One night in March, Los Angeles Raider boss Al Davis and Philadelphia Eagle owner Norman Braman took a break from the annual NFL owners meeting in Palm Springs to fly to Las Vegas. Braman and Davis, two men with outsized wallets and egos, have become quite close. Braman, a 60-year-old Miami car dealer, has been following Davis's lead in off-the-field matters, challenging his fellow owners in the NFL's Men's Club by filing a 17-page legal challenge to the league's new labor agreement. "I'm honored to be compared to Al." Braman said last Friday. "The one thing Al and I share is that we both have the vision to look to the future."
One thing they do not share is a football pedigree: Braman, who became sole owner of the Eagles in 1986, is still trying to figure out if the ball is blown up or stuffed. But, confronted with a new world of free agency and an impending salary cap, Braman and his brain trust are retooling the Eagles with a fervor not seen on any 11-5 team in memory. They are doing it with youth and with age; they are doing it with guys who lately have resided in doghouses and others who are more familiar with penthouses; they are doing it with knee-scarred veterans and downy-cheeked college juniors. A bit like Davis has done over the years with the Raiders.
"When I look at the Eagles," says Keith Millard, the 1989 defensive player of the year, who came out of retirement on Monday to sign with Philadelphia, "I see the Raiders. This is how Al would build a team. He wouldn't care how it got done. He'd just get it done—with a bunch of guys who might not be the all-American-boy type, but who would definitely want lo kick your ass every Sunday."
The Eagles feel that they added a lot of football nastiness in Sunday's draft, picking two players in the first round who coach Rich Kotite says will become immediate starters. The Eagles used the first of their two Round 1 picks to select Lester Holmes of Division I-AA Jackson State, and penciled him in as their new right guard. Except that he isn't a right guard. Holmes never played a game at guard in either high school or college. He moved over from his customary tackle spot only in two college all-star games. But Holmes is quick, weighs 284 pounds and has a mean streak that should fit in nicely in the NFC East. "Of all the offensive linemen we saw, he was the most explosive off the ball," says line coach Bill Muir.
With the other first-round pick, the 24th overall, the Eagles drafted Colorado defensive tackle Leonard Renfro, a junior, who Chicago Bear personnel chief Bill Tobin feels is not ready to play in the NFL. But Renfro had 10½ sacks last season rushing from inside, and the Eagles have lacked pressure up the middle since defensive tackle Jerome Brown died before the '92 season.
In this inaugural free-agent season, though, the draft almost took a backseat in Philly to the Eagles' elaborate personnel moves in the six days surrounding the annual cattle auction. Since February, the Eagles had allowed two free agents, All-Pro defensive end Reggie White and backup quarterback Jim McMahon, to leave for the Green Bay Packers and the Minnesota Vikings, respectively, without making a bid to retain their services. Six other players, including starting left tackle Ron Heller, had departed after perfunctory counteroffers by Philadelphia. While these eight were turning in their green jerseys, only tight end Mark Bavaro was added to the roster, and he limped in from the Cleveland Browns on a wounded knee. Then, beginning last Wednesday, Braman and the Eagles went to work.
•They signed Tim Harris, who has had more than his share of troubles in his seven years in the league, to fill White's left end spot. Harris tied for second in the NFL with 17 sacks last season; yet the 49ers, desperate for a pass rusher, let him walk rather than match Philly's offer of a mere $1.5 million a year. Harris, at 258, will be giving away 40 pounds to the NFC East mammoths at right tackle (Tim, meet Erik Williams), but he can shed big tackles, and he plays the run well.
•On Wednesday the Eagles signed a free safety, Erik McMillan, who had been in the New York Jets' doghouse—a signal that veteran safety Wes Hopkins, who will be 32 in September and is coming off knee surgery, will be phased out. The Jets had yanked McMillan from the starting lineup in 1991, whispering that he was a poor tackler, even though he had twice been to the Pro Bowl. As safety-mate to Andre Waters, McMillan had better be punishing as well as a playmaker.
