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Flashback Friday—Lombardi’s Skins vs. the Saints

Sep 12, 2008, 5:00 AM EST

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“Gentlemen,” the coach said, “it is not true that I can walk across the Potomac. Not even when it is frozen.”

The assembled media mass at the Sheraton Carlton in downtown Washington laughed on cue. It’s not often that a man can have the Washington press corps, used to dealing with the world famous and the very powerful, eating out of the palm of his hand. But that’s exactly where Vincent T. Lombardi had this group when he was introduced as the new head coach, general manager, and part owner of the Washington Redskins in February of 1969.

And why not? Even new presidents coming to town had just reached the pinnacle of their profession. Lombardi was already a legend, having guided Green Bay to five NFL titles in a seven-year span. Lombardi biographer David Maraniss said that the coach was “an American icon, a coach who transcended his sport.”

With the adulation came expectations. The Redskins hadn’t had a winning season since 1955, a situation that the coach was expected to remedy in short order. To do that, the coach had to find a running back. Gerry Allen, the team’s leading rusher in 1968, had gained just 399 yards and, as a team, the Redskins were outrushed by over 1,000 yards. That’s hardly running to daylight.

Lombardi found his man in unheralded rookie Larry Brown, an eighth-round draft pick. It didn’t take long for the coach to identify Brown’s talent. At the first practice in training camp, he told Sonny Jurgensen, “See that (rookie) over there in the overalls?” pointing at Brown. “When the rest of these guys are gone, he’ll still be here.”

The team started off well, going 4-1-1 and talk of Washington becoming Title Town East began to percolate. Such talk proved to be premature and Lombardi was realistic about the state of the team. “We can be outclassed. We can be overpowered.”

That they were as the schedule grew tougher and they lost to NFL elites Dallas, Los Angeles, and Baltimore. They went into the last two games of the season at 6-4-2, so a split was needed to achieve a winning record, something that Lombardi had never failed to do. As the season finale would be in Dallas, it looked like the game at RFK Stadium against the Saints was a must win.

Two Charley Harraway touchdowns, one rushing and the other on a pass reception, spurred the Redskins to a 17-0 halftime lead and they held off the Saints in the second half to come away with the win

A 25-yard punt return set up Harraway’s first score. From the Saints’ 12, the Redskins lined up in a tight formation. In a role reversal, Brown threw a block that cleared the way for the fullback Harraway and it was 7-0.

A 47-yard return with an interception by Rickie Harris led to a 19-yard Curt Knight field goal. After a New Orleans punt, Jurgensen took to the air, completing three of four passes that accounted for all of the 47 yards in the touchdown drive. The last 30 came on a short toss to Harraway, who blew by the linebacker attempting to cover him and went into the end zone untouched.

During the first half, in addition to Harris’ interception, Mike Bass picked off a Saints pass and Chris Hanburger recovered a fumble, but all the Redskins got off of those three turnovers was the three point’s following Harris’ play. It nearly cost the Redskins in the second half.

Rookie quarterback Edd Hargett, subbing for an ailing Billy Kilmer, brought the Saints’ offense to life. As a taste of things to come in the second half, Hargett moved his team from its own 20 to the Washington five, but the gun ending the half sounded before he could get off a play from there. Hargett led TD drives of 53 and 97 yards in the second half to cut the lead to 17-14. In the game’s last two minutes, he drove the Saints to the Washington 43, but linebacker Harold McLinton tackled Hargett for no gain on fourth down and the Skins were able to kill the clock.

After the season, Lombardi said of the team’s 7-5-2 final record, “I thought we could have had a better won-lost record. I hope we can find some better people.”

Maraniss tells of Lombardi and Jurgensen attending Super Bowl V in New Orleans. They sat too far apart to consult during the game, but they communicated with hand gestures, indicating what play they would have run. Coach and quarterback “nodded in agreement, both certain that soon enough they would be down on the field, playing for a championship, and winning.”

Sadly, it would never happen. Before the 1970 season, Lombardi was gone, a victim of cancer.

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