All NFL teams at one time or another have experienced games with controversial endings. For the Redskins, one of those occurred against the Patriots in Foxboro, Mass., on Oct. 1, 1972.
It was one of the most agonizing losses in team history.
Let’s set the stage.
That year, the Redskins were a preseason favorite to make a deep run in the playoffs under second-year coach George Allen. They beat the Vikings and St. Louis Cardinals in their first two games.
But many Redskin fans were annoyed with Allen’s conservative strategy that relied on defense and special teams, plus a run-oriented offense that made minimal mistakes, and they called for prolific passer Sonny Jurgensen to replace the less thrilling Billy Kilmer.
“The Redskins are a boring team to watch,” Washington Star columnist Tom Dowling wrote about the 2-0 squad. “Not just wearisome or mildly dull, but debilitatingly and crashingly boring, like a three-hour Sunday afternoon sermon on the importance of plotting good works in attaining the blessings of Life Hereafter, the celestial Super Bowl itself.”
There was nothing boring about the final minutes of the Redskins’ next game against the Patriots. Washington’s Curt Knight kicked a 33-yard field goal to tie the game at 24 with about two minutes to play.
But New England was called for roughing the kicker, and Allen opted to take the penalty that gave his squad a first down on the 21. After the Redskins went one yard in three plays, Knight missed a 27-yard field goal with 1:22 left.
But the game wasn’t over.
New England ran the ball three times with little success. On fourth down, Redskins special teams extraordinaire Bill Malinchak stormed through to block the punt. The ball rolled into the end zone, where Malinchak laid a hand on it just before the end line.
His momentum carried him out of bounds while he apparently controlled the ball, but the referee ruled that he didn’t have possession in the end zone and called a safety, making the score 24-23 with 57 seconds left.
After a free kick, the Redskins took the ball on the Patriots’ 48 and positioned Knight for a 50-yard field goal try. It was wide.
In addition to the questionable call with Malinchak, officials ruled that Redskins receiver Roy Jefferson didn’t have both feet down in the end zone and negated a touchdown catch with about two minutes left – although films and photos later showed otherwise.
The Redskins also had themselves to blame. Their defense allowed the Patriots to recover from a 14-0 first-half deficit. Second-year quarterback Jim Plunkett threw for two touchdowns and 255 yards, and rookie running back Josh Ashton ran for 108 more.
“I don’t recall ever losing a more frustrating game,” Allen wrote in a note to the press afterward. “I went for the win rather than the tie. I’d do the same again. We had our opportunities, but we didn’t take advantage. Minnesota was a team victory. Today was a team loss.”
From the final gun, rumors swirled that Kilmer – who threw three touchdown passes that day but missed 7 of 8 throws in the last two minutes – might take a back seat to his rival, Jurgensen, for the upcoming game against the 0-2 Eagles.
Jurgy led most first-team practice drills that week at Redskin Park, and reporters became inquisitive about whether a change was in the works. Allen was guarded when it came to the press, and the questioning made him testy. He barred the media from practice and didn’t publicly announced a quarterback switch.
But on game day, Jurgensen was introduced at RFK Stadium as the starter, marking another chapter in the Jurgensen-Kilmer duel, the Redskins’ first true quarterback controversy of the NFL’s modern era.
The Redskins beat the Eagles, 14-0, as Jurgy completed all seven of his passes in the second half and 14 of 24 overall for 237 yards and a touchdown.
Jurgensen started two more games, wins over the Cowboys and Cardinals, before suffering an Achilles tendon injury against the Giants that sidelined him for the season.
Kilmer shuffled back in and led the Redskins to an 11-3 record, an NFC East title and an appearance in their first Super Bowl ever.
In Super Bowl VII in the Los Angeles Coliseum, they fell 14-7 to the Dolphins, who finished 17-0 in what stands as the only undefeated season in NFL history.
Mike Richman is the author of The Redskins Encyclopedia and the Washington Redskins Football Vault. He also hosts “Burgundy & Gold Flashback,” which airs on Sundays from 9:30-10 a.m. on Sports Talk 570: Powered by ESPN. His web site is www.redskinshistorian.com and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.