By GORDON GLANTZ
GORDONVILLE — To evaluate the 2016 Philadelphia Eagles, we may need a bit of historical perspective, so let’s take a trip back in time to 1977.
A peanut farmer had just become your president, your choices at the movies included “Star Wars” and “Annie Hall” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” was the top-selling album – yes, on vinyl – for just about the while year.
Roy Halladay and Juan “Pepe” Sanchez were born, while Joan Crawford and Bing Crosby died.
The Eagles were in Year 2 of the Dick Vermeil era. The team celebrated the Bicentennial by going 4-10. In 1977, they weren’t much better – in terms of won-loss record – at 5-9.
And with the sound of Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham leading his brooding band mates singing “don’t stop thinking about tomorrow” (the chorus of the song “Don’t Stop) blaring from AM radios, a future was coming into view.
The Eagles were getting better – even if it wasn’t reflected in the oft-unforgiving bottom line at the bottom of the standings.
Despite not having a draft pick in the first four rounds, due to short-sighted trades of the prior regime, lemonade was made out of lemons. The draft yielded one of the franchise’s all-time great running backs, Wilbert Montgomery, in the sixth round and future Pro Bowler – and anchor of the 3-4 defense – in nose tackle Charlie Johnson in the seventh. Meanwhile, long-time corner – and future NFL coach – Herman Edwards was the most significant of the undrafted free agents signed.
While only improving by one win, the Eagles were significantly more competitive than the previous season. Despite going 5-9, in what was the final NFL season in which teams played 14 games, the Eagles scored more points (220) than they gave up (207, five fewer than the 12-2 Dallas Cowboys).
They won a few games by wide margins – 28-10 over the New York Giants, 28-7 over the New Orleans Saints and 27-0 over the New York Jets – while only one of their nine setbacks (20-0 against the Los Angeles Rams in the second week of the season) was by more than 10 points, and six were by a touchdown or less.
Many of the games were decided in the fourth quarter, and often by one key play – either by opposition playmakers the Eagles didn’t yet have or by an Eagle making a well-intentioned, but costly, miscue.
It was frustrating, and not for the faint-hearted, but a change was taking place. It was a season of necessary growing pains that, even cast in the context of this current era of quick-fix free agent signings, you still can’t navigate around it and expect to reach the desired destination.
Much like the 1977 Eagles, the 1999 version, which went 5-11 in the first year of the Andy Reid era, stayed competitive with special teams and defense. Both teams featured young quarterbacks (Ron Jaworski in his second year as a starter in 1977 after being plucked from the Rams and rookie Donovan McNabb taking over halfway through the 1999 season) worked through their mistakes.
In 2016, we have prized rookie Carson Wentz slated to start the season opener – in a drastic turn of events after slated starter Sam Bradford was sent packing to Minnesota for first- and fourth-round picks on the eve of the season – so there is reason for guarded optimism about the long-term.
From their humble and character-building beginnings, Vermeil’s and Reid’s Eagles got to Super Bowls.
They lost, yes, but they were there. One undeniable law of the sports universe is that you can’t win a championship unless you are in it.
What seems to be in place are the support systems – the front offices able to see far and wide, as opposed to having the tunnel vision that dooms sports franchises to eternal damnation.
Vermeil had the combination of Jim Murray and Carl Peterson to lean on in the front office. Reid had Tom Modrak. Pederson seems in safe hands with Howie Roseman, who has come back from the wilderness to earn the adoration of the faithful by undoing all that Chip Kelly did went he sent Roseman into exile (while doing his best to fulfill that whole “eternal damnation” prophecy).
If they are to eventually climb that mountain again with new head coach Doug Pederson, who started at quarterback in the first part of 1999 and turned up on Reid’s staff as the quarterbacks coach before moving with him to Kansas City, the coming season could very well be the launching pad.
The parallels are there. Vermeil had Marion Campbell as his defensive coordinator in what was, at the time, an innovative mode of attack with a 3-4 defense. Reid had Jim Johnson and his masked strategies of dictating to the offense, as opposed to letting the offense dictate to him. Pederson has Jim Schwartz and his attacking Wide-9 scheme (a far cry from the disjointed Wide-9 mess in Reid’s final season of 2012).
Special teams? Vermeil needed to come around on the importance of a placekicker (lest we summon the image of Mike Michel’s misses when the Eagles made the playoffs in 1978, a year after the 1977 signs of sunlight through the clouds). However, as evidenced by Vince Papale making the team 1976, the tie-breaker in the battle for backup roster spots was almost always based on kick/punt coverage skills.
While Ken Iman handled both special teams and the offensive line on the staff, it needs to be mentioned that Vermeil was hands-on in that area. He holds the distinction of being the league’s first full-time special teams coach under George Allen with the Rams.
Reid had John Harbaugh, who went to eventually become a head coach and lead the Baltimore Ravens to a championship. And Pederson has wisely retained Dave Fipp from Chip Kelly’s staff.
In conjunction with Schwartz’s take-no-prisoners defense, the special teams could make enough plays – forcing turnovers, blocking punts, setting up long returns, etc. – to make up for an offense that will be driving in the right lane of the highway for long stretches of its 2016 road trip.
Enough so that maybe we could get 1977 all over again. So break out the old turntable, crank up the Fleetwood Mac and don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.
This column also appeared at Phillyphanatics.com