Publish date:


With Ron Jaworski eating up yardage, the waters may be unsafe for Oakland

Super Bowlquarterbacks have always fit into one of two groups: The Cerebral or TheCharismatic. The Charismatic group is headed by the likes of "Broadway"Joe Namath, "Hollywood" Joe Kapp, "Don't Go, Jo Jo" Bradshawand Snake Stabler. The Cerebral contingent is led by Bart Starr, Len Dawson,Bob Griese, Roger Staubach and Francis Asbury Tarkenton. All of them had, orhave, a certain mystique, an aura that is uniquely a quarterback's.Cold-blooded devils, who called to mind gunfighters. But now comes RonJaworski, who calls to mind the kid watching from behind the water trough, eyeslike two cherries in a bowl of milk. Wow! The Super Bowl! There isn't an ounceof mystique in Ron Jaworski. But this Sunday in New Orleans, while the rest ofthose guys are watching, announcing or splashing themselves with after shave,Jaworski will be the one quarterbacking the Philadelphia Eagles.

Jaworski is abreath of fresh air, a clown bearing gifts, a man-child of 29 who walks aroundgrinning like a kid who has just won the Punt, Pass and Kick contest. Hisnickname is Jaws, but he is about as terrifying as a guppy. To his Eagleteammates he is a leader, but he leads by exuberance as much as example. Theday after the Eagles beat Dallas 20-7 in the NFC championship game, while thePhiladelphia veterans were still trying to figure out how to react to theirstriking success after so many years of failure, Jaworski set the tone in thelocker room by ostentatiously whipping out a cigar, lighting it with a $100bill that he had heisted from his 4-year-old daughter's Monopoly game andsinging, "We're in the money." Slowly his teammates began to smile. Bygum, that was the way to feel about going to the Super Bowl. Jaworski went overto a record player and put on music he could polka to, then around the room hewent, one-two-three, one-two-three. "Yeah! We're going to the SuperBowl!" he shouted. His teammates began to shout it, too. It was as ifthey'd won the lottery or something, and Jaworski had brought the news.

It's not that RonJaworski's life has been totally unchanged by success. He has become a partnerin a country club and has started a hot-tub business called "Ron Jaworski'sNature Tubs." There is also a Ron Jaworski's Sports Enterprises, whichhandles contracts and endorsements for about a dozen NFL players. But he stilllacks his first ounce of mystique and carries himself as if his firstpretentious word will send him packing back to the steel mill in his hometownof Lackawanna, N.Y. And in 10 years don't expect to see him doing the colorcommentary on Monday Night Football. Among other things, Monday's his bowlingnight. He bowls in a league for Vic's Deli, a team captained by Vic Morris, whois the caterer for the Eagle locker room. Jaworski doesn't even bowl very wellfor Vic's Deli. His average is 164.

On a footballfield, however, Jaworski is way above average. "All things considered, if Iwere to start a new franchise, I'd take Ron first," says Sid Gillman, theEagle quarterback coach. "I think he's the best passer in the NFL, week inand week out. He makes less mistakes over the course of a year. And his nextthree or four years should be his best."

Ron Jaworski? Thebest passer in the NFL? It's not as implausible as it sounds. During the pastthree years he has started and won more games than any quarterback in profootball except Terry Bradshaw. More than Dan Fouts. More than Brian Sipe orStabler. This season, his best, he completed 57% of his passes for 27touchdowns and an average of 7.82 yards per attempt, statistics that ranked himsecond among NFL quarterbacks. He was selected to his first Pro Bowl. Mostimportant, for the second season in a row he threw only 12 interceptions. It'sno small coincidence that the Eagles allowed the fewest points in the NFL.

Stats aside,Jaworski simply throws a football as well as anyone. The Eagles' coach, DickVermeil, talks about the tightness of his spiral. Gillman says there are windydays when you would need a gun to get the ball in there any better. A rifle.Jaworski was known as the Polish Rifle earlier in his career, when he was withthe Los Angeles Rams. That was back when he believed his arm was so gifted hecould actually throw the ball through a defender. And at times he could.Through the defender, through the receiver, bruising fingers and landingincomplete. His receivers ran patterns with the fear of God in their eyes,afraid that if they looked around a split second too late the ball would teartheir heads off. The result was that until this year, Jaworski's careercompletion average was below 50%. "The only thing keeping you from becomingAll-Pro," Vermeil told him at the start of this season, "is notcompleting 57% to 59% of your passes." And he was right.

