1972: Remembering Washington’s first playoff win in 30 years

ST. LOUIS, MO - DECEMBER10: Head coach George Allen applauds his team on the sideline during a game against the St. Louis Cardinals on December 10, 1977 at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Missouri. The Redskins defeated the Cardinals 26-20. (Photo by Nate Fine via Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MO - DECEMBER10: Head coach George Allen applauds his team on the sideline during a game against the St. Louis Cardinals on December 10, 1977 at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Missouri. The Redskins defeated the Cardinals 26-20. (Photo by Nate Fine via Getty Images) /

When George Allen took over as head coach of the team now called the Washington Commanders in 1971, the franchise had not won a playoff game in almost thirty years. Allen, with his “future is now” mantra, set about immediately to correct that. He traded virtually all his draft picks for proven veterans and returned the team to the playoffs for the first time since 1945. They lost a heartbreaker to San Francisco in 1971. Allen was determined to do better the following season.

On Christmas Eve, 1972, the Green Bay Packers came to RFK stadium. George Allen was ready.

Washington and Green Bay had played a month before, with Washington earning a hard-fought victory 21-16. However, since that game, Washington had finished the season 1-2 (in part due to resting star running back Larry Brown in those two losses), while Green Bay had been on a roll, winning three straight by a combined score of 86-34.

On paper, the teams were very similar. Both relied on stingy defenses and powerful running games. This was an era in which most teams relied on the run. Miami had two 1,000-yard rushers in Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris. Dallas featured Calvin Hill and Walt Garrison. Washington’s own Brown and Charlie Harraway combined for almost 1,800 yards on the ground (and this was back when teams played 14-game seasons.)

Green Bay could match any of them. As the New York Times wrote in a preview of the game:

“The Packers will roll out John Brockington and MacArthur Lane, who represent 445 pounds of hard running and blocking power. They have gained 1848 yards this season…”

Allen knew how potent the Packers backfield could be. In the regular season game, Green Bay trailed by just one point in the 4th quarter, and though Washington’s running backs outgained Green Bay’s, it was very close. Green Bay’s quarterback Scott Hunter had been knocked out of that game early, and his replacement, rookie Jerry Tagge, could do nothing. Hunter was a classic game manager, but if Green Bay could again establish its running game come playoff time, it might only take one or two key plays from the Packers’ QB to make the all the difference.

Allen was not going to let that happen. He had a secret weapon. His name was Manny Sistrunk.

Sistrunk often started at defensive tackle in 1970 and 1971, but when Bill Brundige moved inside, and veteran Diron Talbert arrived from Los Angeles, Sistrunk went to the bench.

Allen knew that Green Bay was going to pound the ball straight ahead, and he bet that Hunter could not beat his secondary, even if he had a little extra room to throw. So he did what the current Commanders have routinely done over the past two seasons with the likes of Matt Ioannidis, Daniel Wise, and John Ridgeway. He inserted Manny Sistrunk into a five-man defensive front. The tough 265-pound Sistrunk played nose tackle and Green Bay’s vaunted running attack was stuffed.

Lane carried 14 times for 56 yards. Brockington, who ran for more than 1,000 yards during the regular season, managed just 9 yards on 13 carries. Green Bay also liked to throw in the flat to both backs and time and time again, the smallest player on the field, 170-pound Pat Fisher, would come forward to chop them down, preventing Green Bay’s offense from ever getting started.

Even so, Green Bay did manage to move into field goal position in the second quarter, thanks to a sideline catch by Jon Staggers, and rookie kicker Chester Marcol booted a short field goal to put the Packers on top, 3-0.

On the ensuing kickoff, rookie Herb Mul-key ran the ball back 42 yards, which proved to be the longest play of the day for either team. Soon after that, Billy Kilmer hit Roy Jefferson on a perfect post pattern and Washington took the lead, 7-3. It was the only score Washington would need.

The defense stopped Green Bay all day. Brundige and Sistrunk had sacks. Chris Hanburger picked off Hunter, and Green Bay would never score again. Curt Knight would kick three field goals for Washington to make the final score 16-3.

There was one play early in the game that would go down in Washington lore, and which, had this game been played in 2022, may well have significantly altered the outcome.

Kilmer was sandwiched by Packers ends Alden Roche and Sweeny Williams. His helmet was almost knocked off his head, and in today’s game there would have been a roughing penalty and Williams might well have been tossed.

And Kilmer – absolutely, positively – would not have been allowed to re-enter the game. In the language we used to use back then, he had gotten his bell rung. He had to be helped off the field, staggering the whole way. Backup Sam Wyche began warming up on the sidelines. I’ll let noted Washington chronicler Michael Richman tell the rest of the story:

“I was really wobbly,” Kilmer recalled…”I’m on the bench and they’re giving me smelling salts. The doctor is telling me to read the scoreboard, and I can’t even see it. Richie Petitbon runs up to me and says ‘Billy, Billy – you’ve got to get back in the game.’ I said ‘why?’ He said ‘Sam Wyche is warming up, and he’s already thrown two interceptions.’ I started laughing. That just brought me out of nearly passing out.”

Yep – things were different in 1972. And Washington was not only back in the playoffs. They had a win, the first since December 14, 1943. It set up the ultimate showdown with the Dallas Cowboys the following week, with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

But more on that game another time. For now, we’ll just celebrate what happened 50 years ago today, when a backup defensive tackle, an undersized cornerback, and one tough-as-nails QB smashed open a door that had been locked for three decades and allowed Washington football to finally return to the forefront of the NFL.