Monday, September 6, 2010

Redskins Win One for Lombardi, 9/5/70

Recently there has been much debate about the merit of adding two additional games to the NFL’s 16-game regular season schedule. Proponents of this idea say this could be done by reducing the preseason by two games. The preseason, they say, is already too long with four and sometimes five games scheduled, and the risk of injury too great for an essentially meaningless game.

It was not that long ago, however, when the preseason consisted of six games and the regular season of only 14. Professional football had not yet become the year-round business it is today, nor had contracts escalated to the point where owners had to worry about paying guaranteed money to an injured player.

Today, there are more risks than rewards to be had in playing exhibition football, but 40 years ago this week the Miami Dolphins and Washington Redskins threw caution to the wind just like 24 other teams and prepared for their fifth of six preseason games.

The Redskins came to town sporting a 3-1 record, while the Dolphins, under first-year head coach Don Shula, were a perfect 4-0.

The main storyline leading up to the game in Tampa, however, focused less on the teams than on the health of ailing Washington Redskins head coach Vince Lombardi. After stepping down as the head coach of the Green Bay Packers following the 1967 season, Lombardi spent a season as the team’s general manager before taking over as the head coach of the Redskins. He promptly turned around a franchise that had not finished above .500 since 1955, going 7-5-2 in his first season with the team

Then in June 1970, doctors diagnosed Lombardi with cancer. It did not take long to realize that he would no longer be able to coach his team. As the preseason progressed, Lombardi’s conditioned worsened. Bill Austin, Lombardi’s protégé of nearly 14 years, took over the head coaching duties.

While Austin prepared his team for the game in Tampa against the Dolphins, Lombardi fell into a coma while on his death bed at Georgetown University Hospital. On September 3, 1970, Lombardi died at the age of 57, just two months since his diagnosis.

“He had a covenant with greatness, more than any man I have ever known,” said Redskins President Edward Bennett Williams. “He was committed to excellence in everything he attempted.”

Don Shula, who in many ways was Lombardi’s heir apparent, called his death “a great loss to pro football. I feel it has been a real privilege to have been on the same field coaching against him.”

The upcoming game on September 5 – at a time of mourning not just for Redskin fans or Packer fans, but for any fan of football – took on secondary importance, even by preseason standards. Still, there was vital work to be done on the field and Lombardi would not have wanted it any other way.

In front of a surprisingly pro-Washington crowd of 37,151, the Dolphins and Redskins showed up at Tampa Stadium practically in mid-season form. Miami, in particular, played especially sharp in the early-going.

Third-year fullback Larry Csonka scored two rushing touchdowns for Miami in the first four minutes of the game to give the Dolphins a 14-0 lead.

Following a pair of field goals that narrowed Miami’s lead to 14-6, the Redskins wrestled momentum away from Miami by intercepting former University of Tampa quarterback Jesse Kaye twice in the second quarter. The second pick led to a nine-yard touchdown run by Charley Harraway to cut the lead to 14-13 at the half.

A fake punt at midfield by Dolphin punter Larry Seiple led to Miami’s next touchdown. After Seiple raced 33 yards to the 17, it took only three plays before quarterback Bob Griese ran it in from one yard out, extending Miami’s lead to 21-13.

This would be the extent of Miami’s scoring, however, as the rest of the game belonged to Washington.

A 47-yard field goal by Curt Knight cut the lead to 21-16 with 1:35 left in the third quarter. Quarterback Sonny Jurgensen, who played the entire game for Washington, engineered a game-winning, 52-yard drive with 8:40 remaining in the contest. Larry Brown capped the drive with a punishing 10-yard run for the score, giving Washington their first lead of the day, 23-21.
A late 10-yard field goal following Griese’s first interception of the preseason sealed the game and gave Washington a 26-21 victory.

The Redskins dedicated their win to Lombardi and Bill Austin saved the game ball for his widow, Marie. Jurgensen said after that it wasn’t enough for the team to just play the game in Lombardi’s honor.

“He would have wanted us to win it.”

It was Lombardi, after all, who famously said, “If winning isn't everything, why do they keep score?

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