It was a real test of character," says George Allen. "We had nothing to gain." The nasal voice, which has to rate as one of the most effective psychological-warfare weapons of modern times, grows husky with emotion. The darting eyes stop and cloud with what seem to be tears. The knuckles whiten; the jaw grinds. "I haven't gotten over it yet."
George Allen is reliving, as he has a thousand times, his team's humiliating 26-3 defeat at the hands of the lowly Philadelphia Eagles in the final game of the 1975 season. According to the Georgian philosophy, the mark of a truly great team—and of course its coach—comes at those moments when all is truly lost. Excellence at such a time indicates real courage, real talent, untainted by crass considerations of Super Bowl success and money. And certainly the Washington Redskins had nothing crass to gain on that snowy December Sunday in Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. Dallas had bumped them out of the playoffs just a week earlier, 31-10, and for the first time in the five years since George Allen had arrived, there would be no postseason for the Redskins. It was just the right moment, by Allen's standards, to light the torch for tomorrow. Instead, the Redskins fizzled. "I made up my mind right then," he says, gesturing at a blackboard full of new Redskin names, "to do all of this."
"All of this" means the four very expensive free agents Allen signed during the off-season when he raided Owner Edward Bennett Williams' checkbook again in a blatant attempt to buy a Super Bowl championship for the Redskins. For an estimated $1,500,000, spread over a 15-year period, Allen acquired Fullback John Riggins of New York Jets and Mohawk haircut fame. For some $135,000 a season he picked up Halfback Calvin Hill, the Dallas Cowboy who turned Hawaiian during last year's World Football League misadventure. For something between $70,000 and $90,000 he added Tight End Jean Fugett, who played out his Cowboy option while catching 38 passes last season. And for a mere $50,000 to $60,000 more he took former Heisman Trophy winner Pat Sullivan off the Atlanta Falcons' bench, where he had been cooling his heels for four years. Money may be a crass consideration come game time, but it has its charms in beefing up a floundering team. To make ends meet, though, Allen seems to have neglected his old Redskins—indeed, some 10 veterans have not yet signed their 1976 contracts. Also, despite the Redskins' having the top NFL ticket price of $18, Allen has skimped heavily on training-camp expenses and dropped out of the CEPO scouting combine for a saving of some $100,000.
What left many students of the Georgian mind a bit puzzled, though, was that the Redskins were particularly deep at the very positions into which these newcomers would ostensibly fit. Fullback Larry Brown seems finally healed after his surgery of three years ago. Mike Thomas was the NFL's best rookie running back in 1975 with 919 yards rushing and 483 more as a pass catcher. Behind them stood such capable journey-men as Moses Denson and Bob Brunet. At tight end Allen had two perennial standouts, Jerry Smith and Alvin Reed, and at quarterback the irrepressible Billy Kilmer, not to mention Randy Johnson and Joe Theismann.
August 15, 1976
So, Allen's money madness seemed a particularly costly redundancy in light of the team's obvious weaknesses—an offensive line tattered by injuries and a defense that, though still better than most in football, is about to trip over its collective beard. "No matter how many good football players you have," Allen says, his eyes once more in motion, "if you can get another good one, you go for him." What he doesn't say, however, is that of the free agents available this year there were no really outstanding examples of the genera guard, tackle, center, cornerback or safety. And because Allen has already used up nearly every worthwhile draft choice from now until the Second Coming, he was in poor position to trade. Thanks to the Rich Four, and the men whom they challenge, he now is.
Last week, as the Redskins prepared to play the Baltimore Colts in their second preseason game, the tensions generated by these possibilities hung like a heat haze over the team's camp in Carlisle, Pa.—the haze that precedes a violent electrical storm. Walking the somnolent, gloomy campus of Dickinson College, one could practically hear the clicking of Allen's mind as the tumblers fell. As a warm-up, Allen had just dealt Defensive Tackle Manny Sistrunk and three more future draft choices to Philadelphia for Cornerback Joe Lavender, who will try to replace the retired Mike Bass. To complicate matters, Wide Receiver Charlie Taylor, the NFL's alltime pass-receiving leader, had fractured his left shoulder in Washington's 17-10 win over Atlanta the week before, and now Allen probably felt he needed another pass catcher.
In the team's favorite watering hole, a baroque saloon called Gingerbread Man, where plastic plants droop from the fretwork and marble nymphs mope against stained wooden pillars, Redskins nursed beers and sought to see the future. Denson, at 32 a balding veteran of both Canadian and NFL action, eased his bruised left hip while Thomas tried to cheer him up. The jukebox played A Whiter Shade of Pale.
