When the Philadelphia Eagles played the Chicago Bears at Franklin Field last Sunday, the game matched what was clearly the best team in the East with what was considered to be at least the second-best—if not the best—team in the West. Oddly enough, in National Football League circles there is a considerable amount of bitterness between Eastern and Western teams. For a long time the Western conference has been considered the stronger of the two divisions. So far this year, and including the game between the Eagles and the Bears, Eastern teams have won five inter-conference games to the West's three, temporarily disproving the theory.
On the hottest November 5 afternoon in Philadelphia history—79° at game-time—the Eagles showed themselves to be a much better team than the Bears and a much better team than most people had suspected. This was due in large measure to the efforts of two rather disparate Eagles—Sonny Jurgensen, the imperturbable quarterback, and Jerry Williams, a quiet, balding young man who plots the Eagle defense.
Jurgensen directed the Eagle offense against the fluid, shifting Bear defense with aplomb and effect despite a bruised foot which was swollen and purple after the game. Williams, faced with a Bear offense equipped with a truly frightening set of runners and receivers, gambled coolly and won. His opposite number, the Bears' Clark Shaughnessy, did well enough in containing the Eagle attack to win most NFL games, but the Bear offense was never potent or consistent against the defense devised by Williams.
Behind the inventive and strong Eagle offense was another quiet man—Head Coach Nick Skorich, almost entirely unknown to pro football followers before this year. Skorich, who once played guard under Jock Sutherland at Pittsburgh, is a sound and authoritative coach. In the meeting of the Eagle offensive team the night before the game, he went over the variations in the Bear defense—and there are many—precisely and accurately, and the Eagle attackers listened. They learned their lesson well.
Shaughnessy has some nine basic defenses for the Bears. "We can adjust to fit three things," he said before the game. "We have defenses to fit the defense we face, the personnel we face and the situation in the game. Bill George [the Bear middle linebacker] calls the basic overall defense. Then Fred Williams calls the defense for the rush men. [Shaughnessy does not call the four men in the line linemen]. Richie Petitbon calls the defense for the backs. All of these are real bright boys, and they do a great job."
Shaughnessy had, as usual, spent almost endless hours diagnosing the Eagle offense. "We classify passes three ways," he said. "Short, mean and long. A short pass is released within two seconds after the ball is snapped. A mean pass—the mean between the short and long—takes another second. A long pass is anything over that. We found that all of the Eagle passes can be classified as short or mean. Everyone knows that if you put pressure on the passer quick enough, you ease the job of the pass defense tremendously. The Eagles solve that by releasing the ball quickly. They throw short slant-ins to receivers like Tommy McDonald and Pete Retzlaff, and they are the best club in the league at running with a short pass after they have caught it."
Shaughnessy's solution following the diagnosis was almost exactly right. The Bears spread their linebackers wide, double-teamed Retzlaff and McDonald, with one defender covering them to the inside and one to the outside. The Eagles threw only two of their slant-ins during the afternoon. The first, on the first play of the game, was complete to Retzlaff, the second was intercepted.
But Jurgensen, who is built like Norman Van Brocklin and who throws as well, also called as daring and intelligent a game as his predecessor ever did. He hit his receivers on quick slants wide, away from the Bear defenders. He waited until, unaccountably, the Bears took J.C. Caroline, who had the primary responsibility for covering McDonald, out of the game; then he hit McDonald on the only long pass he threw, good for a touchdown. But most of the time he picked at the small holes in the Bear defense for short passing gains, and he did that so well that the Eagles controlled the ball for 77 plays to the Bears' 46.
Williams took a calculated gamble in stopping the Bear attack. He overloaded his defense to the strong side, hoping the weak side could contain anything that came its way. The strategy worked handsomely; the very fast Bear backs were held to only 126 yards running and never broke loose for a long gain. Williams paid very close attention to Chicago's fine rookie end, Mike Ditka, who was instrumental in the crushing defeat of the San Francisco 49ers by the Bears two weeks ago.
"We tried to deny him the cross-over pattern he used so well against San Francisco," Williams said. "He goes downfield maybe 15 yards, then breaks across. He caught two touchdowns on the 49ers that way. We spread our linebackers, tried to force him outside and deep, then our middle linebacker looked for him crossing over and gave him trouble if he found him in that pattern. Finally, the weak-side safety [this was Don Burroughs, known as the Blade to his teammates] picked him up. We blew an assignment once, and it cost us a touchdown."
This was the play on which Billy Wade, who started the game, hit Ditka for a 76-yard touchdown; it was one of only four passes the Bears completed on the tenacious Eagle defense.
In the second half of the game Bear Coach George Halas reached far back in history for a play that would work against the tight-knit Eagle defense. This was a quick pitchout, wide, to Galimore; with the Eagle ends playing tight to stop the Bears running up the middle and the linebackers out wide to stop their sweeps, it worked admirably for a while. The Bear tackle would hook the Eagle end in, and Galimore, with the ball and running room, gained consistently. Finally, Williams spread his ends a yard wider, so that the tacklers could not block them toward the inside, and that play, too, was nullified.
In the second half the Bears began using their fine middle backer, Bill George, as a middle guard, a stratagem that worked exceptionally well against the San Francisco 49ers. The maneuver placed George in the gap between the center and either the right or left guard.
"George has the quickest charge over the ball of anyone I ever saw," Skorich said after the game. "He's across the line so fast most centers can't get their head between him and the quarterback, and he's in on the passer before the passer can unload. He breaks down your blocking in the center of the line. We weren't sure Chuck Bednarik could handle him, and we worked on variations in our blocking pattern in case George did break Bednarik down. But we never had to use them. Chuck would get a good contact on him and overpower him. He did the best blocking job on George I have ever seen."
The Eagle team as a whole blocked well. "I had Jots of time to throw," Jurgensen said after the game. He was sitting on a table in the training room, nursing his bruised foot.
"Even on our last drive," he said, "we got the ball, with four minutes to go, on our four-yard line, and we controlled it for four minutes, all on running plays. Our offensive line was moving them out."
Clarence Peaks carried the ball on almost all of those last plays. It was an impressive display of power, and it confirms the suspicion that this Eagle team, which has had to struggle to win almost all of its games this season, is, in fact, an extraordinarily good team and not just a very lucky one.
As is often true, the club takes its personality from its quarterback. Jurgensen, who began this season with a cherubic, round face, has become a bit gaunt and much more serious-looking with the passing of the weeks. But he retains the self-confidence and the ebullience that has always marked him as a quarterback; two weeks ago, after receivers had dropped three straight passes in the end zone to end a drive against the Redskins, he called the Eagle observer in the press box and said, deadpan, "I guess I called the wrong plays."
Last Sunday he called few wrong plays. In the second half his foot tormented him, and the Bears changed their always-confusing defense even more, but Jurgensen got the winning touchdown. He is a vigilant Eagle.
POISED PASSER Sonny Jurgensen throws into vulnerable spot in the Chicago Bear defense.