TGS SPECIAL REPORT...WILD CARDS AND THE "OVER THE HILL GANG"
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
The expansion of the pro football playoffs is one of the fascinating differences from our first year of publishing TGS in 1957 to the present. In the late '50s, before there was even an American Football League, there were only twelve professional teams (six in each conference, the Western and Eastern) and one playoff game to decide the NFL title. Almost always those championship games were played before the end of December, too; by comparison, the current regular season extended into January! Interestingly, in our first publishing year, the NFL title game between Cleveland and Detroit was played on December 29. And the Lions haven't won a championship since!
The Wild Card concept was technically hatched in 1969 by the old AFL in the year before the merger with the NFL, though it was a natural outgrowth of the expanded NFL playoff menu that began in 1967, when the league split up its Eastern and Western Conferences into two divisions each, and an extra round for the conference championships before the pre-merger NFL title games. (Though the real course-changer was the 1965 Western Conference playoff between the Packers and Colts, written about on these pages in the past, which so captivated that it gave the league the idea that it might be a good idea to expand its playoff format).
Pete Rozelle, by then the commissioner of both leagues, wanted to gauge fan reaction by inviting runner-up teams in the East and West Divisions into an expanded AFL playoff format in the last year of the league's existence. Thus, in 1969, the winner of the AFL West would face the runner-up from the East, while the East winner would face the West runner-up, in the first round of the playoffs in December before the winners would square off in the last AFL title game on January 4, 1970. This appeased fans in both Kansas City and Oakland, the warring powers of the day in the AFL West who would both have a chance to make the playoffs after only the Raiders advanced in 1968 when both teams finished the regular season 12-2 (Oakland routed the Chiefs, 41-6, in the division playoff before losing bitterly to Joe Namath and the Jets at Shea Stadium for the AFL title the next week).
The term "Wild Card" wasn't introduced by Rozelle, however, until the merger year of 1970, in which the best division runner-up from the three divisions in each of the newly-created conferences (AFC and NFC) would be invited to the playoffs. Although the '69 Chiefs were technically a "Wild Card" entry when they beat the Jets and Raiders in the AFL playoffs before knocking off the favored Vikings, 23-7, in Super Bowl IV.
The "Wild Card Round" technically did not begin until 1978, when a second Wild Card entry was added to each conference, expanding the playoff field to 10 teams. From 1970-77, the playoff fields held eight teams, and first weekends delivered several memorable games. Including perhaps the most-controversial and discussed playoff result of all-time in 1972, when Franco Harris' famed "Immaculate Reception" delivered the Steelers a dramatic 13-7 win over the Raiders, a result that has HC John Madden and all surviving Oakland players and coaches still riled years later. We've talked about the Immaculate Reception and that Steelers-Raiders game in the past, and, in truth, the game was a tedious bore until the final minutes when the only TDs of the game were scored (Ken Stabler's 30-yard scramble for a TD to put Oakland up 7-6 just before the final Pittsburgh possession was, in retrospect, almost as unlikely as Franco's deflected-catch TD with 12 seconds to play).
But in our 60 years of publishing TGS, we don't think we, or the NFL, have ever been as captivated by a Wild Card entry as we were with the 1971 Washington Redskins, the NFC's extra playoff entry that season. It was the first year of HC George Allen's famed "Over The Hill Gang" in D.C., in retrospect the most-colorful team and the authors of the most-colorful chapters of the NFL in the 1970s. Allen's Redskins were almost a Wild Card regular into the mid 70s, too, qualifying four times in that role for the NFC.
Interestingly, the "Over The Hill Gang" never won a Wild Card game in four tries; postseason successes of Allen's Washington teams were limited to 1972, when the Redskins qualified for the playoffs as the NFC East winners and advanced to Super Bowl VII vs. Don Shula's unbeaten Dolphins. But Shula's Miami and almost every other team of the era was downright dull compared to Allen's Redskins, who burst upon the scene in '71 and stayed as a featured attraction thru the Allen years, which ran until 1977.