Randy Johnson, chafing under the uncertainty, violated the First Commandment of the Georgian code by airing his doubts to the press. "I haven't had any work all week," said the 10-year quarterback. "I'm probably going to tell the coach that I'd like to be signed or traded, or I'll give him a deadline to make the decision. If not, I guess I'll have to leave. I'd like to work out an agreement where I won't get to a team too late to learn a new offense. That's my only hangup."
About the only happy talk in Carlisle came from the Rich Four themselves. As Riggins lounged on the steps of Adams Hall, the dorm that houses the Redskins, he reflected on his reasons for joining the Allen crusade. The Mohawk days are gone from Riggins' life for good, along with the wild mood swings that characterized his early years as a country boy turned New York superstar. He now wears a short, tousled hairstyle and a rather skimpy cookie-duster mustache, but the aura of the china-shop wrecker still emanates.
"I don't know," he says, "I suppose I could have gotten more money from some other team. But that wasn't my only consideration. I wanted to be with a contender and, more than that, with a coach who can handle veterans. That's been Coach Allen's strength all along." What about the supposed weakness of the Redskins' offensive line? "The Jets were primarily a pass-blocking team, built to protect the knees of one man. The offensive line didn't get out there and move people around for the running backs—not very often, at least. Still, I got 1,005 yards last year. Don't get me wrong; every running back wants good linemen out ahead of him because that multiplies the options in a broken field. But I've done without, and I guess I can still handle it."
How about Washington itself, as a place to live and work?
"I get lost whenever I go there," he laughs, still the country boy at one level. "There's something about streets that go in circles...." He stretches his right leg and winces slightly. A hamstring pulled two weeks earlier in practice has still not fully healed, and he will miss the second preseason game as he missed the first. George Allen is gentle with expensive fullbacks, particularly when they have not yet paid for themselves.
Jean Fugett, too, is slightly injured. "I broke a small bone in my wrist against the Falcons," he says, "but it's nothing much. I'll probably play tonight. I hope so, because it's Baltimore and that's my hometown." He smiles wide and warm at the thought. "This is only my fifth year in the game but I've learned that there's no Utopia in a football situation. Still, I wanted out of Dallas and I wanted to get back to where I could set down some roots, both for myself and my family. I wasn't making enough with the Cowboys to come back to Baltimore during the off-season. Now I'm right next door."
Already the roots are going down: during the off-season Fugett, who graduated from Amherst and has ambitions in journalism, worked for The Washington Post as a straight news reporter covering Maryland. During his college summers he had interned on the Baltimore Sun, and in Dallas he set up a black news program for a local radio station. "I want to communicate with black kids, and I want to do it through the written word," he says. "But it's tough. They don't read much, mainly watch TV for news. All that violence. But I'm going to try it. I've got so much to tell them about what it's like being a black kid growing up in this world."
Yes, but what can Fugett give the Washington Redskins before he shifts gears from cleats to words?
"Well," he says, "I can play inside or out. Tom Landry put me in motion last year and I caught a lot of passes. I think that the tight end position is evolving more rapidly than most others in modern football. The Ditka days of brute strength and sheer aggression are over. Sure, you've still got to be a good blocker, and I'm at least average. But I'm also quick and, I hope, fairly intelligent. I can wait a step to see where a cornerback or linebacker is heading and still get over there and cut him down, or break past him and fly if it's a pass play." He grins at the thought, and the smile itself seems to fly. "Shucks," he says, "I weigh 225 and I'm still growing, growing, growing!"
So is Quarterback Pat Sullivan, or so he hopes. At an even 6' and 195 pounds, he is somewhat small for a quarterback of the future, but he quickly points out that neither Bob Griese nor Fran Tarkenton is exactly a giant. "I hope to grow in the area of smarts," he says. "That's why I'm glad it worked out this way. Not only does Washington have a fine organization, but Billy Kilmer is one of the smartest quarterbacks going. If I have to learn from the sidelines, this is a great place to do it. Sure, you'd love to play every week, every offensive series. But quarterbacks are slow growers, and you have to be patient. I've got a strong arm and I can run, and I think I've already got a start toward intelligence on the field. And I know I've got plenty of patience."
That is a quality people need if they wish to spend much time in the domain of George Allen. Right now, shortly before the buses leave for the Baltimore game, Allen is in his office considering Randy Johnson's transgression, spread before him in the morning paper.
