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Flashback Friday—Mel Gray

Sep 19, 2008, 9:00 AM EDT

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Normally this space is given to recount great Redskins victories of the past. This one is about a gut-wrenching defeat. If you want to draw a scowl from any Redskins fan of my generation, there are two names that will do the trick. One is Clint Longley. The other is Mel Gray.

To say that the 1975 Washington Redskins were in a state of change would be like saying that the post-Watergate air in DC was a bit unsettled. Both the federal government and the Redskins were undergoing radical transformations.

Legendary quarterback Sonny Jurgensen had been pushed into retirement by coach George Allen. Running back Larry Brown, just three years removed from an MVP season had been pushed to the bench by second-year back Mike Thomas. Charley Taylor was still the team’s leading receiver in terms of catches, but Frank Grant would wind up leading the Redskins in receiving yards. And Ford’s pardon of Nixon had, well, you can read about that elsewhere.

Going into a November game at Busch Stadium against the St. Louis Cardinals, it was all there for the Redskins. The two teams were tied atop the NFC East with 6-2 records and, having beaten the Cards earlier in the year, Washington could gain a stranglehold on the division. The Skins led most of the way and appeared to have come up with a key goal line stand to save the game. But then the pass went to . . .Mel Gray.

Billy Kilmer had been injured the week before, and with Joe Theismann not yet ready to play, the starting quarterback was journeyman Randy Johnson. The ex-Giant filled in more than adequately, completing 14 of 27 for 252 yards and two touchdowns. The first of those two touchdown strikes came midway through the second quarter as Johnson found Taylor from 36 yards to erase a 3-0 Cardinal lead. For the next 18 minutes, the Cardinals continually drove down the field only to shoot themselves in the foot with turnovers and penalties. St. Louis racked up 427 yards of offense for the game, including 230 with an effective thunder and lightning ground attack. Terry Metcalf provided the quickness, gaining 79 yards, while Jim Otis was the power back, grinding for 109 on 23 carries.

The Redskins were having their problems with turnovers as well, giving it away five times on the day. Still, midway through the third quarter, Johnson threw his second touchdown pass, this one to Thomas, giving the Redskins a 14-3 lead. St. Louis responded as a 47-yard pass interference call aided a drive that ended with Jim Hart throwing an eight-yard touchdown pass to tight end J. V. Cain with 13:35 left in the game.

Mark Moseley kicked a 42-yard field goal with 6:18 left to put the Redskins up by seven. The Cardinals had to punt back to the Redskins. St. Louis burned all of its time outs, and one more first down would have allowed Johnson to kneel down on the ball and seal the win. Washington, though, came up short and punted. Metcalf returned it 19 yards to the Redskins 39 with 1:43 left.

Hart quickly completed two passes to move the Cardinals down to the six. After three incompletions, it was fourth and goal with less than thirty seconds left. Hart dropped back and fired over the middle to Gray a couple of yards deep into the end zone. The ball went into Gray’s arms and, almost immediately, was knocked out by Pat Fisher. Was it a catch?

“It was not a catch,” said Fischer. “The rule says he has to have possession and he didn’t.”

Gray, naturally, disagreed saying, “It was a good catch. It was a touchdown.”

Immediately after the play, it seemed that the officials concurred with Fischer. The Redskins’ defense began to celebrate and the offense headed onto the field.

But wait. The referees were huddling. They conferred and debated and discussed. And then they talked some more.

And eventually, some of them persuaded referee Fred Silva that Gray did have possession with two feet down. So, after what seemed like an eternity but was in reality only about three minutes, the huddle broke and Silva signed a touchdown.

“I’ve never seen them take so long to make a decision,” said George Allen after the game, “That’s like having a World Series and three minutes after the game ruling that the runner is safe at the plate.” Jim Bakken’s extra point tied the game at 17 and the contest went into overtime.

The dispirited Redskins lost the toss and offered little resistance as Otis powered a drive to set up a 37-yard field goal attempt by Bakken seven minutes into the extra period. It split the uprights, and the Cards won 20-17.

The loss sent Washington into a tailspin, the first of four losses in their final six games. They finished third in the division and were out of the playoffs for the first time since Allen became coach in 1971.

  1. Anonymous - Oct 16, 2008 at 3:02 PM

    I was 8 years old at the time. I watched that whole game and remember it well. I was living in Prince George’s County at the time. My dad and I were pulling for the Skins, of course. Quite a dispiriting loss indeed.

    While the officials were conferring for such a long time, I remember seeing many replays of the play in question. I don’t believe Mel Gray ever had possession. But it was indeed a close one. However, had there been reviews back then, I believe it would have been ruled incomplete.

    I also recall Mel Gray jumping up and down in celebration after the ref singaled it was a td.

    This game did lead to the derailment of our season. However, the irony is that it was the lowly 4-10 Eagles who really cost us the season. They dominated us 26-10 in week 3 and then 26-3 at RFK the final game of the season. So even if we had got the call at St. Louis, we still would have missed the playoffs at 9-5, with Dallas and St.Louis still being 10-4.

    I’d love to see this game again sometime, though, painful as that ending was. As well as the other thrilling 1975 battles we had (eg. 30-24 OT win over Dallas, 26-23 OT loss vs. Oakland, and a 31-30 win over the 10-0 Vikings. I watched those games at the time, too. :) ).

  2. Andy - Oct 21, 2008 at 2:09 AM

    Thank you for posting this! I’m a St. Louis Cardinals fan from way back and have been looking for a detailed description of this game for a while now…I remember watching this game on television with my older brother (my dad was down at Busch Stadium watching it live) and even at my 7 years of age I was aware that the Big Red were getting away with one…

    Oh, and by the way, in response to the other posted comment – as I remember it, the player who was jumping up and down in celebration of the refs call was not Mel Gray but J.V. Cain (who dies a few years later in practice). But I could be wrong about that one.

    Also, I remember that NFL Films put out a highlight film about that game with the theme music “Send in the Clowns”…

  3. Joshua - Feb 1, 2009 at 7:55 PM

    I knew there was a reason I still didn’t like the Cardinals. For some reason, I had thought it was Ron McDole who knocked the ball loose, so thanks for setting me straight on that.

  4. Joshua - Feb 1, 2009 at 3:55 PM

    I knew there was a reason I still didn’t like the Cardinals. For some reason, I had thought it was Ron McDole who knocked the ball loose, so thanks for setting me straight on that.

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