Our country has lost one of its great men. The world of sports has lost its first citizen. The Redskins have lost their leader. I personally have lost a friend."
There was a sorrowful irony in Lombardi's death. He was a man who Huff said "probably knew more about his players' physical condition than any coach who ever lived." Yet Lombardi detested physicals for himself, especially the proctology exam to check for colon cancer. He had never had one done, and there still are people in the organization who believe that he would have lived to coach for many a day if only he had taken better care of himself, if only he had had what's now considered a routine exam.
Instead, the Redskins went into their first season of the 1970s with an interim head coach, Bill Austin, hand-picked by Lombardi to run the team when he entered the hospital the second time. Austin was considered one of the game's better offensive line coaches, a gruff, no-nonsense type who had had a brief fling as a head coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1966 to 1968, compiling a dreadful 11-28-3 record. Lombardi's death so close to the start of the season precluded hiring another big-name coach, and Williams announced that Austin would focus on offense while running the team, with Harland Svare, another holdover, commanding the defense.
Lombardi's death had a devastating impact on the players. Jurgensen took it particularly hard.
"No one could follow Lombardi," Jurgensen said. "You were missing the one ingredient that was going to make it so special. He's the guy who made it happen, he's the guy who was able to get the best out of everyone on that team. To lose that just when you're starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel really was tough to swallow."
Though the Redskins won their last five preseason games, they lost three of their first five in the regular season, then soon afterward had a disastrous five-game losing streak on the way to a dismal 6-8 season. The highlight of an otherwise thoroughly forgettable year was the play of Larry Brown, whom Lombardi had taken under his wing the year before. Among other things, Lombardi had discovered that Brown had a previously undetected hearing problem, making him a step slow at the snap of the ball. He cured that by installing a hearing aid in Brown's helmet, allowing him to hear the signals better and get off the line with perfect timing. In 1970, Brown became the first running back in team history to gain more than 1,000 yards rushing. He ran for 1,125, averaging 4.7 yards a carry, and racked up six games of 100 yards or better, also a club record at the time.