Super Bowl XV won't be a track meet or a basketball game in pads and cleats. You'll be able to leave your TV set to get a beer without worrying about missing three touchdowns. When the rule-makers worked their cosmetic magic and opened up the passing lanes, they were subtly crooking a finger at all those rubber-armed young quarterbacks and agile whippets who catch passes, beckoning them to the final January spectacle—"Come my darlings, come light up the board for us, give us offense, give us scores, keep those fans glued to their TVs, keep the ratings soaring ever higher."
Uh-uh, it hasn't quite worked out that way. The Super Bowl passing record is a modest 309 yards. Do I hear laughter out there? What's modest about 309 yards, you say? Well, San Diego alone beat that number eight times this season.
No, there won't be a great air show for Supe XV. Defense is the word. Philadelphia and Oakland, valiantly piling sandbags against that great flood gathering out there, are the combatants. They have defensed the 1980s. In the conference championship, Philly overcame the greatest scoring machine in the past 13 years, the Dallas Cowboys, and Oakland outlasted the greatest yardage-maker of all time, San Diego. The names you will hear most on Jan. 25 will be Carl Hairston and Jerry Robinson, Ted (The Mad Stork) Hendricks and Lester (The Molester) Hayes...and, of course, Al (The Managing General Partner) Davis, if Pete Rozelle has to present the trophy to his least-favorite team.
Will this be a dull game? Yes, if scoring is your idea of action. No, if you're addicted to defensive football, as many sophisticates are these days. Palates jaded by too many 45-38 shootouts, too many games in which there are so many big plays that, finally, there are no big plays at all, relish the defensive classics—Houston's 6-0 triumph over the Steelers, and, yes, Philly's 10-7 defeat of Oakland when the teams met in November.
There were exactly two big plays in that game, an 86-yard pass by the Raiders, Jim Plunkett to Cliff Branch, and a 43-yard pass by the Eagles, Ron Jaworski to Leroy Harris. The rest of the time it was vicious, unrelenting defense. The Eagles made a 51-yard field goal, the Raiders missed a 45-yarder. The difference in the teams' total offense was four yards. The Raiders turned the ball over in the shadow of the end zone twice, the Eagles once.
"Our styles are very similar," Jaworski says. "Ball control, big, strong defenses that try to shut people down, a bomb every now and then. But I think you'll see a more wide-open game than what you saw the last time. We've had two months to study each other."
The teams do have some striking similarities. Eagle Coach Dick Vermeil is very proud of the way his players go after people in the fourth quarter; Philadelphia has outscored the opposition 143-44 in that period, counting the playoffs. They have lost only one fourth quarter in 18 contests, that to Washington in a game they had already wrapped up. Since the season's sixth game, in which Jim Plunkett became Oakland's starting quarterback (the Raiders like to point to that game as the start of the resurgence, following a 2-3 start and a soul-searching, players-only meeting), Oakland has lost only one fourth quarter, and that was in the regular-season finale against the Giants, a laugher. The Raiders have allowed no fourth-quarter touchdowns in their three playoff games. The Eagles haven't been scored upon at all in playoff fourth quarters, and they've given up only one fourth-quarter TD in the last six games.
Both teams are slow starters, both were outscored in the first quarter during the regular season. Both are addicted to the old run-pass formula, the rule that says you must run more than pass in order to win, a ratio that has become somewhat obsolete these days. But the only games the Eagles lost were those in which their passes outnumbered their runs. Ditto Oakland during the Plunkett era.
Here's another statistic, take it for what it's worth: 11 Raiders played in Oakland's 32-14 win over Minnesota in Super Bowl XI four years ago. There are also nine Eagles left from 1976, when Philadelphia went 4-10 in Vermeil's first season, and that's a high number considering that in losing regimes there is generally a high turnover rate.
"The thing that got the veterans in Dick's corner right away," says Stan Walters, Philadelphia's left tackle, "is that he didn't come in here with the idea of cleaning house. He said, 'You're my players, and there's enough talent here to win with.' Maybe he said it because he knew he wouldn't have any draft choices for a couple of years."
"I didn't do a very good job coaching that first year," Vermeil says. "And I'm not trying to be a Humble Charlie about it. But I did get them used to the idea of hard work."
Ah, hard work. All those three-hour practices, the midnight oil. For a while the world tuned in to this reaffirmation of the work ethic, and then it became Vermeil's cross to bear. The Eagles came up flat in the '78 playoffs and lost to Atlanta. Last year they were flat again, and Tampa Bay ran them out. Were they really flat or were they simply exhausted, beat up, their legs weakened by too much time on the practice field?
The Minnesota game in the first round of the playoffs three weeks ago seemed to reinforce that idea. The Vikings stuck it to the Eagles, beat them off the line. Scott Fitzkee went down, Keith Krepfle limped off, so did Billy Campfield. Wilbert Montgomery, the heart of the Eagles' running game, kept hobbling to the sidelines, and they patched him up and sent him back in. Every time Harold Carmichael was tackled he had trouble getting up. This was Dunkirk, but where were the boats? On the sidelines there was Vermeil, a whipping, driving force, grimacing, smacking his fist into his palm. Dr. Vermeil and his pick-up-your-bed-and-walk school of medicine, or The Church of Vermeil Scientist.