•On draft day Philadelphia dealt a fourth-round pick to the San Diego Chargers for 32-year-old left tackle Broderick Thompson, who has recently been whining about his 1993 salary ($638,000). He will probably try to force the Eagles to renegotiate his contract. This pushes the shaky incumbent left tackle, Eric (Pink) Floyd, into instant competition at left guard with Rich Baldinger.
•On Monday an Eagle representative flew to Millard's ranch in Cave Creek, Ariz., to obtain the lineman's signature on a contract. Millard, 31, played last year for the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers, but in the last three seasons, two knee operations and a broken hand have limited him to 20 total tackles. He will be in the Eagles' defensive-tackle rotation as a pass-rush specialist.
The Eagles have also gone out on a limb by leaving Casey Weldon, their '92 fourth-round pick out of Florida State, all alone as the backup quarterback behind Randall Cunningham. Weldon has not thrown a single pass in the NFL. If Cunningham goes down, so may the Eagles.
While the dust is settling in Philadelphia, it's certain that more changes are in the offing. Looming on the horizon after the '93 season is the possible loss of two free-agent defensive stalwarts, linebacker Seth Joyner and defensive end Clyde Simmons, the league's 1992 NFL sack champ, with 19. Braman would take a beating from Eagle fans if he let them escape, and he said last week that he wasn't planning to "jettison" Simmons or Joyner for draft picks and hoped to sign both. But that's what he had said about White, and in that battle the stakes got much too rich for Braman's blood. Both players could fetch as much as $3 million a year in a market desperate for impact defensive players.
Yet, Braman would do well to pursue Simmons and Joyner. They're both 28. They've been relatively injury-free. Simmons has more sacks over the last four years than White has. Joyner is the soul of the defense. Plus, the Eagles' credibility is at a low ebb after L'Affaire White, a nasty bit of business which neither White nor Braman has yet to put behind him.
White was openly critical of Braman for not doing more to keep him in Philadelphia. While expressing his desire to establish a ghetto ministry wherever he signed, he declared, "God will tell me where to play." Braman replies that while he respects White as a religious and morally concerned person, his decision to accept a four-year, $17 million deal with Green Bay "wasn't going to be made by a ghetto, or made by God. It was going to be for the reason most human beings make most decisions today: money."
"How dare Mr. Braman say that," says White. "Money was important, because I know what money can do. But how dare he speak for what was in my heart. God did decide."
Needless to say, none of this is good for the image of Braman's Eagles. And though the team has the third-highest total of wins in football over the last five years (52, behind San Francisco's 62 and the Buffalo Bills' 58), Philadelphians are getting edgy. Last Saturday at Veterans Stadium fans at the Phillie-L.A. Dodger game were quick to criticize when the subject of the Eagles came up.
"Braman killed their karma, man," said a fan. "He destroyed their camaraderie."
"If they screw up this draft," another said, "and then they lose Simmons and Joyner, that's it. We've had season tickets in my family for years, but I'm not going anymore if they screw it up. That's it."
Braman is listening. "That's the penalty for leadership," he says. "[Owner] Jerry Jones went through hell in Dallas his first year, and now look at him. He's got the best team in football. I was convinced that we couldn't beat Dallas with the team we had. If you can't compete with Dallas, you'd better just pack it in and not show up for the fall." But Braman will be there come September, and he has decreed that top draft choices must be ready to play—right away. Last year, not one of the top five Eagle picks was even a semiregular.
Like his friend Al Davis, Braman is learning that you have to take chances on wounded veterans like Millard and cranky castoffs like McMillan. You have to weigh whether a past DUI conviction—and the threat of an NFL suspension in the event of another offense—should stand in the way of signing a Tim Harris. And you have to move on when you lose a star like White. Kotite sums it up best. "The players don't like what we've done? They're uncomfortable? Fine," says the coach. "I want no one here in a comfort zone."
Nothing comfortable about this club. But interesting? Without a doubt.