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George Allen and "The Future is Now"



As I've previously mentioned, the mailing sent by the Redskins to season ticket holders this offseason was infused with "The Future Is Now" themes, from the bold letters on the envelope to the letter from Bruce Allen and Mike Shanahan. Larry Michael's video pitch for fans to buy tickets also reminded them that The Future Is Now!

The phrase, obviously, hearkened back to the era of Allen's father, George, who became so famous for using those four words that William Gildea and Kenneth Turan's Allen biography was titled, yup, The Future Is Now. Just the mention of that phrase this year caused some fans to go way back; "I've been looking at the words on the page, letting the significance soak in," The Om Field wrote after the phrase re-appeared. "I'm not ready to say at this point if it's a good thing, or a bad thing. I could argue either case with equal conviction, to be honest."

And during an appearance on ESPN 980 last month, the younger Allen was asked about the team's return to that phrase.

"I live under the philosophy of 'The Future Is Now'," he told Andy Pollin and Steve Czaban, via the Redskins Blog. "Whatever we do today is gonna help us tomorrow, and that's what 'The Future Is Now' is."

Well, fair enough. And I'm fully in favor of nostalgia, in all things. Hell, I work for a newspaper. But this is one of the most significant phrases in Redskins history, with a very specific historical meaning. And "Whatever we do today is gonna help us tomorrow" was not exactly that meaning.

I have no idea who actually came up with "The Future Is Now," but it certainly predated George Allen's Redskins career. (There was a 1955 movie of that name, for example.)

Allen, though, claimed he came up with the phrase, and the meaning wasn't hard to discern.

"By my third year, we should be competitive,'' Allen told USA Today, after he took over Long Beach State in 1989. ''But that's a long time to wait, because I'm the guy who coined the phrase, 'The future is now.' ''

In other words, win now, no matter what the cost. Tony Kornheiser later summed up the philosophy like this:

Trading away every year's No. 1 was standard operating procedure with George Allen. Nobody balked at Allen's results. You build a good team through the draft, but you can make a good team great through a trade. If the future is now, seize it.

Leonard Shapiro put it like this:

His philosophy was simple. He never met a rookie he could trust, and preferred trading draft choices for old geezers almost from the first day he took the job.

And Bob Oates of the L.A. Times described it like this:

[Allen] was intolerant of coaches and owners who subscribed to five-year plans. "Any coach who's worth his salt should be able to win (in) his first year," he said, coming up with a phrase that outlined his philosophy in four words: "The future is now."

He wouldn't wait on the draft. He wouldn't collect draft choices. He wouldn't assemble a crowd of talented rookies who might win two or three years down the road. He would win instantly.

(Of course, as with all things 40 years in the past, there seems to be some confusion about what prompted Allen's first use of the phrase. In Richard Justice's WaPo piece upon Allen's death, he described it like this: "He dreamed of a secluded, modern practice facility, and he got it. When then team president Edward Bennett Williams and the board of directors told Allen they would try to budget for Redskin Park in a year or so, Allen told them: 'Gentlemen, the future is now.' ")

In any case, before Allen's first season in 1971, he reportedly pulled off 19 trades; he left Washington with 81 trades on his resume. And by 1977--when the Redskins had the highest payroll in the NFL ($3.6 million)--the phrase had spread elsewhere in football circles, and the meaning was not in question. It very clearly meant subjugating tomorrow's potential in favor of today's wins.

"What does George Allen say, "Today's the day' or 'The future is now?'", asked Dallas GM Tex Schramm, after the Cowboys traded four draft choices to Seattle for its No. 1 pick to get Tony Dorsett.

"I know everyone is saying the season is over, but it's far from being over," said Maryland Coach Jerry Claiborne after his team fell to 4-4. "Our goal is to win our next three football games, and we'll play the best people we got. We're not going to play this guy or that guy to prepare for the future. As coach Allen says, the future is now."

"The Future Is Now" became something of a punch line for later writers; the Miami Herald wrote in the early '80s that Allen "traded draft choices so far into the future that, in his confusion, he once traded one twice." And after Allen was fired, The Future Is Now took on a slightly negative cast. Gildea and Turan, for example, hinted in The Post that The Future Is Now was part of the problem.

