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THE SPIRIT WAS WILLING
Man for man, the Philadelphia Eagles are boys. With a defense that three Sam Huffs couldn't cure and a running game that was out of town when it was time for the last 5,000-mile check, the Eagles have no business occupying the same stadium with the New York Giants, to select a name not entirely at random. Of all the things a team must do well to win in the National Football League, the Eagles manage only one: the pass. It hardly seems enough.
Yet last Sunday, while 60,000 hysterical Philadelphians kept themselves warm by pounding each other on top of the head, the Eagles frightened the Giants half to death, playing them down to the last second of as exciting a football game as ancient Franklin Field has contained in years. The Eagles went down, and on the way they probably lost the NFL championship. But they went down like champions should, losing only 28-24 and scoring more points against the magnificent New York defense than any team has been able to score this year.
Actually, the Giants were never in danger of losing, they kept telling themselves. Fifty seconds deep in the third quarter, they had a 21-10 lead. Then the Eagles scored. The Giants had a 28-17 lead with three minutes left in the game—and the Eagles scored again. At the end the Eagles were threatening to score once more. They just ran out of time.
Philadelphia is a team that seems to have been running out of time all year, with only a fierce sense of pride, the excellent coaching of a virtually unknown staff and that sensational passing attack to keep it alive. "We're not a sound ball club," said Nick Skorich, the head unknown, before the game on Sunday. "Sometimes it really shows. When we lose, we lose big." In mid-November, leading the league with a 7-1 record, the Eagles lost twice in succession, 38-21 to the Giants and 45-24 to the Browns. "We were the defending champions," said Skorich. "Then, when we lost those two games we were really kissed off. The guys got mad and they climbed back on top again. There's a hell of a spirit on this ball club."
It is well that the spirit is there, for the flesh doesn't look like it could beat Over-brook High. On the defensive club, only three could play for the Giants: Chuck Bednarik, now 36 but still Bednarik and therefore superior as a middle linebacker to New York's Tom Scott; Leo Sugar, a fine left end who might have replaced Jim Katcavage if he had gotten there first; and Tom Brookshier at left halfback. Brookshier is good enough to play for anyone except that Brookshier has had a broken leg for a month and can't even play for the Eagles.
In Clarence Peaks, Billy Barnes, Ted Dean and Tim Brown, Philadelphia is blessed with four of the better running backs in the NFL and also four of the most frustrated, since the Eagle line hasn't opened a decent hole in years. This places a staggering responsibility upon the passing game, on red-haired Christian Adolph Jurgensen, playing his first season as No. 1 quarterback, and on the three receivers, Tommy McDonald, Pete Retzlaff and Bobby Walston. Jurgensen has been sensational, leading the league in completions and yardage and touchdown passes while threatening a handful of NFL records held by men with names like Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman, Johnny Unitas, Bobby Layne and Norm Van Brocklin, the man Jurgensen rendered obsolete.
Still, for all his great arm, Sonny Jurgensen is 47 years younger and 24 years less experienced than Y. A. Tittle and Charlie Conerly, the quarterbacks he had to outperform on Sunday. As for the receivers, their edge over Del Shofner, Kyle Rote and Joe Walton of the Giants is a thin one. The Eagles, particularly McDonald, run better when they catch the ball but the passing and catching are little enough with which to challenge a team that can score like blazes and has the brute defense to back up its offense.
Naturally, the Eagle coaches were concerned, and in the long week before the game, in the overheated dressing rooms under Franklin Field and out on the freezing, windswept practice field down by the Schuylkill, they wrestled with one basic problem: how to help Jurgensen get the ball to McDonald, Retzlaff and Walston more often than Tittle or Conerly could get the ball to Rote, Shofner and Walton. To accomplish the first, they decided to open up the Eagle offense with a strange-looking spread formation that they called the stacked deck. "We send Retzlaff out wide to the left," explained Charlie Gauer, who shares the offensive coaching duties with Skorich, "then we send three others wide to the right and stack them up one behind the other: McDonald, Walston and Brown. Or we stack to the left, with Retzlaff, Walston and Brown. When the ball is snapped, they scatter. If the Giants shift another linebacker out there to help cover, we have a couple of running plays that might go with Peaks up the middle.