For seven seasons now, Harold Carmichael of the Philadelphia Eagles has been a player looked up to by defensive backs—usually after he has burned them with a pass reception that is the NFL's modern-day version of the Alley Oop play practiced by R. C. Owens in the 1950s. A 6'8" string bean, Carmichael is both the tallest receiver in the NFL and the most dependable. He has caught a minimum of 42 passes each year since 1973, and last Sunday he extended his consecutive-game receiving streak to 94 by catching four of Quarterback Ron Jaworski's passes in the Eagles' 28-27 loss to the Vikings on the Minnesota tundra. That is just 11 games short of the NFL record of 105 set by the retired Danny Abramowicz, who played for New Orleans and San Francisco.
During his streak, which began on Oct. 8, 1972 when he hauled down a 21-yard pass from John Reaves, Carmichael has caught a total of 328 passes for 4,768 yards and 46 touchdowns. He has been held to a single reception in a game only 11 times. His toughest opponent clearly has been Dallas. The Cowboys conceded him one catch for one piddling yard in 1972, and they permitted him just one for seven yards in a game last year.
Carmichael wasted no time Sunday getting his first reception in the 20° cold at Minnesota, which overnight had been hit by a 10-inch snowstorm. On Philadelphia's third play from scrimmage, after the Vikings had scored on a Fran Tarkenton to Sammy White pass for a 7-0 lead, Carmichael grabbed the first pass thrown by Jaworski and scored on a 56-yard play. On Philadelphia's third play of the second quarter, after the Vikings had regained the lead 14-7 on another Tarkenton pass to White, Carmichael and Jaworski again teamed up for the tying touchdown, this time from 21 yards out. In the end, a blocked extra point proved costly to the Eagles as Tarkenton moved the Vikings 90 yards to a touchdown and Rick Danmeier booted the winning extra point with only 1:49 to play in the game.
If Carmichael can manage a single reception in each of his final two games of the season, against Dallas and the New York Giants, he will pass Green Bay's legendary Don Hutson (95 games) and tie Lance Alworth, the former San Diego and Dallas receiver, for second place behind Abramowicz in the record book.
Carmichael admits that his height is an asset, but he denies that he survives in the NFL solely because of it. "I've been hearing that ever since I came into the league," says Carmichael, a native of Jacksonville, Fla., who attended Southern University and was a seventh-round draft choice of the Eagles in 1971. "But I really don't think that a man's size determines his ability. Pat Fischer was only 5'9", but he was one of the toughest cornerbacks I ever went against. Even when I'm going to be playing a guy 5'9", I don't say I'm going to have a field day. That guy may be able to jump pretty high, and we're not going to throw the ball high all the time. You can't use your height on every pass."
He uses it often enough. Against the Jets last month, he loped into the end zone, stopped suddenly and caught a six-yard touchdown pass from Jaworski without even bothering to jump. Bobby Jackson, the 5'9" Jet cornerback, had him well covered on the play—he was between Jaworski and Carmichael and so close to the Eagle receiver that their jerseys practically touched—but Carmichael calmly reached up and caught the ball, snaring it away from the leaping Jackson, and Philadelphia had a 17-9 victory.
The Eagles also occasionally use Carmichael to block extra-point and field-goal kicks; in that same Jet game he blocked Pat Leahy's attempt for an extra point that would have tied the score at 10-10 in the third period.
"He's a tremendous physical talent," says Jaworski. "In the goal-line area he's almost impossible to stop if you give him single coverage, even by someone as tall as 6'3". That's why we spend a lot of time in our goal-line preparation every week. Harold and I work all the time on the Alley Oop pass over the shorter guy and the quick out or quick slant. Once we see how the cornerback sets up, we instinctively know exactly what we're going to do. We've developed real confidence in each other. He knows where I'm going to throw the ball, and I know what type of route he's going to run."
Somewhat regrettably, the Eagles haven't come up with any exotic names for the plays designed to make use of Carmichael's height, although Jaworski must sometimes be tempted to sing out "Mount Everest Right" or "U-2 Left." His call for Carmichael on goal-line passes usually is simply "Quick 99."
For his part, Carmichael likewise has rejected the various nicknames people have tried to hang on him. Who wants to be known as the Towering Inferno, or the Stilt, or Hoagy.
Carmichael isn't the only Eagle who has been up all season. Despite the one-point loss to the Vikings, Philadelphia has an 8-6 record and remains in strong contention for a wild-card spot in the NFC playoffs. For a team that has not had a winning season since 1966, that lost twice as many games as it won from 1970 to 1977, and has not had a first-or second-round draft choice in five years, that is no small accomplishment.
The architect of the Eagles' move toward respectability is Dick Vermeil, the 42-year-old workaholic who gave up the head coaching job at UCLA to take over as coach of the Eagles in 1976. Vermeil signed a five-year contract for a reported $850,000, and Philadelphia owner Leonard Tose has given him free rein. Vermeil sleeps in his Veterans Stadium office three nights each week during the season, and often watches film until almost 4 a.m. In quick order, he has turned an assortment of free agents, waiver-wire recruits and other no-names into a team that somehow hangs tough each week. Of the Eagles' six losses this season, only one has been by more than seven points.
Though he has not yet exercised a No. 1 or a No. 2 draft pick (Philadelphia will have picks in each of the first three rounds next year), Vermeil has had some success in the draft. In the sixth round in 1977 he called out the name of Wilbert Montgomery, an obscure running back from Abilene Christian, and now Montgomery has developed into one of the steadiest performers in the league. On Sunday, Montgomery carried 24 times for 115 yards against the Vikings, giving him 1,015 yards for the season and enabling him to become the first 1,000-yard Eagle since Steve Van Buren gained 1,146 in 1949.
On paper, the Eagles don't seem to have the talent to be very competitive. "We're not a great football team," Vermeil admits, "but we play like hell. We don't have to coach our guys to work hard. They do it with intensity because we set that standard in our first year, added to it a lot in our second, and now it's built-in. I've always believed in my profession, in teaching and coaching, and that if you surround yourself with the right kind of people, you can make somebody better if he's in the right frame of mind. Some players don't know how good they can be because, in a lot of cases, not enough has been demanded of them. They really haven't been tested. We demand a lot, and if a guy isn't willing to meet the demand, he doesn't stay here. And if I waive somebody, I'm not waiving a controversial No. 1 draft pick. In a way, it's an advantage."
Bill Bergey, the Eagles' All-Pro inside linebacker, says, "Dick's the type of guy who is going to work as hard as he can possibly work to become the best, and there's not going to be anything short of that. He's got the guys believing in him and his system, and it's going to be his way—it's as simple as that."
"All I think about now," says Carmichael, "is winning the next game. If we keep winning the next game we're going to be in the playoffs whether anyone thinks we should be there or not."
For Carmichael and the Eagles of 1978, that may not prove to be such a tall order.