Washington was a win-starved franchise when Allen arrived, having not won as many as ten games since the 1942 season (though, for information's sake, note that the NFL regular season consisted of only 12 games thru 1960), which was the last year the Redskins (who moved from Boston in 1937) had won an NFL title. It wasn't for lack of trying in the 1960s after the Skins were bought by famed attorney Edward Bennett Williams. "EBW" was perhaps the highest-powered Washington lawyer of his era, heading a firm of heavyweight attorneys, many of whom would make their own marks in decades to come. In the '60s, however, Williams was at the top of his game. First in his class at Holy Cross, first in his class at Georgetown Law School, and famous for his relentless pursuit of justice on behalf of such clients as Jimmy Hoffa, Senator Thomas Dodd, Bobby Baker and Adam Clayton Powell. His voice rang in the chambers of the Supreme Court, as well as the NFL after he bought the Redskins in 1965.
"People are tired of hearing 'building' around here," Williams (right) said in a 1971 Sports Illustrated interview about his team. "They haven't had a football championship since 1945. They haven't seen a World Series since 1933. When the Senators left town last month it shook people up. Now we've come along, and it's like a revival meeting. Everybody's with it. You can have all kinds of cultural centers and parks, but it takes the excitement of a winning sports team to pull a city together. It's the great common denominator.
"The President (Richard Nixon) sends messages [he also arranged an open-phone radio hookup to get the Dallas game to his Key Biscayne retreat]. The mayor has been out to practice to talk to the team. There was a full-page ad in all the papers--a business expressing its appreciation. REDSKINS, YOU'RE BEAUTIFUL, it said. You should have seen the crowd at the airport when we got back from beating Dallas. Eight thousand people. The cars were backed up five miles.
"Everybody wants tickets to the games. We could sell 100,000 seats if we had them. I don't have room in my box for enough people. I can't keep Ed Muskie away. Ethel (Kennedy) and the kids were there Sunday. Chief Justice Warren was bubbling. My wife says she can't go anywhere without being stopped by people wanting to talk about the Redskins. When the man came to fix the refrigerator, he said he'd fix it if she'd give him two tickets."
Now you have an idea why we have such vivid memories of those Allen Redskins!
For all of EBW's successes, however, football, at least until the point he hired Allen, had proven frustrating. Not for lack of trying. Trying to revive the franchise in 1966, Williams hired former Browns HOF QB Otto Graham as his head coach. Graham had enjoyed some successes as coach of the College All-Star team that played the NFL champions to open the preseason each year at Chicago's Soldier Field, though his main job from 1959-65 was as HC at the US Coast Guard Academy. Graham would thus be hired straight from Coast Guard into the NFL, and it was an awkward transition. Graham had communication problems with his players from the outset. And soon he would get on the wrong side of Williams. After a lopsided loss to the Colts, Graham was told that President Johnson was in the stands. "Next time tell him to stay home," said Otto, hardly endearing Graham to his boss. By the end of '68 the Skins had fractured internally, and Williams hit the eject button on Graham.
But Williams wanted to win, badly, and would hire Vince Lombardi as coach and GM for 1969. The Redskins improved to 7-5-2 that season. But we will never know if Lombardi would have created another Green Bay-type monster, as he died of stomach cancer on the eve of the 1970 campaign, with assistant Bill Austin hurriedly appointed to take over on an interim basis. After an exasperating 6-8 season, Williams decided to swing for the fences again. Fortunately for him, Allen, who had led the Rams out of the wilderness after his hiring in 1966, had become available after running afoul of L.A. owner Dan Reeves.
Allen, in high demand, did not come cheaply. Williams gave Allen the kind of contract which in those days was almost unheard for a coach: $125,000 a year for seven years. Plus bonuses, a chauffeur-driven car, house, ad infinitum. He also built Allen (in three months) a half-million dollar field house-and-office complex on six acres in the middle of a forest near Dulles Airport, which became "Redskins Park." Which had two practice fields, one with artificial turf. For that era, those were truly palatial digs. With the Blue Ridge Mountains looming in the background, it was the perfect setting away from the lights for Allen to jump-start the Redskin rebuild.