The feeling in the Redskins's hierarchy was that this particular coach had taken the team as far as he could. More than that, his trade now, pay-later philosophy had quite conceivably built a bleak future - and at unprecedented expense.

"You must have young players coming in all the time to develop consistency over the years," Oakland Raider boss Al Davis once said. "I think with George Allen's system, you eventually ruin the team."

(Yes, that's Al Davis criticizing someone else for mortgaging the future by failing to build through the draft.)

A Ken Denlinger column in January of 1978 made precisely the same point. Denlinger hoped Allen would quickly be hired elsewhere, since he "could hasten the rebuilding here with his future-is-now policy somewhere else." He noted that Allen had traded the first eight picks in the '78 draft, and his second-through-sixth picks in '79. He wrote about "the patchwork philosophy of Allen that brought unimagined success early and then steady decline," and said "it can be argued that Allen spent much more negotiable currency - money and draft choices - than any team in the NFL in the last few years."

This sound familiar?

The rap against Allen lately is that his team might be able to limp into the playoffs with an heroic late season effort - but not last much beyond the first round. And with no high draft choices, Allen offered little hope for the future.

And writers used the phrase to criticize owners who emphasized quick free-agent fixes over actual team building. Check this Tom Boswell column on the Yankees from 1979.

You can't give a championship team a total face-lift. All you can do is pluck the eyebrows and touch up the makeup. If the good bone structure isn't there, you can't fake it....Steinbrenner adapted the philosophy that "the future is now" to baseball -- signing expensive free agents willy-nilly, just as George Allen traded draft picks in Washington.

It will be interesting to see if the long-term strangulation effects will be the same. Already the Yanks look like an extreme example of an Over the Hill Gang.

Writing in Newsweek after the Skins' first Super Bowl win, Pete Axthelm celebrated Bobby Beathard as winning in spite of Allen's philosophy.

When he arrived in Washington in 1978, Beathard inherited the scorched and barren landscape of former coach George Allen's "Future Is Now" policies. In his first draft for the Skins, Beathard had to sit through the opening five rounds; Allen had traded away all those picks. In his five drafts, Beathard has had a total of only 12 choices in the top five rounds.

Now look, I know we're just talking about words. I understand that four words stamped on an envelope or shouted by Larry Michael on an Internet video do not say anything about the new administration's priorities, do not portend the unloading of draft picks for aging stars, and do not herald the dawn of another Over the Hill Gang. And in today's NFL, rebuilding is almost anachronistic; you really can go from the bottom to the top in a single year without mortgaging the future.

I just point this out because, of all the possible phrases you could use to mark the supposed dawn of Daniel Snyder's mature and patient ownership, a slogan that universally came to signify a reluctance to rebuild and a preference of aging veterans over draft picks seems a particularly strange one to embrace.

(Here's something else I learned; Marv Levy credits Allen with coining the term "sack." Here's a Len Shapiro story from 1999:

In a letter of support for Allen's candidacy last year, Levy wrote, "I was in attendance at the team meeting when he was the first to use the term sack' as it relates to tackling the quarterback for a loss. We were preparing to play the Dallas Cowboys, whose quarterback was Craig Morton. George told the team that Tomorrow, we're going to take that Morton Salt and pour it in a sack.' Hence the term was born."

Who knew?)

By Dan Steinberg  |  March 1, 2010; 11:52 AM ET
Categories:  Media , Redskins  
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Comments

I'm not sure if this was the first time the phrase was used, but I think George Allen also made famous what was called the "Lawrence Welk trade"-- in which you trade "a one and a two" for another player. (I think it was the trade for Dave Butz, in which he traded two ones and a two, although that ended up being a good trade in the long run.)

Posted by: TheFingerman | March 1, 2010 12:29 PM | Report abuse

Looks like "sack" was in use at least a little before Allen (and Levy) were a part of the Redskins. From the Oxford English Dictionary, a reference to 1969:

1969 Internat. Herald Tribune 6 Nov. 13/4 If you're sacked it's second and 17.

Posted by: edmj | March 1, 2010 4:57 PM | Report abuse

If Larry Michaels was selected to pitch re-newing our tickets and may do the unthinkable and not re-new. TLarry Michaels is a joke.

Posted by: c_e_daniel | March 1, 2010 6:09 PM | Report abuse

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