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Sports Then and Now

Billy Kilmer: Hard-Nosed Quarterback

Posted on September 02, 2018 by Dean Hybl

Billy Kilmer

The Sports Then and Now Vintage Athlete of the Month began his NFL career as an athletic running quarterback, but he endured a near fatal car accident to completely change his game during a career that spanned nearly two decades.

Anyone who is familiar with former NFL quarterback Billy Kilmer probably remembers him as the portly, un-athletic, but very tough quarterback for the Washington Redskins in the 1970s. However, during his first two NFL seasons, Kilmer was primarily used as a running quarterback and running back for the San Francisco 49ers.

After finishing fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting as a senior at UCLA in 1960, Kilmer was selected with the 11th overall pick in the 1961 NFL draft by the San Francisco 49ers.

During his rookie season, Kilmer rushed for 509 yards and 10 touchdowns while playing primarily as a running quarterback in coach Red Hickey’s shotgun formation. The next season, Kilmer played primarily as a running back and gained 478 yards and five touchdowns.

His season ended and career was forever altered on December 5, 1962 when he fell asleep at the wheel and his vehicle drove off the Bayshore Freeway and into the San Francisco Bay.

Kilmer suffered a broken leg and missed the entire 1963 season.

By the time he returned to the field in 1964, John Brodie had established himself as the starting quarterback for the 49ers and Kilmer saw very limited action in 1964 and 1966 and no action at all in 1965.

After a contract dispute, Kilmer was included in the 1967 NFL Expansion Draft and selected by the New Orleans Saints.

Though the newest NFL team was not competitive, Kilmer eventually emerged as the starting quarterback. His best season with the Saints was in 1969 when he completed 53.6 percent of his passes for 2,532 yards and 20 touchdowns as the Saints went 5-9.

Following the 1970 season, Kilmer was traded to the Washington Redskins where new head coach George Allen was compiling a team comprised almost exclusively of grizzled NFL veterans.

Even though the Redskins already had a veteran quarterback in future Hall of Famer Sonny Jurgensen, the combination of injuries to Jurgensen and Allen’s preference for Kilmer’s toughness resulted in the newcomer starting 13 games during his first season in Washington.

The Redskins were 8-4-1 in games started by Kilmer and made the playoffs for the first time since 1945. On a squad that relied on running backs Larry Brown and Charlie Harraway for a significant amount of their offense, Kilmer was solid, if not spectacular as he 54.2% of his passes for 2,221 yards, 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

A year later, Kilmer started the first three games before Jurgensen started the next four. However, Kilmer became the full-time starter in week seven when Jurgensen suffered a broken leg and was lost for the season.

Kilmer led the Redskins to an 11-3 overall record and they claimed the NFC Championship by defeating Dallas 26-3 in the NFC Championship Game. They lost the Super Bowl to Miami 14-7 and Kilmer struggled completing 14 of 28 passes for 104 yards and three interceptions.

Despite the tough Super Bowl, Kilmer still had a strong season completing 53,3% of his passes for 1,648 yards and 19 touchdowns to earn his only career Pro Bowl appearance.

Over the next five seasons, Kilmer was the primary starting quarterback for the Redskins and posted an impressive 34-15 mark as the starter. Washington advanced to the playoffs in 1973, `974 and 1976, but lost each game.

Never known as a prototype passer, Kilmer’s passes often wobbled on their way to the receivers. His early-career injury totally disrupted his style as a running quarterback. After gaining 987 yards rushing during his first two seasons, Kilmer added only 523 yards on the ground for the remainder of his career.

Allen left the Redskins following the 1977 season, but the 39-year-old Kilmer stuck around for one more season. He helped the Redskins end a two-game losing streak with a two touchdown performance against the San Francisco 49ers in week nine. In the final game of the season, he completed eight of 10 passes for 91 yards and a touchdown against the Chicago Bears.

For his career, Kilmer compiled a 61-52-1 record as a starting quarterback while completing 53.1% of his passes for 20,495 yards, 152 touchdowns and 146 interceptions.

Though he is not remembered as one of the NFL’s greatest quarterbacks, he is legendary in Washington for his grit and toughness and is certainly a player with an important place in NFL history.

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