All right, here's Don Rickles, doing a number on the Philadelphia Eagles. Everyone does Philadelphia, so Rickles is looking for new material. In one corner of the cavernous Latin Casino, a Cherry Hill, N.J. nightclub, he spots a quartet of Eagle players who have crossed the Delaware in search of, well, life. He socks it to them. "Philadelphia!" sneers Rickles. "Hey, look, it's not that easy there. Thank God for the Eagles! There they are, folks. Is it any wonder they can't win a game? Look at the hair on Timmy Rossovich. Saw you in Born Free, kid. Where you from, Timmy? C'mon, Timmy, try and read my lips. Aw, never mind. Finish your bananas and I'll come back to you later. Chuck Bednarik used to sprinkle guys like you on his cereal."
Actually, Rickles came down easy on the Eagles compared to the Philadelphia press and fans. In the 10 years since Philadelphia won an NFL title, beating an early Lombardi Packer team 17-13, the Eagles have flown like so many songbirds into a cloud of DDT. Kids in the City of Brotherly Love won't even play with footballs decorated with the Eagles' white-and-kelly-green colors.
Well, that may be something of an overstatement. Granted the Eagles have compiled a 47-74-5 record since their last championship. Granted their last winning season—9 and 5—was in 1966. Granted they lost their last four games last year and their first seven—five of them exhibitions—this year. But, after all, they are "rebuilding," a "team in transition." New ownership, new management, new coaching—all of these require maturity and patience and.... There must be worse teams in football. Like, uh, well, would you believe Lehigh?
Or maybe the Chicago Bears. Last Sunday, when the Eagles played them in Evanston, Ill., the only question was: Which team would blow it better, quicker? The Eagles proved their mastery at the opening kickoff, the Bears' Cecil Turner romping 96 yards for a touchdown. Philadelphia, hoping to prolong the suspense, struck back with a touchdown of its own, Norman Snead passing to Gary Ballman for the six points, but Eagle ineptitude took care of the seventh as holder Ron Medved bobbled the extra-point snap.
October 4, 1970
Snead, hampered by a sore arm, couldn't throw long, so he threw often and short—and often short of his targets at critical moments. Nonetheless, his passing stats were a personal high: 24 for 33 and 257 yards. The Eagles' ground game was more impressive—seriously. Denied the middle by the omnipresence of Dick Butkus, Philadelphia went to quick pitchouts. But in the fourth quarter, with the Bears leading 17-9, Offensive Coach Charlie Gauer noticed that Butkus was vulnerable—a healing hamstring limited his mobility. Rookie Lee Bouggess bolted past Butkus into the end zone from 10 yards out to cap an 80-yard drive—the Eagles' best of the year.
But Butkus had his revenge. With Snead staggering toward a go-ahead score, the linebacker dropped him with a third-and-14 blitz. A last-minute Chicago field goal made it Bears 20, Eagles 16. "It was like Aesop's Fables out there," said Defensive Tackle Gary Pettigrew. "Hares and hounds. We were the hares running for our lives, they were the hounds running for the hell of it."
But scores and individual performances count for little when two teams as bad as the Eagles and the Bears meet. In both cases the big problem is organization. Good organization—from ticket management through coaching staff to team captaincy—breeds good football. When teams fail, as the Bears have since George Halas passed 68 seven years ago, and the Eagles have since Buck Shaw retired in 1961, the failure is a result of complex factors that reach up to ownership. A good organization must be geared to a 10-to 20-year cycle. Witness the Cleveland Browns. In 20 years of NFL play the Browns have had only one losing season (1956). As an Eagle coach recalls: "I went down to scout the Browns one year and when I got there I called the office. Paul Brown answered the phone, set me up with credentials, a hotel room, a car and tons of perks—and I was his enemy. He wowed me with good organization. Then he beat us."
The Eagles really became disorganized in 1964, when construction tycoon Jerry Wolman took over the team for $5.5 million and appointed Joe Kuharich to a 15-year term as general manager with—logically enough—Joe Kuharich having the choice of head coach. Same name. Next year, when the criticism of Kuharich's coaching—which began even before Joe arrived—swelled, Wolman was seen punching it out in the stands with a fan who had slighted his team and his coach. Al Nelson, then a rookie defensive back, witnessed the melee. "Is that my owner?" he asked. "This is a madhouse."