Allen went about the Washington reconstruction job with zeal. Upon arriving in D.C., Allen made the same basic promise he had made in Los Angeles: "The future is now." He said his goal was 10 victories (as mentioned, the last time the Redskins had won 10 games had been in 1942). He said he would, as always, stress defense. Prior to his arrival, the Redskins' approach to defense could be summed up as getting QB Sonny Jurgensen to throw four touchdown passes. Against the Giants in 1970, Washington scored 57 points in two games and lost them both. Allen said that would not happen again. Ever.
Then came the most dramatic re-make of a roster in our six decades of TGS publishing. Allen started trading and kept trading, nineteen deals in all! Much the same pattern as Allen had done in Los Angeles five years earlier, though more accelerated. Allen went for quality, regardless of how shopworn, and nary a rookie made his first squad, no surprise as Allen shipped off most of the Washington draft picks, which he would continue to do for most of his Redskin tenure. Three of the Rams he acquired were players he had traded for the first time around in Los Angeles five years earlier! Running Back Tommy Mason, age 32; Safety Richie Petitbon, 33; Linebacker Myron Pottios, 32.
Another trade brought in John Wilbur, an offensive guard who was with Allen his last year at Los Angeles. Wilbur had been with four teams in two years. Along the way he was traded to St. Louis. Wilbur decided to quit. Allen sent out a feeler. He considered Wilbur one of those men of "character." Wilbur canceled his retirement. "Football is fun with Allen," Wilbur said. "I love the guy. He synthesizes in a team the importance of winning."
Wilbur noted the number of older players who worked out after practice. "Every time you see Billy Kilmer walk out of here he's got three rolls of film under his arm," he said. Wilbur was very disturbed some Ram players were quoted in a Washington paper criticizing Allen and his ways. Wilbur was moved to call his old friend, Merlin Olsen, in Los Angeles, and to tell him to knock it off. The "Over The Hill Gang," said Wilbur, had absolutely no internal problems. "No troublemakers. No racial hang-ups. No psychological bad guys. No nothing."
Allen did not limit his trade targets to old Rams, who also included DE Diron Talbert and LB Jack Pardee (who would eventually succeed Allen as Washington's coach in 1978). QB Kilmer was acquired from the Saints; WR Roy Jefferson from the Colts; WR Clifton McNeil from the Giants; WR Boyd Dowler from the Packers; DT Ron McDole from the Bills; DE Verlon Biggs from the Jets; DB Speedy Duncan from the Chargers.
The esprit de corps among the Redskins was contagious, and once the team started to win, the momentum grew. Five wins out of the chute in Allen's first season of '71 thrust Washington into the national consciousness. Allen rigged together a defense which made no errors and delighted in forcing enemy offenses into fumbles and interceptions. The offense inherited considerable firepower with QB Jurgensen, WR Charley Taylor, and RB Larry Brown. Later in the season, injuries to those key cogs slowed the strike force, but not before the penultimate week in the final ABC Monday Night Football game of 1971 at the L.A. Coliseum against Allen's old employer, the Rams, then coached by Tommy Prothro. In perhaps the most-ballyhooed game of MNF's first few years of existence, and with playoff implications for both teams, Allen's Redskins won, 38-24, behind a big effort from QB Kilmer, who threw 3 TDP. Cornerback Duncan sewed up the win with a 46-yard pick-six off Roman Gabriel in the final minute. The Skins were into the playoffs, while the Rams would end up a half-game behind their bitter rival 49ers in the NFC West, and miss the postseason entirely.
The Redskins would enter the postseason for the first time since 1945 for a game as the NFC Wild Card at West Division winner San Francisco, during the 49ers' odd first season at Candlestick Park with its rock-hard Astro-Turf and a partially-completed expansion project than made the stadium look like a construction zone elsewhere in the city during that era, when BART projects were tearing up everything in sight.
The Redskins took an early lead, with Kilmer throwing his customary knuckleballs and TE Jerry Smith making unlikely catches, and at the half they were ahead 10-3.
Then Allen, notoriously conservative, went out of character for a gamble in the third quarter with the Skins up 10-3 and threatening to extend the lead as a drive moved deep into 49er territory. With fourth and inches to go on the 49er 11-yard line, a field goal would have put John Brodie & Co. against the wall. But Allen went for the gusto and a first down. It didn't work, as Larry Brown lost two yards, and the 49ers held. Brodie drew deeply at the new breath of life and went to work.
