It's a strange kind of rivalry. Some say it isn't really a rivalry at all, just a case of two teams that have played a lot of games against each other. Before this season, Philadelphia and Washington had met 84 times, but so what? When did it ever mean anything? You have to go back 26 years to find a season when both of them had winning records.
Dallas-Washington, now there's something. "Nothing establishes a rivalry better than good, clean hatred, and everyone knows how much we hate the Cowboys," said Redskin Tackle Terry Hermeling. "The Giants, that's a pretty good grudge match every time we take the field. For a while we got it going with St. Louis."
So, what about the Eagles, the team Washington had just trounced 17-7 last Sunday afternoon at RFK Stadium?
"Well, you know," said Hermeling, "we always play hard against each other, but somehow it's never been the same. Maybe now...."
The smell of playoff money can create a pretty good rivalry in a hurry, and in the great desert of the NFC, Washington and Philadelphia's 6-2 records look formidable. Neither team has had a crack at 7-1 Dallas, the leader in the NFC East; even so, both look to be locks for the playoffs. The NFC's B divisions, West and Central, have only one team—Tampa Bay—with a winning record.
In preparing for the Eagles, Redskin Coach Jack Pardee resorted to an old George Allen trick to create some instant controversy. On Thursday Pardee said that the thing he was most concerned about was stopping Wilbert Montgomery, Philadelphia's fine little tailback who had killed the Redskins with 127 yards rushing in the Eagles' 27-17 win two weeks before. And the thing he was most concerned about in stopping Montgomery was the holding by the Eagles' offensive line. Holding? The Eagles? That was the first time anyone had ever heard Philadelphia identified as a holding team.
"I'm not kidding," Pardee said. "They used their hands to create a funnel for Montgomery. A defensive lineman has his elbows out, and the Philadelphia linemen create a funnel by using their hands to steer the defensive guys by their elbows. It's a very effective tactic. Montgomery doesn't need a very big seam."
When Pardee's words arrived 150 miles up 1-95 in Philadelphia, Eagle Coach Dick Vermeil broke into a fine, understated rage. Vermeil is a very positive person. When he took over the Eagles in '76, he inherited a team that hadn't had a first-or second-round draft choice in three years, a team that had had only one winning season in the previous 14.
"The first thing he told us," says Offensive Tackle Stan Walters, "was that he wasn't going to start making changes and shipping guys out just to shake things up. He said there was enough material here to win with. The next thing he told us was that we were going to work our butts off. Boy, he wasn't kidding."
The Vermeil work ethic is simple: long meetings; three-hour practices; pads on Fridays, sometimes even on Saturdays; two-a-days during the exhibition season. But by 1978 the Eagles were a playoff team, and at the start of this season Philadelphia was rated as a serious threat to the Cowboys in the NFC East. Then, after beating the Giants in their opener, the Eagles lost a Monday night game to Atlanta. Afterward, Vermeil admitted that maybe he had worked his team too hard on the practice field. The Eagles' legs were shot. But they went on a five-game win streak, and there they were tied with Dallas for first place.
Vermeil had good feelings about his team before Sunday's game. He had driven himself harder than his players. He hadn't gone home the first three days of the week; he'd caught a few hours sleep on a couch in his office. On Wednesday, practice almost turned into a full-scale scrimmage, and Vermeil had to tone the intensity down a little. In the earlier victory over Washington. Philadelphia had played a near-perfect game on offense. No turnovers, no sacks, no penalties. Now the Eagles were getting charged up again. They would be ready.
So, Pardee's "holding" statements caught Vermeil, whose strongest expletive is "criminy sakes," exactly the wrong way. "I thought he had more class than that," Vermeil said. "We don't hold and we don't coach it. We blocked their butts off last time, and if we beat them again, it won't be because of holding."
"When I read what Pardee said, I went around the locker room and asked our guys how many times they had been called for holding this year," said Walters. "I counted only three holdings called on us all season, that's all."
The Redskin veterans who'd been through the George Allen era viewed this controversy with twinkling eyes. The tactic Pardee was employing is well known to poker and gin rummy players the world over—break the other guy's concentration. "There used to be something like that every week under George," said Hermeling. "But I wasn't really wild about it going into this game. Sometimes it backfires, and the officials start looking at us extra close instead."
It turned out to be a non-issue. The Eagle offense wasn't penalized once: it was just stopped. "No. 31, stop No. 31 and you beat the Eagles," Washington Defensive Tackle Diron Talbert had said. "He's the key to their whole game."
No. 31, Wilbert Montgomery. Program height: 5'10". But he's really an inch or two shorter than that. No. 31, a darting, slashing runner who's on you—and by you—before you know it. "I honestly believe that he's so short, people can't see him," says Walters. "They lose track of him. I'm not kidding."
Montgomery is the Eagles' first-down runner. In their earlier game against the Redskins, he picked up 80 of his 127 yards on first-down plays. Last Sunday he got the call on seven of Philadelphia's first 12 first-down opportunities—until the Eagles had to play catch-up and throw—and gained a net of 17 yards.
