraid of hitting anybody and knew I could run if given the chance. The offensive line did a really great job of opening holes for me that day.”
Brown’s 29 carries and 191 yards were each the second-most in Redskins history to that point, but they weren’t appreciated by the Giants’ fans, some of whom gave him a postgame beer shower.
“Philadelphia fans were the worst, but that day, the New York fans weren’t very friendly,” said the chuckling native of a hardscrabble Pittsburgh neighborhood who was shot twice while in college in Kansas. “They threw beer at me … and it wasn’t even my brand.”
Brown, who turned 65 last month, retired after the 1976 season, his third consecutive injury-plagued year, something that Kilmer blamed on his buddy’s upright running style.
Still, of the backs who played before him or during Brown’s career, only Simpson, Sayers, Jim Brown, Tony Dorsett, Franco Harris and Walter Payton averaged more yards of offense. Brown outshone Larry Csonka, Jim Taylor, Lenny Moore, Joe Perry and John Henry Johnson.
All 11 of those other backs are Hall of Famers. Brown isn’t enshrined in Canton, something that Kilmer doesn’t understand and that Brown, who works in commercial real estate in Lanham, would like to remedy.
“I feel like I belong with that group,” Brown said. “I never used to say that, but my [football] godfathers, Vince Lombardi and George Allen are gone so I have to make my own case. I’m very proud of being the first Redskins back to run for 1,000 yards, of making the Pro Bowl in four consecutive years, of being voted MVP and of playing in a Super Bowl. People in Washington still recognize me and ask for autographs so I must have done something right. That no one has worn No. 43 since I did says that the Redskins must have liked my performance.”
Of that, there is no doubt.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin