Did we really see it out there in gloomy Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia on Sunday? Did we really see a preview of Super Bowl XV? Well, why not? After a 10-7 victory over Oakland, the Eagles are 11-1 and running away with the NFC. Well, maybe not running away, but they've got a two-game lead on Dallas with four to play and they've already clinched a playoff spot, which is nifty going for November. And the Raiders are 8-4, one game off the pace in the AFC, against a tougher slate of opponents.
Why couldn't it be? Why couldn't these two teams line up in New Orleans on Jan. 25? They're as good as anybody, and certainly they showed it on Sunday. They played a classic. Not a classic by modern standards, not one of those 42-35 shootouts with footballs flying all over the place. It was a throwback, folks. It was good old defensive football, a throwback to those hardbitten days of yesteryear—like three years ago—before the rule makers opened the gates and let the passers in. The fans ate it up, and even the players seemed to feel they were involved in something special.
"This is my kind of football," Philly Coach Dick Vermeil said. "I love a game like this. It tells you something about the character and intensity of the people playing in it."
In his postgame press conference, Vermeil called it, "the greatest game our defense has ever played." Early in the fourth quarter, after Oakland had gone ahead 7-3 on an 86-yard Jim Plunkett to Cliff Branch shocker, the Raiders' only big play of the day, Eagle Defensive Coordinator Marion Campbell called his troops together on the sidelines.
"He doesn't usually get very emotional during a game," said 30-year-old Linebacker John Bunting, "but he said, 'I just want you to know this is the best defensive effort I've ever been a part of.' "
"You know, I didn't have a very good day out there," said Eagle Quarterback Ron Jaworski, who was 14 for 32, with five of his passes dropped. "I guess quarterbacks get in the habit of thinking that a great game means four touchdown passes and 300 yards or something like that. But today I felt I was in a great football game. I mean for pure football. It was something I just enjoyed being part of."
"Fun, it's fun to play one like this," Eagle Defensive End Claude Humphrey said. "You can go home and feel you've done something really great."
It was an hour and a half after the final whistle, the equipment men were almost through collecting the towels and locking the doors, and Humphrey was the last man in the locker room. Actually, the trainer's room. Humphrey was lying on his back on a bench, his left leg elevated and wrapped in a heavy black nylon envelope, the toes encased in an inflated polyurethane cap. A green tube ran down the side of the contraption, and inside it ice water was bubbling. The scene looked like an outtake from Star Trek, but it was the Eagle training department's bow to modern science, a machine called a Jobst Cryotemp, which cools down and stimulates the sore knees of 36-year-old defensive ends.
"It's a leg rejuvenator," Humphrey said, smiling. "Old people love it. I twisted my knee early in the game, but I never thought of coming out. Not in a game like this. I was having too much fun."
Three and a half sacks was Humphrey's contribution to the cause. He's had 13½ this year. Not bad for a guy whose age lies somewhere between 33 (Eagle press book) and 36 (Football Register). The sacking of Plunkett came early and in bunches, six in the second quarter; all told he had to eat the ball eight times. The bulk of the pressure was applied by a sawed-off 260-pound demon named Ken Clarke, who came barreling up the middle from his tackle position. Humphrey, whose role as designated left-side rusher on passing situations may prolong his career indefinitely, was there to collect Plunkett when he tried to escape.
The Eagles, who played a straight-up, stop-the-run defense on first downs, settled the issue of the Oakland running game very early. And when Plunkett dropped back to pass, he saw tight coverage downfield, especially by his would-be pigeon, rookie Cornerback Roynell Young. Plunkett began taking deeper and deeper drops. Then the rush got to him. The Raiders, who had been averaging 338 yards and 25 points a game, came away from the first half with zero on the scoreboard, an average of 2.8 yards on each of the 40 plays they ran, and a zilch from a 45-yard field-goal attempt by Chris Bahr.
