On a sunny afternoon in Philadelphia last November, a dangerous
melodrama unfolded on the carpeted concrete of Veterans Stadium.
But save for the few players involved, no one noticed it, not
even the officials on the field.

The 7-3 Eagles were playing the 7-3 Redskins. Early in the
second quarter, with Washington up 3-0 and driving for another
score, a Gus Frerotte pass bounced off the hands of diving tight
end Jamie Asher at the Philadelphia five and into the arms of
cornerback Troy Vincent. As Vincent turned upfield and Asher
climbed to his feet, Eagles middle linebacker James Willis
clubbed the Redskins tight end with a shot to the back of the
head. Predictably, Asher and Willis were at each other's throats
immediately, and it took a half-dozen players to separate them.

That was just the beginning. On the sideline after the play,
Washington's offense gathered and agreed that Willis had to be
punished. He had drawn a flag for a punch to Asher's face after
the play was over, but they felt he should have been ejected for
the blind-side rabbit punch that instigated the skirmish. (It
wasn't only the officials who had missed Willis's sucker punch;
so had the Fox TV crew covering the game. After a commercial
break the network aired a replay that began with Asher's missing
with a retaliatory haymaker at Willis, while broadcasters Pat
Summerall and John Madden implied that it was Asher who had
started the fight.)

Three plays into Washington's next offensive series, on
third-and-inches, 308-pound tackle Joe Patton hit the 235-pound
Willis behind the right knee while 284-pound center Jeff
Uhlenhake bulldozed him over the top of the pile. Willis, the
Eagles' second-leading tackler last season, was out for the rest
of the game with a sprained knee. He made only eight tackles in
Philadelphia's five remaining games.

To anyone watching the game, Willis's injury looked like an
accident. To be sure, in the dog-eat-dog world of the NFL, the
line between physical play and dirty play is often tough to
draw. But cheap shots do occur, and much of the unsportsmanlike
conduct goes unnoticed.

"The average fan doesn't know what takes place out there--the
name-calling, the spitting, the pinching," says Bears linebacker
Barry Minter. "I've been on piles and heard guys hollering,
'He's biting me!'"

"It's just part of the game," says Seahawks running back Steve
Broussard. "In the trenches, cheap shots go on during every play."

Players have always considered dirty play more a necessary evil
than a deadly sin. But according to a recent SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
poll of more than 150 players, it appears to be on the rise.
"It's going up," says Raiders linebacker Anthony Davis. "You've
got rookies coming into the league, they see these guys, and
they think that's the way to play. With free agency you've got
players bouncing around the league trying to catch on. I think
it's going to get worse with more guys moving around."

Our survey also revealed the following:

--As units, the 49ers' offensive line and the Chiefs' receivers
are regarded as the dirtiest in the NFL. Players complained that
49ers linemen consistently perform illegal chop blocks and leg
whips and that Chiefs receivers go for the knees when they block
defensive backs.

--Recently one defensive coach actually wrote a supplement on
cheap-shot techniques for his team's playbook.

--The Raiders, who enjoy flaunting their roguish image, are
perceived as no more menacing than any other team. Says Vikings
safety Corey Fuller, "They weren't dirty the night we spanked
their rump [16-13] last season."

As for this season, you may want to tune in for the Asher-Willis
rematch on Oct 5. That's when the Redskins visit the Eagles, in
the City of Brotherly Love. --LARS ANDERSON

COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE Wisniewski (top) is the No. 1 villain; Randle, Carter and Moss are a trio of diabolical defenders. [Steve Wisniewski] COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR. [See caption above--John Randle] COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER [See caption above--Dale Carter] COLOR PHOTO: STEPHEN DUNN/ALLSPORT [See caption above--Winston Moss]