Lombardi's year in Washington

Posted at 11:59 PM, Jan 09, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-10 10:10:24-05

Vince Lombardi's life was taken just 19 months after he moved from the Green Bay Packers to take over in Washington.

In that short span, he started the same miracle in the nation's capital that happened 10 years beforehand in Titletown.

"Lombardi set them on the course to a Super Bowl," said Lombardi biographer David Maraniss, who wrote "When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi."

That Super Bowl appearance came three years after Lombardi's arrival. It was that kind of turnaround that Lombardi sought as a new challenge instead of reclaiming the coaching job he had let go of in Green Bay in 1968.

"It's hard to redo something, to put the toothpaste back in the tube, so to speak, to recreate the magic he had before in the same place," said Maraniss about Lombardi's decision to move east.

"He thought he could do it somewhere else. When he finally did make the decision, he talked about how important it was to him to attain something as opposed to maintain something. If he (Was) to go back to the Packers, it would be more than a maintenance as opposed to the achievement of starting something new. That's what he wanted."

Victory in Washington would be very new to so many suffering fans who had missed the presence of Sammy Baugh, the legendary quarterback who directed them to championships in the 1930's and 1940's.

They hadn't had a winning season in 14 years when Lombardi arrived - just like the Packers in 1959. They hadn't own a championship in 27 years. They were under new ownership, with a leader who revered Lombardi's leadership style.

"The owner of the Redskins then was Edward Bennett Williams, a brilliant lawyer in Washington who believed in what he called 'contest living.' Vince Lombardi was his hero. He had been, that whole year when Lombardi was GM, recruiting Lombardi to come to Washington, so that suffering of that final season of loss with the Redskins really compelled Williams more to bring Lombardi and turn it around."

The other factor leading to Lombardi's departure from Green Bay: Family troubles - particularly those of his wife Marie who was battling depression, drinking and drug issues.

"Marie, those final couple of years in Green Bay, had a very difficult time," explained Maraniss.

"She struggled with drinking too much and with prescription drugs. As much as she was revered in Green Bay, being the wife of the great coach, it was still very difficult for her. She was an East Coast person. She grew up in New Jersey, she loved New York City and the vitality of the East Coast. Vince said to some friends that he really had to get her out of Green Bay. That definitely was a factor."

Lombardi also knew there was talent in Washington, with a not-so-bare cupboard filled with Hall of Famers.

"There was some talent there," said Maraniss about Washington, particularly with a strong-armed quarterback who Lombardi believed could throw rings around Bart Starr.
"As much as Vince Lombardi loved Bart Starr, as much as Bart Starr emblemized the Lombardi way, Sonny Jurgensen had been the most talented quarterback Vince Lombardi had ever been around. He was ecstatic with the talent that he saw in Jurgensen and that he brought out in Jurgensen that year. Otto Graham, the previous coach of the Redskins, had been a great quarterback, but Sonny Jurgensen didn't like him, didn't get along with him, didn't think he understood what it took to coach a quarterback. Then Vince Lombardi, this sort of stumpy old offensive guard, was - according to Sonny - the best quarterback coach he'd ever been around."
Add that to talented receivers like Charley Taylor, Bobby Mitchell and Jerry Smith, and Lombardi knew he had an explosive passing game that might have been the stylistic antithesis of Lombardi football in Green Bay, but that was his ticket to success.
"One of the great misperceptions of Vince Lombardi was that he was inflexible," said Maraniss.
"He was a smart tactician who understood that he had to base his team around the talent that was there. With Sonny Jurgensen and that great receiving corps, he would have been foolish not to take advantage of that."

Their first game was a win over the New Orleans Saints, powered by Jurgensen's aerial game.  After Week 7, they had attained a 4-2-1 mark. Following a midseason slump, they righted the ship and, in mid-December, clinched their first winning season since the Eisenhower administration - a 7-5-2 record.

"It's the Lombardi magic, the same thing he did with the Packers, and turned them around in one season. It's a belief the players have that he knows what he's doing, he's completely organized, that he has a system, and that he runs a meritocracy. If you're the best player, you'll find your way to playing. He brought in some rookies who started along with those veterans...and it all started to come together," said Maraniss.

"Washington went nuts over Vince Lombardi. He represented everything that Washington stereotypically believes in, especially the notion of strength and being a winner."

But as Lombardi was winning, he was dying, and he didn't even know it.

"There were certain misdiagnoses of him. He never got the actual tests, the colonoscopy, for the colon cancer that killed him. It was only the ravages of it (that) came very quickly, in the summer of 1970. He was dead by September," Maraniss explained.

He died on September 3, 1970. He never saw the renaissance in football inside the Beltway.
- 18 of the next 23 seasons were winning seasons in Washington.
- 12 of those 23 years led to the playoffs.
- 5 times, Washington made Super Bowls.
- 3 times, Washington won Super Bowls, the first in 1982 under Joe Gibbs.

As Maraniss said, "I have no doubt that if he had maintained coaching with the Redskins, they would have won a Super Bowl much more quickly."