The Eagles had done even worse. Their offense in the scoreless first half suffered from a severe case of the flutters and drops—70 yards total offense (an average of 2.3 yards per play) and four straight series of three-downs-and-out or less to close out the half. They'd been in Oakland territory for exactly five plays, all on their first series.
"With all due respect to the Oakland defense," Vermeil said, "I felt we would have had 10 to 14 points in the first half if we hadn't kept stopping ourselves."
In the third quarter, Philly's Tony Franklin kicked a 51-yard field goal, a monster that was gaining altitude when it split the posts. What a strange item he is. He crushes his field goals, but none of his kickoffs went deeper than the 11-yard line. Ah well, kickers....
As the quarter ended, Plunkett threw four straight incomplete passes and the Eagle defense survived its only major crisis, aside from the 86-yarder. The Raiders, with a third-and-one from the Philly 33, had strangely tried two sweeps, first left, then right, and the Eagles had thrown them back.
But the Raiders are like an old land mine that lies in the sand for years and then, all of a sudden—kaboom! Their one consistent trait during the 18 Al Davis years has been the bomb, anytime, from any place on the field, and with a little over two minutes gone in the fourth quarter, they launched one. First down on their own 14—kaboom!—86 yards, Plunkett to Branch. Now it was 7-3 and the Eagles' bench was a frozen tableau of disbelief.
According to Plunkett, the play was called 28 Special, a particularly nasty bit of trickery the Raiders put in a few weeks ago. Bobby Chandler, the flanker, was lined up wide on the right side. He ran a post pattern, straight down the field, bending in slightly. Branch, slotted inside him, came underneath, running a little hitch to the outside, then took off.
"They ran it perfectly," Plunkett said. "Bobby ran off both defensive backs [free safety Brenard Wilson and Young], and when Cliff came behind him, the coverage couldn't catch up."
Young, a No. 1 draft pick out of Alcorn State, had been the target. He was the target all afternoon. Of the 36 passes Plunkett threw (only two to running backs), 13 were into Young's coverage. Plunkett completed two, a 29-yarder to Chandler and the biggie. Herman Edwards on the right corner had only three passes directed his way.
"I've never been tested like I was today," said Young, who gets better every week. "I've never had a team go deep on me so many times back to back. They showed me everything in the book, every pattern that could be shown. I guess I survived it."
"The good thing about a game like this," Jaworski said, "is that you can pick out a play here and a play there and say, 'This was a big play.' They become meaningful. In one of those shootout types of games, they lose their value. There are too many big plays."
The Eagles saved their big play for the end—6:52 to go—and it was a freakie. Jaworski was supposed to run a bootleg to his left and look for the tight end and flanker, running crossing routes, but he never got that far. Randy McClanahan, Oakland's inside linebacker, shot in clean on a blitz and flushed Jaworski to his right.
"I heard [Running Back] Wilbert Montgomery yelling, 'Ron! Ron!' " Jaworski said, "and then the linebacker was on me." Jaworski scrambled out of McClanahan's grasp, and spotted an unlikely candidate 40 yards downfield, Leroy Harris, his 5'9" fullback. The pass was on the money and the Eagles had a 43-yard gain.
"I looked away for a moment," Vermeil said, "and when I looked back I was shocked to see Ron over there on the right side. Actually, it shocked me even more to see Leroy catch the pass."
"I haven't thrown that ball to Leroy in four months," Jaworski said. "If he hadn't caught it, he'd better have kept running right out the tunnel, because Dick wouldn't have let him back."
Seven plays later the Eagles punched it in on a three-yard Montgomery sweep and they had their 10-7 lead. One final sack by Humphrey shut the door on Plunkett and the Raiders.
So there it was, a defensive masterpiece with one big play on each side and the difference decided by a field goal one team could make and the other one couldn't. In conquering the Raiders, the Eagles defeated an AFC team that has won 22 of its last 23 games against NFC teams, counting the 1977 Super Bowl. To those skeptics who mentioned that the Eagles' 10-1 record going into the Oakland game was largely built on the NFL's softest schedule, Sunday's victory was a reminder of Vermeil's constant refrain: "We don't draw up the schedule, we just play it, and maybe those records aren't so good because we helped make them that way."