Vermeil, who cameto the Eagles in 1976, when they were at the bottom of the NFC East, had firstworked with Jaworski in 1973, which was his rookie year with the Rams. Vermeilwas the Rams' offensive backfield coach at the time, and the thing that mostimpressed him about Jaworski wasn't the arm but the temperament. "You couldsee the raw talent and the eagerness to learn," Vermeil recalls. "Hehad a freshness, almost a naivetè about him. He wasn't a real worldly guy likeplayers from Notre Dame or USC, and his kind of guy tends to be lessselfish."

The naivetè thatso attracted Vermeil was Jaworski's undoing in Los Angeles. "I'm ashot-and-beer guy, and that was a martini town," Jaworski says. He hadgrown up in Lackawanna, a town of about 23,000, where the biggest employer isBethlehem Steel. About all he'd ever wanted out of life was not to have to workin the steel mill. His father showed him what that life was like one highschool summer by getting him a job there straightening rods. Pull out a crookedrod, straighten it in the straightening machine. Pull out another, straightenit. Etc. After a week Jaworski wanted out. His father made him stay two moreweeks to make sure the lesson stuck.

Although he wasoffered scholarships at a dozen better-known schools, including Georgia Tech,Jaworski picked Youngstown State University. At the time he was 6'2" butweighed just 160 pounds (he's now up to 196), so he had no real aspirations toplay pro football. 'The coach told me if I went there they'd throw the ball 30times a game," says Jaworski. "As soon as I heard that I asked, 'Wheredo I sign?' "

YoungstownState's program was low-key, to say the least. The coach, the late Dike Beede,used to stop practice when a flock of Canadian geese flew overhead. He talkedabout why a cluster of mushrooms that appeared overnight on the field grew inthe pattern it did. He also was the last collegiate proponent of the sidesaddleT. The sidesaddle T is a bizarre formation that is something of a cockeyed wingT. Jaworski would line up a yard behind the left guard to receive the snap fromcenter. A tailback and a fullback lined up five yards deep, as they would in apro set, and on every play a wingback would go in motion, pausing brieflybehind the center as if to receive the snap. The wingback would then continuetoward the sideline as if he had the ball, and the center would hike itsideways to Jaworski.

Clearly—andJaworski still has the films to prove it—the sidesaddle T was the creation ofan aberrant mind. But it scored a lot of points. In his senior year, Jaworskiwas ranked fifth in the country among college-division passers, and YoungstownState put together a 4-4-1 record, its first non-losing season in six years.The Penguins' biggest win that year was a 22-21 squeaker over archrival Akron,a game highlighted by one of the most original trick plays in collegiatehistory. For 10 plays in a row a wingback went into motion, faked as if he hadthe ball, then continued out toward the sideline. On the 11th play Jaworskigave him the ball and yelled "Fumble!" No one on Youngstown Stateblocked; the players turned around and dived into a pile, scrambling furiouslylike hogs after slop. The Akron players did the same. Some of the Akron boysactually were signaling that they had recovered the ball, jumping up and downand pointing. By that time, of course, the wingback had walked around end anddown the sideline 40 yards for a touchdown.

Clearly, it wasno small step that Jaworski was taking when he joined the Rams as asecond-round draft choice. He was relegated to the taxi squad his first year,but veteran Quarterback John Hadl took him under his wing and got him to moveto Marina del Rey, a posh area of L.A. that Jaworski could ill afford. Soon hewas saying crazy things like, "They have a place reserved for me in theHall of Fame; all I need is playing time." Jaworski shudders at thememory.

"My fatherdied suddenly in 1971, and I didn't have that much discipline at that time inmy life," he says. "In L.A. I became too much of a free spirit. Youknow what life out there is like. I wasn't getting a chance to play, so theonly way I could let people know I was alive was with my mouth. It wasn'tme."