After possession changed, two runs picked up nine yards, and when the Redskins converged on FB Ken Willard on the third-and-one play, Brodie instead threw a long pass to WR Gene Washington, who in later years would date Condoleezza Rice, but on this Sunday, Dec. 26th cradled the Brodie pass at the Redskin 40-yard line and went the rest of the way in lonely splendor for a 78-yard TD. Just like that, momentum swung to San Francisco. Moments later the 49ers were on the loose again, thanks to an interception by Rosey Taylor. This time Brodie hooked up with Bob Windsor on a two-yard scoring pass, and San Francisco had the lead for good. The final score would be 24-20 in favor of the 49ers, but the fans in D.C. were not too displeased. At least the Redskins were back!
As mentioned, there was nothing too remarkable about the other Redskins' Wild Card appearances (in 1973, '74, and '76), all losses, under Allen, but it was still a special football era in D.C., capped by that Super Bowl run in '72 and plenty of other memorable games in the Allen era. Some day soon we might amplify more on additional "Over The Hill Gang" adventures!
As mentioned earlier, the playoffs were altered in 1978 with the addition of a second Wild Card from each conference; more adjustments came in 1990, when a third Wild Card team was added to each conference, upping the total number of postseason participants to 12. This also doubled the number of games in Wild Card weekend (from 2 to 4), as only the top two division winners from each conference would get a "bye" in the first round, and the division winner with the worst record was thrown in with the Wild Card teams in the initial playoff weekend.
When the NFL eventually reconfigured its divisions (from 6 to 8) in 2002, the Wild Card round wasn't fundamentally altered. Although there would technically be only two Wild Cards (as opposed to three), there would still be the same four games in Wild Card weekend, which now featured the two division winners with the worst records along with two Wild Card entries from each conference.
Historically, the Wild Card round has been somewhat fertile territory for the underdogs, who over the years have generally fared better in this round than in subsequent Division Round or conference championships. That trend has somewhat revived the past three seasons, with dogs standing 7-3 (dogs were 3-1 last year). Wild Card dogs, however, had been 1-7 vs. the line in 2011-12. Which should only serve as a reminder that trends with such a thin number of examples are apt to turn around on a moment's notice; remember, in 2010, all four Wild Card round underdogs were pointspread winners. Interestingly, the shorter-priced (1-3 point) dogs stand 32-20-6 vs. the number since '78, including 14-6-2 against the spread the last seven years. Home dogs, usually less frequent in playoff action, have been a noteworthy 15-6-2 vs. the points in first-round games since '78, and oddly there were three of those last year (Cincy covering vs. Pittsburgh and Minnesota covering vs. Seattle, both in close SU losses for the home team, plus Houston not coming close vs. Kansas City in a 30-0 loss).
Still, for the most part of over the past 38 seasons, since the official "Wild Card round" was introduced in 1978, underdogs have generally held their own a bit better than in the division rounds and conference championships. Many insiders believe the absence of the top two conference seeds in the first round has contributed to better overall underdog marks than in subsequent rounds. But it's worth noting that one-sided results are still fairly common in the Wild Card round, with 19 of 42 contests since 2005 being decided by 14 points or more, as have close to half of them (56 of 126) since the Wild Card round was introduced in 1978. "Totals" results have also trended "under" (12-4) the past four seasons, although those results have been not quite as pronouncedy well split ("unders" 32-27-1) since 2001.
Following are the pointspread results for Wild Card playoff games since 1978 (excluding the 1982 "strike" season, when all 16 playoff teams participated in first-round games).
NFL WILD CARD PLAYOFF GAMES SINCE 1978
CATEGORY VS. POINTS
1-3 pt. dogs... 32-20-6
3 1/2 - 6 1/2 pt. dogs... 21-21-1
7-pt. or more dogs.... 14-14
Home dogs... 15-6-2
Road dogs... 51-49-5
Margins of victory (126 total games)--27 games have been decided by 1-3 points, 27 games by 4-7 points, 16 games by 8-13 points, and 56 games have been decided by 14 points or more.
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