And when Montgomery can't go on first down, the whole equation breaks down for Philadelphia. The Redskins turned Vermeil's ball-control offense into a desperate third-and-long attack, against which the Redskins were able to play a nickel defense and turn their pass rush loose. Washington is very vicious on third-and-long. The Redskins came into the game with 14 sacks for the season, and they had seven more against Philadelphia's Ron Jaworski on Sunday. And Jaworski, who had only six interceptions in the Eagles' first seven games, threw two against Washington.
"We ran all sorts of different formations, and variations off of those," Jaworski said. "We changed our blocking techniques. But all of that doesn't amount to a damn thing if you can't move them off the ball."
"The last time we played the Eagles, they never got in a situation where we could use our nickel defense," Pardee said. "We played it only about four times all day. Today we must have used it 24 times."
The Philadelphia linemen not only were beaten, but they were also beaten quickly. Walters had enjoyed a big game against Coy Bacon, the Redskins' 36-year-old defensive end, in Philly, but Bacon turned things around in Washington. He had two individual sacks of Jaworski and split another.
"I knew Coy was ready," said Hermeling, who has to face Bacon every day in practice. "I've never seen him work harder during the week. I've never seen him so fired up for a game."
The Eagle offensive linemen kept slipping and had trouble holding their blocks, which led to speculation that perhaps the footing hadn't been good. "It wasn't slippery for our linemen," said Washington Linebacker Pete Wysocki. "Or maybe we just hire guys with wide feet."
Jaworski took a harsh physical beating. "The Redskins were in my face before I could do anything, before I could look for my lay-off receivers," he said. At times Jaworski acted as though his sore ankle was bothering him. At the end of the game, when Redskin Cornerback Tony Peters turned out the lights with an interception, he made it a point to find Jaworski and lay the ball at the quarterback's feet.
"Do you think you might have come in thinking it would be easy after last time?" Jaworski was asked.
"We're not good enough to think that way," he said.
"How about Peters taunting you the way he did?"
Jaworski paused for a moment to give his words some weight. "If someone wants to do that, then somewhere down the road he's gonna pay for it," he said. "Athletes have long memories. They don't forget."
The Redskins, who scored on touchdown runs by Benny Malone (10 yards) and Quarterback Joe Theismann (one yard) and on a 23-yard field goal by Mark Moseley as they built a 17-0 lead before Jaworski put the Eagles on the board with a 40-yard pass to Keith Krepfle, gained 327 yards, but that's not what beat the Eagles. In the loss at Philadelphia they had gained 318 and also had scored 17 points. This time, though, they had the sun-god on their side. The temperature was in the low 80s, and the jerseys of the Eagle defenders, who were on the field 38 of the 60 minutes, were dark with sweat before the second quarter was halfway over. The Redskins ran off 74 plays to the Eagles' 50.
"If you'd sat at home and drawn up a game plan, that's exactly the way you'd want to do it," said Redskin Fullback John Riggins, who busted Philadelphia for 120 yards. "Except that your own offense gets a little tired, too."
"When you play to the point of exhaustion, you've done your job," said Theismann. "It's like a prize fight where you train to go the distance and maybe win in the late rounds on a TKO."
During the week Pardee had closed his practices, another throwback to the Allen era, and put in a couple of interesting wrinkles. He gave the 6'1" Peters, listed as the right cornerback, the job of covering 6'8" Receiver Harold Carmichael wherever Carmichael lined up, left side or right. Carmichael didn't catch a pass until the last five minutes, just when his streak of 103 games with at least one reception seemed likely to end.
Wrinkle No. 2 was what Wysocki called "the Polish way to play defense." In the first Redskin-Eagle game Montgomery had piled up much of his yardage by running behind the 225-pound Carmichael, who lined up outside the tight end, thus creating a tight end-wingback double-team on the outside linebacker. This time Wysocki beat it by turning his back.
"They can't block you when your back's turned, because it's a clip," said Wysocki, who played 63 games as the Redskins' special teams wedgebuster before getting his first start at right linebacker Sunday. "You face in, so you can see which way the ball's coming, then you turn at the last minute. By then it's too late for them to get you. Brad Dusek on the other side wasn't doing it as much as I was. I think he was embarrassed. I sort of liked it. Deflecting 'em with my behind; it's my best point. It's the Polish way of playing football."
Maybe it is, but Pardee seems to be playing with mirrors, too. His 22 starters on Sunday included six normal free agents and one super free agent, Riggins. Only two of the starters were originally drafted by the Skins, Right Tackle George Starke and Tight End Don Warren, a fourth-round pick and the highest of the meager total of five draft choices that Pardee had this year.
In the off-season Pardee had broken up the old Allen Gang, of which he'd once been an integral part. Billy Kilmer, Chris Hanburger, Ron McDole, Jake Scott. They'd left with some very hard words about a double-cross, but not one has caught on anywhere else. Speed and strength is what we're after, Pardee had said. Fresh legs.
"Before the season everyone wrote us off," said Hermeling. "They said we'd be lucky to have the same 8-8 record we had last year. I couldn't blame them. Sometimes it's pure luck, but sometimes it's something else."
Maybe now the Washington-Philadelphia rivalry will become something else, too.