At the end of the1975 season Jaworski finally got his chance when the sore shoulder of JamesHarris, then the L.A. quarterback, acted up with two games to go. Jaworski ledthe Rams to wins over Green Bay and defending NFL champion Pittsburgh, and inthe first round of the playoffs quarterbacked L.A. to a 35-23 defeat of St.Louis. By that time Harris was ready again, and, in a move that still bafflesJaworski, the Rams chose Harris to start the championship game against Dallas.By the time Jaworski relieved the ineffectual Harris, Dallas was on its way toa 37-7 romp.

"I asked thecoach, Chuck Knox, about the change," Jaworski says, "and he told me itwas out of his hands. That's all he needed to say."

The Rams werethen owned by the late Carroll Rosenbloom, and the implication was that theorder to start Harris had come directly from him. Jaworski, the Polish Rifle,never felt he was Rosenbloom's type of guy. "He wanted a quarterback hecould introduce to Jonathan Winters or Don Rickles, a guy who fit the Hollywoodimage," said one Ram player. Jaworski definitely didn't qualify. Here wasthis bubbly, grinning kid who finally was showing what he could do, throwingtouchdown passes and then chasing his receivers into the end zone tocongratulate them. Forty-seven-yard pass, 47-yard sprint by Jaworski and a bighug. It wasn't the L.A. way. The general manager, Don Klosterman, actuallytried to get him to stop it.

"He kepttelling me about poise under pressure," recalls Jaworski with a giant grin."I just wasn't very cool. When I made a big play, I got excited about it. Iknow Unitas and Hadl didn't do that sort of thing, but it just wasn't in me togo, ho-hum, another big play. Maybe someday it will be, when I've won a lot ofbig games, but it wasn't then and it's still not."

Jaworski has anofficial Polish rifle mounted on a plaque in his home, which is a rifle withits barrel bent back so that it blows the head off anyone using it. Before the1976 season he fired that rifle on his career with the Rams by saying hewouldn't sign a five-year, $705,000 contract until it was made clear whether ornot he would start. The Rams had signed Rhodes Scholar Pat Haden, and Haden wasmore the Beverly Hills type. Rosenbloom stopped negotiations with Jaworski, andthe Rams started Haden most of the season. Jaworski played in only five gamesand, at the end of the season, his negotiating rights were traded to the lowlyEagles. His record as a starter with Los Angeles had been 4-0.

The only timeJaworski had played in Philadelphia, in 1975, the Rams had crunched the Eagles42-3. What he recalls of that game is that the visitors were pelted with golfballs, and the home team with dog bones. Giant dog bones. Still, he wasecstatic to be leaving L.A. Vermeil handed him the starting job, and Jaworskipromptly began drawing sidelong glances from his new teammates by talking innot-too-distant terms about the playoffs, even the Super Bowl. "The onething I had learned from the Rams was the value of a winning atmosphere,"he says. "We'd always gone to the playoffs, and I just naturally figuredeveryone expected to make the playoffs. Some guys thought I was from anotherplanet."

At times itlooked as if he were throwing to guys from another planet. He had 21interceptions in his first year as the Eagles finished 5-9. Over the summerVermeil put together a horror film of all 21, plus a number of other passesthat were close calls. Then the two sat down and watched it. Fifty times."The majority of those interceptions were caused by me trying to win a gameby myself," Jaworski says. "I wasn't mature enough to realize that ifyou challenge NFL secondaries on every play, you're going to get burned. Dickgrabbed me by the seat of my pants and pulled me back down to earth. He becamesomething like the father figure I needed."

The film sessionspaid off. The next year Philadelphia went 9-7, the Eagles' first winning recordin 12 years, and Jaworski's interceptions dropped to 16. More significantly,the Eagles shed their losers' image and started soaring. In 1979 they were11-5, this season 12-4. "I always had confidence that we would do it,"Jaworski says. "I just never thought it would happen this quick. Noweveryone is asking what it will be like on Sunday when suddenly I'll be ahousehold name and people all across the country will be talking aboutme."

Jaws ponders thisa moment, then shrugs and grins hugely. "How should I know?" he says."I won't hear them."


Jaworski is No. 1 with his two daughters and some of their neighborhood friends, but in film sessions he willingly defers to his father figure, Vermeil.


Jaws bares his teeth, but only to smile at the prospect of making a big splash in the Superdome.


Eating the football is among the ways that Jaws, who has one of the NFL's strongest throwing arms, has learned to cut down on the interceptions that drowned the Eagles in his first season in Philly.