All right, here's Don Rickles, doing a number on the Philadelphia Eagles. Everyone does Philadelphia, so Rickles is looking for new material. In one corner of the cavernous Latin Casino, a Cherry Hill, N.J. nightclub, he spots a quartet of Eagle players who have crossed the Delaware in search of, well, life. He socks it to them. "Philadelphia!" sneers Rickles. "Hey, look, it's not that easy there. Thank God for the Eagles! There they are, folks. Is it any wonder they can't win a game? Look at the hair on Timmy Rossovich. Saw you in Born Free, kid. Where you from, Timmy? C'mon, Timmy, try and read my lips. Aw, never mind. Finish your bananas and I'll come back to you later. Chuck Bednarik used to sprinkle guys like you on his cereal."
Actually, Rickles came down easy on the Eagles compared to the Philadelphia press and fans. In the 10 years since Philadelphia won an NFL title, beating an early Lombardi Packer team 17-13, the Eagles have flown like so many songbirds into a cloud of DDT. Kids in the City of Brotherly Love won't even play with footballs decorated with the Eagles' white-and-kelly-green colors.
Well, that may be something of an overstatement. Granted the Eagles have compiled a 47-74-5 record since their last championship. Granted their last winning season—9 and 5—was in 1966. Granted they lost their last four games last year and their first seven—five of them exhibitions—this year. But, after all, they are "rebuilding," a "team in transition." New ownership, new management, new coaching—all of these require maturity and patience and.... There must be worse teams in football. Like, uh, well, would you believe Lehigh?
Or maybe the Chicago Bears. Last Sunday, when the Eagles played them in Evanston, Ill., the only question was: Which team would blow it better, quicker? The Eagles proved their mastery at the opening kickoff, the Bears' Cecil Turner romping 96 yards for a touchdown. Philadelphia, hoping to prolong the suspense, struck back with a touchdown of its own, Norman Snead passing to Gary Ballman for the six points, but Eagle ineptitude took care of the seventh as holder Ron Medved bobbled the extra-point snap.
Snead, hampered by a sore arm, couldn't throw long, so he threw often and short—and often short of his targets at critical moments. Nonetheless, his passing stats were a personal high: 24 for 33 and 257 yards. The Eagles' ground game was more impressive—seriously. Denied the middle by the omnipresence of Dick Butkus, Philadelphia went to quick pitchouts. But in the fourth quarter, with the Bears leading 17-9, Offensive Coach Charlie Gauer noticed that Butkus was vulnerable—a healing hamstring limited his mobility. Rookie Lee Bouggess bolted past Butkus into the end zone from 10 yards out to cap an 80-yard drive—the Eagles' best of the year.
But Butkus had his revenge. With Snead staggering toward a go-ahead score, the linebacker dropped him with a third-and-14 blitz. A last-minute Chicago field goal made it Bears 20, Eagles 16. "It was like Aesop's Fables out there," said Defensive Tackle Gary Pettigrew. "Hares and hounds. We were the hares running for our lives, they were the hounds running for the hell of it."
But scores and individual performances count for little when two teams as bad as the Eagles and the Bears meet. In both cases the big problem is organization. Good organization—from ticket management through coaching staff to team captaincy—breeds good football. When teams fail, as the Bears have since George Halas passed 68 seven years ago, and the Eagles have since Buck Shaw retired in 1961, the failure is a result of complex factors that reach up to ownership. A good organization must be geared to a 10-to 20-year cycle. Witness the Cleveland Browns. In 20 years of NFL play the Browns have had only one losing season (1956). As an Eagle coach recalls: "I went down to scout the Browns one year and when I got there I called the office. Paul Brown answered the phone, set me up with credentials, a hotel room, a car and tons of perks—and I was his enemy. He wowed me with good organization. Then he beat us."
The Eagles really became disorganized in 1964, when construction tycoon Jerry Wolman took over the team for $5.5 million and appointed Joe Kuharich to a 15-year term as general manager with—logically enough—Joe Kuharich having the choice of head coach. Same name. Next year, when the criticism of Kuharich's coaching—which began even before Joe arrived—swelled, Wolman was seen punching it out in the stands with a fan who had slighted his team and his coach. Al Nelson, then a rookie defensive back, witnessed the melee. "Is that my owner?" he asked. "This is a madhouse."
By 1969 Jerry was bankrupt. Trucking magnate Leonard Tose was the next victim. He bought the team for the highest price ($16,155,000) ever paid for a franchise in any sport. Tose is a lean, hard businessman who has a reputation for handling the Teamsters. "He took the Teamsters, didn't he? He's gotta be tough," ran the line on Broad Street. But Tose, like Wolman, is a football freak. His first few moves were beautiful—like those of a rookie flanker in the early days of training camp. He fired Kuharich, he hired Pete Retzlaff.
Everyone in Philly knew Retzlaff—the smooth, blond and perennially successful wide receiver of the Eagles, whose number, 44, had been retired only three years earlier. Retzlaff was a perfect choice for a general manager. He had served with distinction as president of the NFL players' organization and with cool as a local sportscaster. Dynamite casting! Last year the Eagles even won four games and tied another. But this year Len Tose and Pete Retzlaff are bad news. Why the switch?