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The future is now? Washington Nationals’ latest moves recall George Allen football era

Signing proven winners who have a history with the manager is a winning strategy.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Chicago White Sox
Jon Lester is one of two free-agents the Washington Nationals have signed this offseason who won a World Series with Davey Martinez as bench coach of the Chicago Cubs.
Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Nationals’ strategy for building their 2021 team is no surprise to anyone who’s become familiar with manager Davey Martinez.

The fourth-year skipper and general manager Mike Rizzo are snagging proven winners who Martinez knows well.

The two latest free-agent signings, outfielder Kyle Schwarber and left-hander Jon Lester, both played for Martinez when he was the bench coach for the Chicago Cubs, winning a World Series together in 2016.

Martinez has also reunited with pitching coach Jim Hickey, who held that position with the the Tampa Bay Rays when Martinez was bench coach there.

During their time together, the Rays won two American League East championships, made four postseason appearances and won the AL pennant in 2008.

By signing the latest free agents to one-year contracts, Rizzo is also sending a message to the team that he’s not building for the future; he wants to win now.

Building a team to win right away by surrounding a manager or coach with veteran players and a staff he knows is a proven strategy, one that long-standing Washington sports fans should recognize.

Fans of a certain age will remember the days when Washington’s NFL team hired a head coach and general manager who built the team in his own image and instantly transformed it into a consistent winner.

George Allen, with his motto, “The Future is Now,” not only gave Washington championship football, but he created an atmosphere where winning was expected for the next 20 years.

Washington had been an NFL doormat for years in the 1950s and 60s but in 1969, the legendary Vince Lombardi came to town and delivered the franchise’s first winning season in 14 years. However, his death of of colon cancer at age 57 before the next season devastated the organization.

After a losing season under interim coach Bill Austin, the team turned to Allen, who had led the Los Angeles Rams to a pair of division championships during five straight winning seasons from 1966-1970.

Allen immediately began by trading seven draft picks for players who had helped him win with the Rams. Defensive tackle Diron Talbert, linebackers Jack Pardee and Myron Pottios and safety Richie Petitbon were key players on the NFL’s second-ranked scoring defense in Los Angeles in 1970. They all became starters on a Washington defense that jumped from 21st in the league in 1970 to fourth under Allen in 71.

Allen also acquired guard John Wilbur, who helped anchor the running game that became Allen’s offensive trademark. Running the offense was Ted Marchibroda, who was Allen’s running backs coach in Los Angeles and served as Washington’s offensive coordinator until 1975, when he became head coach of the Baltimore Colts.

The results in Washington were spectacular. The team went from 6-8 in 1970 to 9-4-1 in Allen’s first season, earning the city’s first trip to the playoffs in 26 years. The next season, Allen’s team won the NFC East for the first time and beat Green Bay and Dallas in the playoffs to reach the Super Bowl, where Washington lost to the undefeated Miami Dolphins.

In future years, Allen’s playoff teams included more of his former Rams’ stars, including linebackers John Pergine and Maxie Baughan, and defensive end Deacon Jones for the final season of his Hall-of-Fame career in 1974. Allen had Jones kick the final extra point in his final regular-season game, a 42-0 win over the Chicago Bears.

In seven seasons in Washington, Allen was 67-30-1 with one division title, five playoff appearances and a conference championship, all without a losing season. In 1978, he returned to Los Angeles for a second head-coaching stint with the Rams and was famously fired after losing two preseason games. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002.

The Nationals’ Martinez and Rizzo, by signing one-year deals with postseason-pedigreed veteran players who have worked with Martinez in the past, are taking a page right out of George Allen’s playbook.

It’s a formula that has produced winners in the past, and one that should please long-time Washington sports fans as well as younger ones.