By 1969 Jerry was bankrupt. Trucking magnate Leonard Tose was the next victim. He bought the team for the highest price ($16,155,000) ever paid for a franchise in any sport. Tose is a lean, hard businessman who has a reputation for handling the Teamsters. "He took the Teamsters, didn't he? He's gotta be tough," ran the line on Broad Street. But Tose, like Wolman, is a football freak. His first few moves were beautiful—like those of a rookie flanker in the early days of training camp. He fired Kuharich, he hired Pete Retzlaff.
Everyone in Philly knew Retzlaff—the smooth, blond and perennially successful wide receiver of the Eagles, whose number, 44, had been retired only three years earlier. Retzlaff was a perfect choice for a general manager. He had served with distinction as president of the NFL players' organization and with cool as a local sportscaster. Dynamite casting! Last year the Eagles even won four games and tied another. But this year Len Tose and Pete Retzlaff are bad news. Why the switch?
For one thing, bad economics, American-style. Five years ago Philadelphia decided to build a new sports complex, Veterans Stadium, to house both the baseball Phillies and the footless—er, football—Eagles. Figuring that the schedule would be met, Tose chose to emulate most of the other NFL teams and raise ticket prices by including two exhibitions on the season card. He also added a few bucks to the price of season tickets. After all, he had paid $11 million more for the club than Wolman. Although Jerry had promised not to raise prices until the Eagles had a winning season, that was none of Len's business. No sooner had the fans—some 46,000 of them—paid for the new season tickets, which cost up to $112 a strip, than it became clear that the city-built stadium wasn't going to be finished on time. Moans Eagles' Business Manager Leo Carlin, a dedicated Tosian, "Gosha-mighty, I'd had eight girls processing that transition from Franklin Field to the stadium, each on an individual basis. Then we had to change back to Franklin Field. Finally Mr. Retzlaff made the announcement that the two preseason games would be optional. We had the money in the drawer. It'll be months before we sort it out."
In the interim the Eagles were quickly accumulating, as one executive put it, "more suits than Robert Hall." One of the litigants claimed he bought into the Eagles as a partner; Tose said all he did was give him a loan. The case is still pending.
So are the players. To a degree, they are like Leonard Cohen's beautiful losers—introspective and hating it. Listen to Tom Woodeshick, the eight-year running back out of Wilkes-Barre and West Virginia: "I find myself making excuses. It's tough. I try to be honest, diplomatic, loyal and happy, yet I've developed this odd sense of humor. I'm presently six feet tall where I used to be 6'4" when I came into the league."
Woodeshick is the closest thing to a hero that one can find on the Eagles, even though he is a bad blocker and a bad pass catcher. Last year he rushed for 831 yards, despite missing two games. "I don't think fate can dictate seven losing seasons out of eight," says Woody. "Nobody can be that unlucky. We just didn't play good football very often." For therapy, Woodeshick splits for the mountains every Monday during hunting season. "With my dog and my gun—that's how I escape the depression of losing," he says. "Still, I've got to say that this is the most disciplined, the most optimistic, the most high-spirited team I've ever played with—and it's on the longest losing streak." He laughs therapeutically.
Part, if not most, of that losing streak is due to a languor on the part of the Eagle offense that defies parallel. Since the days of Steve Van Buren, Pete Pihos and Bednarik, plus a quarterback named Norm Van Brocklin who led the Eagles to their last title, and another named Sonny Jurgensen, who came close, the Philadelphia offense has been singularly inept. Snead, acquired by Kuharich in a trade for Jurgensen six years ago, is the epitome of indecision. "He'd rather stare at the sky under a pile of bodies than unload the ball," says one disgruntled Eagle.
The current backup quarterback is Rick Arrington, a rookie out of Tulsa who is reputed to have bad knees. "What the heck," said Retzlaff early last week, "most of the good quarterbacks in the league have bad knees. Rick's tall, strong and he was a free agent. He was worth the risk."