Two of Philly's next three games come against teams that seem playoff" bound—San Diego and Atlanta. Then there's Dallas on the season's last Sunday.
"Once and for all this should establish our credibility," said Humphrey, "but if it doesn't, then San Diego should next week."
In the meantime, Raider Halfback Kenny King paid a sincere tribute to the Eagles. "They're by far the best defensive team I've played against this year," he said, "but even more, they're a very clean team. There's none of this hoo-rah and hoo-ray stuff. You get knocked down, you see a couple of hands reaching down to help you up. They don't feel like they have to practice all that phony intimidation. They're a good defensive team and they've got good people."
"He said that? It was nice of him," Bunting said. "That's the key, isn't it? Good people. We don't do anything very fancy out there. We're not a blitzing team. Blitzing isn't sound defense. We play the run very tough and then we go into basic coverages."
Hanging over the Eagles' heads, though, is the shadow of two previous playoffs, the heartbreaking last-second loss to Atlanta two years ago and the roughing up by Tampa Bay last season.
There was speculation that the toughness of Vermeil's practice regimen, his routine three-hour workouts, had taken the zip out of his players' legs, had worn them down by the end of the season.
"No, I haven't cut down our practice time," Vermeil said Sunday, "but maybe I've lightened up on the intensity a bit. And there will be weeks that I won't work 'em that hard. That's a change."
Someone mentioned performances by Humphrey against the Eagles, and Vermeil smiled. Philadelphia had gotten Humphrey last year when it seemed that his best days in Atlanta were long gone, when he'd retired and been coaxed into coming back. Humphrey had cost two fourth-round draft choices. Vermeil's whole thrust has been toward defense. He has always used his first pick in the draft to go for defense (he had solved his quarterback problem by stealing Jaworski from the Rams for Tight End Charle Young, even up), but in Humphrey he got something special.
"He's playing better this year than he did last," Vermeil said. "You saw him out there today, you saw what he's capable of. It's exciting to me to see the way he's been playing. One of the rewards of coaching is having the opportunity of being around the kind of man Claude Humphrey is."
Stretched out on his back, wrapped up in his Jobst Cryotemp and staring at the collection of ancient leather helmets that trainer Otho Davis has hung from the ceiling of the training room, Humphrey philosophized about his role with the Eagles, his role in pro football.
"You know, when I retired I felt I'd only come back for this team," he said. "I wouldn't have gone anywhere else. I'd seen 'em play early in the year in '78 and they were a young football team, but they were good. They had talent on that defensive team. Carl Hairston, Charlie Johnson.... I said, to myself, 'Hey, I can play with those guys.' They were young and going places. At that point in my career I didn't want to wait around for Atlanta to build a team. I'd been through that about seven times already.
"People say I'm old now. Well, I never felt old and I never felt young. I just felt like me. I can do what I'm doing now because I don't have to go in on early downs and play the run. Last year when I had to go the whole way I just wore down. By the end of the season, by the time we drew Tampa Bay in the playoffs, my body was a wreck.
"Sixty plays a game, for 16 weeks...well, I don't think I could do it now. But this way, playing 60% of the time, with Dennis Harrison playing the run and pounding on those tackles, I feel I have a lot of football left.
"You get so you can spot some things. Like the drop Plunkett took today. It was too deep. Usually when I put on a rush I pick out a certain point and aim for it, and I know when I get there I have to look back over my shoulder to see the quarterback and fight my way back to get to him. But today I could see Plunkett in front of me all the time. Those are the kinds of things you pick up from being around a while."
It's a good tight unit, the quality old-timers like Humphrey and Bill Bergey and the budding young stars—the only No. 1 drafts Vermeil has had since he's been coach—Young this year and Linebacker Jerry Robinson in '79. So far it's been working just fine.