Mike McCormack should be excused if he seems to think winning in football is the normal state of affairs. After all, he played the game at Cleveland under Paul Brown and he coached it at Washington under Vince Lombardi and George Allen. What could he possibly know about losing? But can the new head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles really be serious when he says, "I'm planning on winning this year"? With the Philadelphia Eagles?
As a matter of fact, he is, and he hopes to get started right away. McCormack fully intends that the Eagles will win all six games on their preseason schedule, which begins next week. "The value of winning now," he says, "is having the players gain confidence in what we're doing. It's the selling of our program."
If his team gets off to a fast start it could be the beginning of something decidedly new for the Eagles, who have had but one winning season in the last 11 years. In 1972 they reached a previously unimagined nadir: their season total of 145 points was the lowest in NFL history and they scored just two touchdowns on the ground. On their current highlights film the only real highlight is the footage of this year's draft choices.
McCormack refuses to worry about past performances. "I've always been successful in what I've done," he says unselfconsciously, "and I believe what I'm doing here is the right way to win." What he is doing—and who could argue with him given last year's results—is totally rebuilding the Eagle offense, starting at quarterback.
Philadelphia has not had a first-rate field leader since Sonny Jurgensen was sent to Washington in 1964. In the team's biggest trade since that bleak deal, McCormack has acquired Roman Gabriel, as unabashed an optimist as his new coach. No sooner had Gabriel pulled on an Eagle uniform for the first time than he predicted a Super Bowl victory for the team within two years.
Gabriel's credentials have been clouded by a miserable season at Los Angeles last year when he suffered a collapsed lung and then an injury to his elbow that made him look like he was throwing a change-up whenever he passed. But he holds virtually all of the Ram passing records and was voted the league's Most Valuable Player in 1969. Some critics have questioned his intelligence, but the 6'4" quarterback owns the NFL career record for lowest interception percentage, a statistic often used in praise of Bart Starr's canniness. With his arm apparently sound once more, Gabriel certainly ranks among that coterie of top quarterbacks who can turn a bad team into a reasonably good one.
Nor did McCormack stop his dealing there. In the hope of putting together some semblance of a ground game, he gambled by getting Baltimore Running Back Norm Bulaich, whose considerable potential has been held in check by chronic leg problems. Needing blocking, he used the Eagles' two first-round draft choices and a second-rounder to pick Texas Tackle Jerry Sisemore, USC Tight End Charles Young and TCU Guard Guy Morriss, a trio that could end up composing the entire right side of the offensive line. Still, McCormack's goals are most optimistic. The rest of the Eagles are, after all, just about the old birds who finished the 1972 season with five straight losses and a 2-11-1 record.
When Owner Leonard Tose went shopping this winter for a new head coach and general manager, he asked Cincinnati's Paul Brown for some suggestions. Brown admitted that his own hand-picked successor was McCormack. "Paul's recommendation was so strong that I had to wonder if there wasn't a blood relationship there," Tose said.
McCormack admits that he has studied his mentors' successes. "All three men were different in their programs," he says. "Paul is a fundamentalist, mainly a teacher. He works on basics at an excruciatingly slow pace. Vince was a teacher, too, but he was more concerned with physical work. He convinced his players that they'd be in such great condition that nobody could stand up to them. George is a great motivator, and I learned quite a bit from his trading philosophy. But the one common strain I saw running through all of them was a belief that their way was right, that they need never deviate from it. That's what I hope to be strong enough to do."
On the Eagles' training field at Widener College in Chester, Pa. the McCormack coaching method leans most heavily toward Brown. He even describes his assistants as teachers. "This is the most organized camp I've ever been in," says Cornerback Nate Ramsey, who has been with the Eagles longer than any of his teammates, "and that's what football is all about. And Mike respects his players as men, which sometimes has not been the case on this club. Mike's added life to this team."
The effects of McCormack's years in Washington are less apparent, but there is no mistaking the strains of Allen when he says, "I think the days of building programs are over."
Indeed, the future is now for the Eagles, or better be, and just to make sure no one missed the point, McCormack outbid Allen for the 32-year-old Gabriel. Gabriel's medical problems began on the first day of training camp last year when he suffered his collapsed lung, and were compounded by the sore elbow. When doctors were unable to satisfy Gabriel, he decided on his own to take a stab at acupuncture. Even though that treatment eventually checked the soreness, the Rams did not want to gamble on Gabriel's full recovery. They obtained Quarterback John Hadl from San Diego, neglecting in the process to tell Roman what they were up to. Gabriel demanded to be traded, and soon McCormack and Tose were negotiating with the Rams.
Initially the price was higher than the Eagles wanted to pay, but McCormack had learned his lessons well. A year ago he said of Allen, "George is the Godfather of traders: he makes offer after offer until he finally comes up with a deal they can't refuse." McCormack stayed on the telephone until the Rams agreed to accept All-NFC Wide Receiver Harold Jackson, reserve Running Back Tony Baker, a first-round draft choice in 1974 and a first and third in 1975. When the inevitable charges that he was mortgaging the future arose, McCormack might well have asked, "What future?" Instead he explained, "Roman will have played two years of football for us before they can cash in those 1975 draft choices. But I'll admit that I probably wouldn't have been able to make that trade before I met George Allen."
Early practices have indicated that the elaborate process Gabriel has developed to keep his elbow free of pain is successful. Before each workout he soaks his arm in a bath of paraffin heated to about 125°. After practice he immerses it in an ice-cooled whirlpool.
During the off-season, primarily because he was scheduled for no operations (he has had four on his right knee), Gabriel finally had a chance to fulfill a three-year-old ambition and study kung-fu under Gus Hoefling, a disciple of the school of James Wing Woo. Kung-fu stresses exercises developing greater flexibility, and when McCormack saw how supple his quarterback had become, he invited Hoefling to camp to see what he could do with the tight leg muscles that have hampered Bulaich's career.
Bulaich has always had trouble with muscle pulls in his legs. Near the end of a brilliant season two years ago with Baltimore he caught a short pass from Johnny Unitas in a game against Miami. Linebacker Mike Kolen hit Bulaich's left leg from behind as Norm's right one slipped forward, causing him to do a split. Then 250-pound Manny Fernandez landed on him. The result was three torn muscles. They never healed fully, and last season he made about as many appearances as the Loch Ness monster. The Colts grew tired of waiting, so McCormack dealt off some more of the future to obtain him.
After practice, Gabriel and Bulaich retreat to a corner of the field and practice kicks and twists and assorted other movements that look like a warmup for a ballet lesson. "This flexibility is going to keep me from pulling muscles," Bulaich says. "I don't feel that my legs are gone, and that's all that matters."
Last Saturday a surprisingly large crowd of 8,000 gathered to watch the Eagles' first full scrimmage. Bulaich showed some of his old leg power, sprinting outside for five good yards on one run when he found the inside closed. Gabriel threw without pain, but also without a completion in four attempts.
"Gabe's arm is 100%. He was nervous today," said McCormack. "It's a new team for him and there's pressure because of all the rumors that he has a sore arm. He threw one pass today, and the boos started. Then the whole team rallied around, patted him on the tail and said, 'See what we told you about playing in Philadelphia?' " It's an old custom Philly fans will break just as soon as the Eagles get rid of some old traditions of their own.