Then, in the second half, the Vikings got a case of the oopsies and eight turnovers sealed their fate, but the Eagles were living on borrowed time. Just wait till Dallas shows up next week. The Cowboys had given the Eagles a thorough whipping in the regular-season final. They broke Wide Receiver Charles Smith's jaw; Dennis Thurman cheap-shot Carmichael out of the game and stopped his pass-catching streak.
But when they met again for the NFC title, the Eagles won going away. They dominated the second half. "That's what I say when people accuse me of tiring the team out," Vermeil says. "Tired teams don't come back in the second half like we did." The Eagles' offensive linemen, who had been scorched by Vermeil during the week because of the way the Vikings beat them, shoved the Cowboys around. Before the game, 37-year-old Right Guard Woody Peoples, who'd been a San Francisco 49er for 10 years, told the squad, "I didn't know what football was all about until I came here three years ago."
The Eagle wounded are on offense—Smith and Walters (bad back). Both should be O.K. for the Super Bowl. It's a solid enough offense, with Jaworski a slow starter but cool and confident once he gets the feel of the game, and the ground game can do great things if Fullback Harris runs and blocks like a madman, as he did against Dallas. But it's the defense that beats people. The secondary, with rookie Left Cornerback Roynell Young showing much more than was expected this year, has become one of the NFL's very best—ranking alongside Oakland's in that department. Robinson is capable of amazing plays from his right-linebacker position; the line keeps a lot of heat on the passer and nevertheless manages to shut down the run.
The Eagles don't figure to run much on Oakland; their passing probably will be respectable. It's doubtful whether they'll direct much action toward Hayes at the left cornerback. Back in November, Jaworski aimed five passes into his coverage, completed zero and had one intercepted. Hayes has had that kind of a season, and he's on a hot streak right now, with five interceptions in the playoffs.
Philadelphia's at its best playing against teams it doesn't like—Dallas, Washington—but the Eagles have nothing against the Raiders. "They've got this big reputation as intimidators," Jaworski says, "but I think that died when [Jack] Tatum and [George] Atkinson left. Oh, they'll hit you all right, but I didn't hear any of our guys saying they were cheap-shotters. No, they're a good, clean, hard team, a good team to play against. You have to give them credit, coming through as a wild-card team the way they did, playing three games without a week off. My God, if we'd have had to play the Vikings without a week's rest, we'd have been in real trouble."
There are also teams the Raiders dislike—San Diego, Dallas (no one likes Dallas)—but Philly isn't one of them. There's a different kind of emotion at work with the Raiders, and much of it has its origins away from the field. The fans scorned them as renegades because of their proposed move to L.A. (Oakland Traitors was the new nickname), but then fell in love with them all over again, 9,000 jamming the airport after the San Diego victory. Hold on to your wallets, boys.
Al Davis' war with Pete Rozelle has been a lively side issue—just wait till Pete has to give Al the trophy, etc. Most of the players brush it off as an amusing diversion, but veteran Left Guard Gene Upshaw, who's been Davis' public defender through the years, sees it as much more. "The league has taken shots at Al whenever it could, and it's taken shots at us, too," he says. "It makes you want to play harder—to stick it to the whole bunch of them."
Conspiracy-watchers carefully noted whether Al's boys got the worst of it from the NFL officials as they came nearer and nearer to that dreaded day when Pete would have to bite the bullet and say, "Al, it gives me great pleasure...." They were waiting for a flag to drop on the play that won the Cleveland game, Mike Davis' interception in the end zone. It didn't. They were waiting for a flag when the Raiders were eating up the clock at the end of the San Diego game. Nope, none there, either. The league even did Oakland a tremendous favor when it left the field uncovered the night before the San Diego game, when flash showers hit. It was finally covered at 9:30 a.m., but by then it was too late; by game time the playing surface bore a remarkable resemblance to the one in the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum, where the Bay comes seeping up out of the turf. The Chargers' receivers were not at all happy slogging through the stuff.
Oakland has overcome all odds. When the season stood at 2-3, the players were wondering just how long Tom Flores would be their coach. "You heard all sorts of crazy rumors," Upshaw says, "about how Sid Gillman or George Allen was on the way." But the Raiders have gone 12-2 since then, counting the playoffs, and Flores has emerged as a steady hand in control. The defense came on, and Plunkett almost always managed to figure out a way to win.
The Raiders were underdogs in two of their three playoff games, and the third one—against Houston—closed at pick 'em. They were supposed to take the pipe when they got a taste of Cleveland's wintry blasts, and they didn't. Plunkett is supposed to be an erratic, low-percentage passer, but he completed 14 for 18 in the San Diego game, Oakland's biggest one to date.
The Raiders seem to be a team of destiny, and for that reason I like them against the Eagles. Not big. I close my eyes and see them driving against the Eagles in November in Veterans Stadium; I see them able to get more things going on offense than Philly could. I can also see the Eagle defense giving them a very rough time in this game, though, and forcing turnovers, and Jaworski hitting Carmichael on a slant-in pattern against the blitz for the winning touchdown. A Philadelphia win is logical. Be that as it may, I still favor Oakland. Call it a hunch. Call it 17-14.
Vermeil's taped-together troops include Carmichael, Smith, Montgomery and Krepfle.
Davis has been able to pump new life into Hendricks, Plunkett, Matuszak and King.
Davis knows that an Oakland win will be a sure way to spoil Rozelle's weekend.