Class of 2011 Enshrinee enjoyed a long 14-year career as a linebacker with the Washington Redskins from 1965-1978. Fourteen years is a great deal of time to play one of the most physically and mentally demanding positions on defense. In fact, only four of the 21 other linebackers inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame played the position longer (Bill George
, Ted Hendricks
, Rickey Jackson
, and Ray Nitschke
all played 15 seasons). You can subtract Jackson from that list as he was moved to defensive end and used as a pass rushing specialist late in his career.
While it is difficult to single out a lone season as being a player’s best, most football experts would agree that Hanburger’s 1972 season is the one which he will be most remembered. The Redskins headed into that year coming off of the franchise’s first playoff appearance in 26 seasons. As such, there were huge expectations by the fans, the team’s ownership, media, and obviously players and coaches. Visions of the team’s first Super Bowl championship were front of mind.
Hanburger was the leader of the ‘Skins defensive squad that was affectionately known as “The Over the Hill Gang” as it included a veteran laden team put together by Head Coach George Allen
. The seasoned group of veterans had seven starters who were 30 years of age or greater. That collective experience along with Hanburger’s leadership was expected to help carry the team to the title.
He certainly lived up to the challenge as he delivered a season-long performance that would eventually earn him NFC Defensive Player of the Year honors and the first of four All-Pro selections. He recorded numerous game-changing plays throughout the season as Washington won the NFC Eastern Division title with an 11-3 mark. On a few occasions, Hamburger’s all-star play had a direct result on the outcome of the game.
During the Redskins Oct. 8 game against division rival Philadelphia Eagles
, Hanburger had a huge interception late in the second quarter to end a 15-play drive by the Eagles who had advanced to the Redskins’ 11-yard line. The score at the time was knotted at zero and the Eagles were poised to score with a little more than one minute remaining in the half. Hanburger rose to the occasion and intercepted Philly quarterback John Reaves at the four-yard line and returned the ball 30 yards. The pick totally deflated the spirits of the Eagles and seemingly took the wind out of their sails for the rest of the game. The Redskins would go on to score a TD on their first two possessions in the second half and the Eagles penetrated Redskins territory only once during the remainder of the game.
Hanburger also played a big-time spoiler role against the New York Jets on Nov. 5 at Shea Stadium when he intercepted Joe Namath
on two straight series late in the game’s first half. The Jets were eager to retaliate after Redskins end Charley Taylor scored on a 70-yard TD reception right before the two-minute warning in the second quarter to move ahead 14-10. On the very next play from scrimmage, Hanburger nabbed a Namath pass and returned it 41 yards for a TD. A little over a minute later he picked off Namath again to allow the Redskins to play out the half. Washington would never trail from that point as they routed the Jets 35-17. Hanburger’s constant rushing of the Jets line throughout the game helped add five tackles and one assist and left the future Hall of Fame signal-caller dizzy from the relentless pressure.
“I didn’t see him,” Namath stated after the game about Hanburger’s interception return for a TD. But basically you’re not supposed to throw late up the middle. That’s what happened. I probably shouldn’t have thrown it at all.”
The win over the Jets was the fifth of what would eventually become nine straight wins for Hanburger and the Redskins. He finished the regular season with a team-leading four interceptions for 98 yards.
Namath wasn’t alone in his observation as plenty of players probably wished they hadn’t sent a play Hanburger’s way. The linebacker’s dominant play continued in the postseason. He logged four tackles, five assists and one interception as the Redskins handily defeated the Green Bay Packers 16-3 in the divisional playoff game. Hanburger’s interception came at a critical moment and assured Washington’s victory as the Packers were desperately attempting a late-game rally.
Then, in the NFC championship against the Dallas Cowboys, Hanburger and company held the NFL’s sixth ranked offense to only 169 total yards in a 26-3 blowout of the defending Super Bowl champions. Hanburger again was all over the field and he contributed two tackles, seven assists and one pass defensed. His play and leadership gave the Washington their first Super Bowl berth.
Hanburger continued his great play in Super Bowl VII against the Miami Dolphins. His four tackles and two assists helped limit the Dolphins, who ranked first in the NFL in both points scored and offensive yardage to only 14 points and 228 total yards. The Redskins dream season ended however with a hard fought one-touchdown loss.
While his career was filled with many great seasons that ultimately earned him a place in Canton, there’s no doubt that the ’72 campaign stands out among them all.
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