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Robert F. Jones
August 16, 1976
Spending with both hands, Washington's George Allen cornered the free-agent market, but Calvin Hill and John Riggins may not have a line to clear their way
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August 16, 1976

Will The Payoff Mean A Playoff?

Spending with both hands, Washington's George Allen cornered the free-agent market, but Calvin Hill and John Riggins may not have a line to clear their way

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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.

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."

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