While researching for another recent piece, I came across some archival footage of Vince Lombardi’s brief time in Washington, DC in 1969 and 1970. Of course, I knew he had coached the team - though that stint was widely overshadowed by his incredible success in Green Bay - but my impression had always been that his year coaching was a brief interlude before the “glory decades” with George Allen and Joe Gibbs at the helm, and that he hadn’t had time to make much difference in the nation’s capital.
Having learned a bit more, I’m shocked at how closely Ron Rivera’s arrival in DC has mirrored his, and how he may well have been the catalyst that changed the trajectory of a franchise.
Looking for A New Challenge
After having won five World Championships in seven years in Green Bay - including the first two Super Bowls - Lombardi ceded his position as head coach to become the Packers’ General Manager in 1968. The Packers would proceed to have their first losing season since 1958 under coach Phil Bengston, and Lombardi would find himself bored in the front office, and once again craving the excitement of the sidelines.
He picked up and headed to Washington, DC, where he would have complete control over the team, as Head Coach and Executive Vice President of Football Operations:
“I have no preconceived notions about any personnel on the Washington Redskins. None whatsoever. That’s the way I’m going to approach this. Everybody starts off fresh. Everybody starts off with a new face.”
And it was a good thing he didn’t have any preconceived notions, as the team was downright terrible leading up to his arrival. The team had gone 13 years without a winning season before Lombardi came to DC in 1969, and hadn’t made the playoffs since 1945. But none of that deterred the new coach: “I’d like to have a winner the first year, if possible.”
Prior to Ron Rivera’s arrival in Washington, DC in 2020, the team wasn’t quite as pathetic - it had only been 5 years since its last playoff appearance and 4 years since its last winning season. But, it had been 15 years since its last playoff win and the franchise was marred by an underwhelming three decades of play since Washington’s last Super Bowl win in 1991.
Though Rivera hadn’t enjoyed Lombardian success - arguably no one else has - he had a very respectable tenure in Carolina, taking the Panthers to a Super Bowl, and leading them to the playoffs a number of times. But, after having been fired in the middle of the 2019 season, Rivera, like Lombardi, wanted something more. And, he got it when Dan Snyder bought into Rivera’s “coach-centric” model and gave him absolute control of football operations. “The only reason you become a head coach in this league is to win.”
“I knew that what he could do was change the mental attitude of a football team”
The quote above is from Sam Huff, the Redskins’ Hall of Fame linebacker, explaining why he came out of retirement to play for Lombardi in 1969. Huff had played on the long-suffering Redskins’ for four years, but had spent the early part of his career playing for the New York Giants where he won an NFL Championship and had been a key piece of a highly competitive team. He saw that the Redskins needed a culture change.
“He pressured us so much in practice, playing in a game on Sunday was a piece of cake. If you wanted Vince Lombardi off your back, you learned to do things as he wanted them done.” Larry Brown (NFL Rookie of the Year, 1969)
Changing the way things had been done was also a hallmark of Rivera’s early comments after his arrival in DC:
Rivera says that his message to the players is "do it our way."— Craig Hoffman (@CraigHoffman) January 2, 2020
That way if they succeed, success is for everyone. If they fail doing it their way, it's on the player.
Ron Rivera: "We have to build culture. We have to build family. If we can do that, we can win."— Craig Hoffman (@CraigHoffman) January 2, 2020
Winning as a Team
One of my favorite anecdotes about Lombardi comes from legendary Redskins’ quarterback and Hall of Famer, Sonny Jurgensen, who was the NFL’s leading passer in 1969:
“If I threw a ball on first and goal for a touchdown, he would get mad. He would get mad. If I’m on the 3-yard line and throw a touchdown pass, he would chew me out. And the reason being, he said: “I know you can throw touchdown passes. Why don’t you let the rest of the team participate in this score? By running the ball, that lifts everybody up.” He said, “you just enjoyed yourself out there throwing a touchdown. Don’t do that anymore.”
Rivera, too, has emphasized the collective nature of the game, and the need for individual players put the team first:
Inaugural Season Success
In his nine seasons as a head coach in Green Bay, Lombardi never had a losing season. Deep into his first season in DC, it appeared that his streak would be broken. Even with Lombardi’s expert guidance, Washington’s defense was simply too anemic to carry the team to regular success. Washington was 5-4-2 with three games remaining. Trailing the pathetic Eagles 16-7 at halftime, Lombardi rallied his team, exhorting: “If someone is running down the street with everything you own on his back, you better stop him!” The Redskins proceeded to secure a 34-29 victory in the wake of Lombardi’s speech.
In the following game, Washington would be able to secure its first winning season since 1955 with a victory over the Saints.
“We wanted it for Lombardi moreso than we wanted it for ourselves.” Sam Huff
The Redskins would win, and deliver their coach one, final, winning season, finishing 7-5-2.
Rivera, too, took a ragtag bunch - a team that had only one 3 games the season before - and posted 7 wins and a playoff berth.
For the first time since 2015, the Washington Football Team has won the NFC East Division.— All-Pro Reels (@allproreels) January 4, 2021
Ron Rivera becomes the first coach in franchise history to win the division in his first season.
The Big C
Tragically, Lombardi’s career in Washington and, ultimately, his life, would be cut short by a cancer diagnosis. Player accounts indicate that Lombardi suffered from abdominal pain and discomfort throughout the 1969 season, relying on the trainer to provide him temporary relief throughout the year as the cancer likely metastasized within him.
Having drilled into his players that it was important to play through pain, and that “Pain is in your mind,” some have wondered if Lombardi delayed proper medical attention longer than he might ideally have. When Lombardi finally sought medical attention in June 1970, it was too late. He passed away at the age of 57.
“I just want you guys to know that you’re my team. I selected you to play for the Redskins. You’re going to be great.” - Lombardi’s last speech to the team, in 1970 [via Huff]
We’re all familiar with Coach Rivera’s own struggles with cancer this past season. Thankfully, it appears that it was caught early and that he’s now cancer free.
According to a recent interview, he will have monthly/quarterly check-ups, scaled back to annual scans if everything continues in the right direction. It goes without saying, too, that the state of the diagnostic and treatment science for cancer has improved by leaps and bounds in the intervening half century.
Rivera should be back to full strength next season, when his team will try to defend its division crown and claim Washington's first playoff win since 2005. https://t.co/a41VO9WdZ7— phung (@phung99735053) February 1, 2021
In 1971, Washington would hire George Allen, and they would make the playoffs for the first time in 25 years. By 1972, they would narrowly lose to the Dolphins in Super Bowl VII. Over the next 19 years, they would make the Super Bowl four more times and win three of those.
In retrospect, Lombardi’s culture change certainly seems to have coincided with a dramatic turnaround in the fortunes of a franchise that was lost at sea before his arrival. Can Ron Rivera orchestrate a similar reversal? Only time will tell.
“Things will begin and end with one simple principle, discipline.” — Ron Rivera #HTTR— Rhiannon Walker (@InstantRHIplay) January 2, 2020
Do you think Rivera can have a similar impact to the one Lombardi had in DC?
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I think he can have an even greater impact.
I think he can have a similar impact.
I don’t think he’ll have as much of an impact.
NFL Films: Vince Lombardi’s Time with the Washington Redskins