No win felt sweeter

BEST GAME: The Eagles' triumph over the Cowboys in the NFC title game in 1981 was a masterpiece.

Posted: August 12, 2007

It wasn't for an NFL title.

It wasn't the Super Bowl.

At the time, however, it seemed even bigger, even better.

You have to remember the circumstances. Philadelphia wasn't starving for a championship the way it is now. The city's last title - the third in eight years - had been won three months prior by the Phillies.

The Eagles weren't only in the NFC championship game, they were hosting it. The final bit of spice for this magical big-game recipe: The opponent was the Dallas Cowboys at a time when they were truly America's Team, as well as the Eagles' primary measuring stick.

All those ingredients mixed together make the Eagles' victory on Jan. 11, 1981, over the Cowboys the greatest game in the team's 75-year history.

Jim Murray, the Eagles' general manager at the time, described the event perfectly the evening before the game.

"Playing Dallas here for the NFC championship?" he said. "Are you kidding me? This is the Super Bowl. The indoor game [the actual Super Bowl in New Orleans] is nice, but for Philly, this is the Super Bowl. This town is going to explode tomorrow. Absolutely explode."

The precise moment of eruption came on the Eagles' second play from scrimmage when quarterback Ron Jaworski handed the ball to Wilbert Montgomery and he broke up the right side of the field for a 42-yard touchdown.

"When you say Wilbert's name, that's the play that comes to everybody's mind," Murray said during a recent interview.

The crowd, which endured a wind chill of minus-20 degrees that day, knew at that moment that this day belonged to the Eagles. Dick Vermeil, the popular head coach who left UCLA in 1976 to take control of a franchise that had had one winning season in the previous 13 years, knew before his team left the locker room that the Cowboys didn't have a chance.

"I don't think I've ever been in a locker room that was more focused than that locker room was," Vermeil said. "When we left there, I didn't think there was any way in hell the Dallas Cowboys could beat us."

Montgomery, whose 5-foot-10, 195-pound frame had taken a beating during the regular season, finished with 194 yards rushing. The Eagles' defense held Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett to 41 yards, one fewer than Montgomery had on his unforgettable first-quarter run.

No game before it or since has been quite as special as that one. Yes, the Eagles won three NFL titles before that and, no, they didn't go on to win the Super Bowl two weeks later at the Superdome in New Orleans. They've also been back to the Super Bowl under current coach Andy Reid, but that 2005 NFC championship win over Atlanta wasn't quite the same.

As for the three NFL title games the Eagles won, they were terrific accomplishments, but they came before the late Pete Rozelle started turning the league into the monster it has become today.

Vermeil literally remains the poster boy for how much that frigid win over the Cowboys meant to Philadelphia fans. Even though it has been 25 years since Vermeil last coached in Philadelphia, he remains a billboard pitch man for a local health insurance company. Despite leading the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl title and coaching in Kansas City, this still is Vermeil's home, and he's still treated with reverence.

An example: As Vermeil sat in a waiting room at a local hospital during a follow-up visit for his recent hip-replacement surgery, he said a couple of "elderly women" started talking to him about that NFC championship game.

"They just had their knees replaced, and they want to talk about that game," Vermeil said. "To me, it's amazing how long it has lasted. It's very much appreciated. Believe me. Sometimes it startles me."

Vermeil said he has learned to live with the Super Bowl loss to the Raiders. He said his Super Bowl victory as head coach of the St. Louis Rams in 2000 didn't feel any better than the Eagles' NFC title win over the Cowboys.

Some of his former players wish they could have that game against the Raiders back.

"After that [Dallas] game, we were whooping and hollering and it was almost like the Super Bowl was an afterthought," said Bill Bergey, an inside linebacker on that team.

"I've got my playbook for that '80 season, and the preface of that book was the short-term goals and the long-term goals," quarterback Ron Jaworski said. "Our season-ending goal was to win the NFC championship. It was amazing. It was not to win the Super Bowl. And I really believe at that time, Coach probably didn't think we were good enough to win the Super Bowl, or else that would've been the goal. I'm sure, in hindsight, Coach wished he would've said the goal was to be the champions, but in his honesty he was like, maybe, at that point, we just weren't good enough. Maybe in November, he would've reevaluated it, but I'm talking about back in early July."

The 1980 Eagles weren't good enough to win it all, but they were good enough to take down America's Team, and it's a moment that still burns brightly more than a quarter century later.


The Next-Best Games

1948 and 1949 NFL title games

Dec. 19, 1948: Eagles 7, Chicago Cardinals 0

Dec. 18, 1949: Eagles 14,

Los Angeles Rams 0

Yes, it was two different games, but they had one thing in common: the number zero.

The Eagles remain the only team in NFL history to post shutouts in consecutive league title games. The win over the Cardinals in 1948 at snow-covered Shibe Park was revenge for a loss the previous year in the title game. Hall of Famer Steve Van Buren scored the only touchdown after showing up late because he slept in thinking the storm would force a postponement. Eight inches of snow fell during the game.

A year later, the Eagles duplicated their shutout performance by beating the Rams in a driving rainstorm at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Proof of how different the NFL was then: The announced crowd was 27,980 and most accounts claim there were considerably fewer than that in attendance.

Dec. 26, 1960: Eagles 17, Green Bay 13

The game fittingly ended with a crunching hit by Hall of Famer Chuck Bednarik that stopped Packers fullback Jim Taylor inside the Eagles' 10-yard line. Bednarik held Taylor down as the final seconds ticked off, then impolitely invited him to get up. The Packers, under coach Vince Lombardi, won five of the next seven titles, including the first two Super Bowls. The Eagles haven't won a title since.

Jan. 23, 2005: Eagles 27, Atlanta 10

For Andy Reid's Eagles, this was NFC Championship IV, and the team finally ended its frustration by earning a trip to the Super Bowl with an impressive win over the Falcons on a bitterly cold and windy afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field. Tight end Chad Lewis, in his final postseason game, caught two touchdowns from Donovan McNabb, but missed the Super Bowl because of a sprained left foot.

Dec. 31, 1988: Chicago Bears 20, Eagles 12

This will stand the test of time as the most memorable loss in franchise history, even though few people saw all of it. This was the Fog Bowl. It also was the Eagles' first playoff appearance in seven years and, like all the other playoff games with Buddy Ryan as a head coach, it ended in defeat.

Nov. 19, 1978: Eagles 19,

New York Giants 17

Jan. 11, 2004: Eagles 20, Green Bay 17, OT

These two games will forever be remembered as miracle Eagles victories. "The Miracle of the Meadowlands" in 1978 occurred when quarterback Joe Pisarcik fumbled a handoff to Larry Csonka as the Giants tried to run out the clock on a 17-12 victory. The ball bounced into the waiting hands of cornerback Herman Edwards, who ran 26 yards for a stunning game-winning touchdown. The win led to the Eagles' first playoff appearance in 18 years.

More than 25 years later, the oft-maligned, self-proclaimed "First-down Freddie" Mitchell pulled in a fourth-and-26 reception from Donovan McNabb in an NFC divisional playoff game as time was running out. The 28-yard catch led to a game-tying field goal by David Akers, who added the game-winner following a Brian Dawkins interception in overtime.

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