Offensively, the Eagles are something special. No question about it. For example, not long ago Arrington was heard to remark: "Hey, coach, I know all the plays but I don't know the sets. Maybe I could call the plays and you could signal me from the bench with the sets. Hey, coach?" Then there's this lineman, who shall remain nameless. His teammates swear that he works during the off season as a tollkeeper in an exact-change booth on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. On the field he holds his head to one side. Dallas Defensive Tackle Bob Lilly reportedly can't stand to look at him. "It throws me off balance," says Lilly. Until recently, when it was simplified, the defense was little better. Middle Linebacker Dave Lloyd, a 12-year veteran and Pro Bowl selection last year, tells of a defensive lineman, fortunately no longer with the club, who couldn't distinguish between the strong side and the weak side. Lloyd said he'd make it easy for him by reciting an even number for strong side, an odd number for weak side. No discernible help. Finally Lloyd turned to the lineman and inquired, "How are you on colors?"
Still, there is a resurgence of hope and aggression in Philadelphia. The mainspring is a quasi-revolutionary group known as the "Antibodies." This cell has the tacit approval of the coaches, though not their formal assent. It includes most of the defensive line, which affects mod dress and long hair. Gary Pettigrew, a fifth-year man out of Stanford, is the most outspoken of the Antibodies. "If I'm going to play a kid's game," he says, "I don't want to be embarrassed doing it. For a while, I got tuned into techniques and publicity, but that's not what the game is about. You play it for the joy of battle. Here's the clue—you're wearing pads, and if you're wearing pads you can hit. The love of violence, the dedication to violence—that's what this game is about. If you're going to put up with the pain and the injuries and the monotony of the endless practices, then there just has to be a counterpoint. The fun and, yeah, the joy of hitting."
Rossovich, the mustachioed, bow-tied defensive end whose tomentosity so intrigued Don Rickles, is another Antibody. He can hit to Pettigrew's satisfaction but looks like he belongs on the Jefferson Airplane rather than an Eagle charter flight. Ron Medved, Defensive Back Bill Bradley and Linebackers Ron Porter and Adrian Young are also Antibodies. Young, incidentally, is an Irish-born skull-cracker who can quote Yeats as readily as he can drop a sweeping fullback. "That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea," he has been heard to say after making a tackle.
In search of inspiration, the Antibodies recently sent Pettigrew off on a pilgrimage to Butkus. Pettigrew found the guru of gore in a contemplative mood. "He said it isn't easy to hit consistently," said Pettigrew. "Dick said you have to think it all through, really concentrate all the time. You have to know how you're going to effect the assassination, know in your head the ways and routes to the ballcarrier. Then, when it happens in real life, you're free—free to hit and smash and be instantaneous. Thai gets you back to what football is all about." Pettigrew smiled cryptically. "Joie de vivre."
The aggressiveness has communicated itself to a secondary that has changed faces six times in six weeks, but which allowed Dallas only 99 yards passing in the Eagles' opening game. "They don't play bump and run," said one observer, "they play hit and shove."
One grave fault of the Eagles is a tendency to talk of football in terms of great defeats, much in the manner of George Chuvalo, whose losses often seem more consequential than his wins. After holding the Cowboys to a 17-7 victory, they rhapsodized just as they did after their tremendous 23-17 loss to the Rams last year. Coach Jerry Williams, a former back for the Rams and the Eagles, actually congratulated the team on its performance against Dallas. Williams used to fly a P-38. He has short hair, blue eyes and a quick mind and is a student of war and of humanity—in short, a student of football. Yet to Pettigrew and the other Antibodies, his praise was anathema.
"I'm damn sick of this," said Gary. "You don't congratulate a team on a loss. It's disgusting. Still, Jerry is the first coach I know who's been willing to discuss the change in the athlete that's happening in American sports. When he came around and asked me what goes with long hair, I told him that the stupid-athlete syndrome is passing. More and more you're going to find athletes who are interested in things other than sports—who, in a sense, are contemporary men interested in the environment, in government, in changing social mores. If you're going to get respect from them, I told him, then you have to treat them as individuals. The first coach who realizes there are changes—and understands those changes—will be a new kind of winner."
Or a new kind of loser.