The play Richard Nixon designed for George Allen
A few years ago, Leonard Shapiro wrote an article for The Post about the anniversary of some memorable Redskins Super Bowl moments, which he described. Then he wrote this:
All of the above are as much a part of Redskins lore as Vince Lombardi's gap-toothed grin, Tom Landry's fancy fedora and plays drawn up by President Richard Nixon.
That's a perfect way to describe Richard Nixon's playcalls: part of Redskins lore. Which is why Bruce Allen, the current GM, almost had to be asked about the presidential plays supposedly drawn up for his father during Wednesday's ESPN 980 event.
"Well, that story became better than it actually was," Allen said. "Dad was looking for another motivational speaker, and he made the president come out to get the team fired up. And [Nixon] said 'You can do this, or you could do that.' He didn't call the play. But that was special....Remember, it sounds good in today's game, but our quarterback was calling the plays in those days. The president didn't have the technology to get it to the quarterback's helmet."
This got me interested. So I went into the archives. Turns out, there are a zillion different versions of this story, none of which seem to involve quotes from George Allen or Richard Nixon.
The first mention in The Post came about two weeks after than 1971 loss, in a Shirley Povich column:
It was on the eve of the Redskins-49ers game that President Nixon got on a hot line at the White House and confided to Allen one of his hot ideas for beating the 49ers....
"George," said the President of the United States. "I'd like to see you use Roy Jefferson on that end-around. It should be a long gainer for you." Quick as a flash, Allen understood that the President was talking about a flanker reverse....According to the explanations offered later in some circles, for Allen it came down to whether or not his name would stay on the White House guest list.
The play lost 13 yards, and this incident entered Redskins and Nixon lore. But the most comprehensive -- and most fascinating -- account of this play was written by the Syracuse Post-Standard's Sean Kirst in 1994, after Nixon's death. Kirst went back and talked to a whole bunch of the key figures from that game, including Billy Kilmer, who attributed the famous play directly to Nixon.
In a critical second-quarter situation, with the ball on the 49er 8-yard-line, the surprise reverse got hammered for a 13-yard loss. A subsequent field-goal try was blocked.
"A touchdown might have won it," recalls quarterback Billy Kilmer. "When it came in, (we) thought, 'Damn, they really called it."'
Kilmer had direct knowledge of Nixon's role in the play. During a private skull session earlier that week, the phone rang and Allen handed it to Kilmer. Nixon was on the other end. He suggested the 49ers might be fooled by a double-reverse, a play Kilmer says didn't exist in the playbook.
And yet Kirst's research later revealed that Allen apparently asked Nixon to suggest this play to Kilmer.
Twenty-three years later, [Marv] Levy says Allen gave that play to Nixon and then asked him to suggest it, both for strategic reasons and as a gesture of their friendship. If it worked, Nixon would come off smelling like roses. So it was presented to the team, Levy said, as a presidential request.
"[George] wanted the president to look very sage," recalls Levy, special-teams coach under Allen, who has now taken his own team to four straight Super Bowls.
"Afterward, I remember chuckling among ourselves about it," Levy said. "George gave the play to the president, then it didn't work."
In other words, if Levy is right, the entire thing was a myth. Still, the failed Jefferson reverse, as suggested by Nixon, has become a permanent part of both men's official history. This is from The Post's A1 Allen obituary:
Allen's friends included President Nixon, and Allen used a play Nixon had suggested for the 1971 playoff game against San Francisco. It was a reverse to wide receiver Roy Jefferson that lost 13 yards. So much for presidential prerogative, but that play -- which was much utilized by political cartoonists -- indicated the level and intensity of interest Allen had created in the Redskins in Washington.
The Post has returned to this well again and again. In 1986, the Outlook section mentioned "the failed trick play [Nixon] sent in to Redskins coach George Allen during a playoff game in 1971." In 1991, Style mentioned "the time Richard Nixon called Allen to suggest a play that didn't work." In 2001, Ken Denlinger wrote that Nixon "suggested an end-around play that Allen used in a 1971 playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers that failed miserably." In 2004, George Solomon wrote that "Nixon's play was a dud." And in 2008, Mike Wilbon wrote that Nixon "sent a play or two to Redskins Coach George Allen."
So Bruce Allen says the President made some presumably vague suggestions. Shirley Povich says Nixon called George Allen the night before the game. And Marv Levy says Allen gave the play to Nixon and told him to suggest it right back.
(See also: Jennifer Allen's piece on this play for ESPN.com.)
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