"Randy will get his...." He pauses and smiles, looking in the instant like Ronald Reagan as The Gipper. "Will get his chance," he concludes. "He'd better be prepared. You know, you can often learn a lot more about a man off the field than you can on. Temperament is very important to me. Still, let's say this about Randy: I have confidence in him." The Gipper's smile turns cryptic. Then another problem knocks gently, almost timidly, at the door. Moses Denson enters.
"Coach," he begins, "you said at the meeting for any player who's got an injury who don't think he should play tonight to come to you...."
"Come in, Moses, come in," says Allen heartily. He turns to a guest. "You'll excuse us for a moment, won't you?" He sighs as he closes the door. From within, for the next 10 minutes, comes the coaxing vibration of Allen's voice, gentle but insistent, generating a kind of ultrasonic psychological heat that begins to work persuasively on a listener who cannot hear his words. Then the door opens and Denson emerges, smiling confidently.
"Told him to put an extra pad on that bruised hip of his," Allen says. "Now here's an interesting thing. All the reporters are saying I bought too many running backs, but tonight I've got to start a fullback with a hip pointer. Riggins can't play because of the hamstring. I don't want to start Larry Brown, even though he's better now than he's been since '72. And Bob Brunet is laid up with the flu. Who could have predicted that? The longer I coach, the less things surprise me."
Still, the outcome of the game in Baltimore last Friday night must have been a bit of a jolt. Barring a meeting in the Super Bowl next January, it would be the only confrontation of the Colts and Redskins this year. Enhanced by the Baltimore resurgence of last year, the game attracted a record preseason crowd of 35,575 to Memorial Stadium. And that despite a violent thunderstorm that delayed the kickoff nearly half an hour. When the lightning moved offstage, Colt Quarterback Bert Jones moved on with his own brand of pyrotechnics. Hitting on nine of 15 passes, most of them flat-trajectoried zingers, and mixing them up nicely with the running of Lydell Mitchell (79 yards for the evening), Jones put together drives of 60, 17 and 93 yards for touchdowns. The young and aggressive Colt defense, meanwhile, held the Redskins' movement mostly to midfield reaches. The best Washington could produce was a 21-yard field goal by Mark Moseley after a drive stalled at the Colt four-yard line, a frustrating reminder of 1975.
Sure, Billy Kilmer was brave as always during the first half, and Mike Thomas' feet were as shifty as ever, though he never managed to break loose for a long gainer. The Redskin starting defense also played with its usual aplomb after a modicum of early mistakes. But Denson started at fullback, as ordered, and went nowhere but deeper into pain. When he came out of the game, the veteran Redskins cheered him and clapped him on the back, a clear reflection that they knew his future and that it probably wouldn't be with them. Larry Brown ran a few sweeps, and indeed his knees looked better than they had in a long while, but the spring was not back yet.
Calvin Hill alone of the Rich Four saw a bit of meaningful action. Shortly after the Redskin drive bogged to a mere field goal, Hill, who had knee surgery last season, churned a pair of runs that might have led to a touchdown if he had entered the game earlier. It was the Calvin of old, big and rangy, with the quick eyes for holes and angles, the shifting gait that confuses once he has reached his stride beyond the line of scrimmage. All told, he picked up 13 yards in four carries—not much, but a beginning.
The heavy rains came again in the fourth quarter and Hill stood on the sidelines, observing the whipping impassively. The rain gleamed in his hair and on his Biblical beard. His eyes watched without emotion but with deep intelligence. Gradually a force field seemed to spread from where he stood at the far left of the team on the sidelines, calming the men near him, calming even the assistant coaches who paced, wet and miserable, around George Allen. Eventually it seemed to reach Allen, to ease his ravenous demand for victory even in the bleakest hour, and to reassure him that the torch was indeed being re-ignited, if more slowly than he had wished. The final score was Colts 20, Redskins 3.
"I'm not at all discouraged," Hill said in the locker room. His voice, soft and a touch high for such a big man, poured calm and sanity on the wreckage. "We've got good plays, sophisticated plays, and they take time to work smoothly," he said. "But the mistakes were small ones. They can be rectified. Like the others, I came here to be with a contender, and we are a contender."
Perhaps no one, not even George Allen, can buy a Super Bowl ring. But certainly Allen, with his almost mystical eye for mature players, men with the patience, strength, calm and savvy of Calvin Hill, can buy the down payment on one. Yes, he bought a contender.