Super Bowl XV won't be a track meet or a basketball game in pads and cleats. You'll be able to leave your TV set to get a beer without worrying about missing three touchdowns. When the rule-makers worked their cosmetic magic and opened up the passing lanes, they were subtly crooking a finger at all those rubber-armed young quarterbacks and agile whippets who catch passes, beckoning them to the final January spectacle—"Come my darlings, come light up the board for us, give us offense, give us scores, keep those fans glued to their TVs, keep the ratings soaring ever higher."
Uh-uh, it hasn't quite worked out that way. The Super Bowl passing record is a modest 309 yards. Do I hear laughter out there? What's modest about 309 yards, you say? Well, San Diego alone beat that number eight times this season.
No, there won't be a great air show for Supe XV. Defense is the word. Philadelphia and Oakland, valiantly piling sandbags against that great flood gathering out there, are the combatants. They have defensed the 1980s. In the conference championship, Philly overcame the greatest scoring machine in the past 13 years, the Dallas Cowboys, and Oakland outlasted the greatest yardage-maker of all time, San Diego. The names you will hear most on Jan. 25 will be Carl Hairston and Jerry Robinson, Ted (The Mad Stork) Hendricks and Lester (The Molester) Hayes...and, of course, Al (The Managing General Partner) Davis, if Pete Rozelle has to present the trophy to his least-favorite team.
Will this be a dull game? Yes, if scoring is your idea of action. No, if you're addicted to defensive football, as many sophisticates are these days. Palates jaded by too many 45-38 shootouts, too many games in which there are so many big plays that, finally, there are no big plays at all, relish the defensive classics—Houston's 6-0 triumph over the Steelers, and, yes, Philly's 10-7 defeat of Oakland when the teams met in November.
There were exactly two big plays in that game, an 86-yard pass by the Raiders, Jim Plunkett to Cliff Branch, and a 43-yard pass by the Eagles, Ron Jaworski to Leroy Harris. The rest of the time it was vicious, unrelenting defense. The Eagles made a 51-yard field goal, the Raiders missed a 45-yarder. The difference in the teams' total offense was four yards. The Raiders turned the ball over in the shadow of the end zone twice, the Eagles once.
"Our styles are very similar," Jaworski says. "Ball control, big, strong defenses that try to shut people down, a bomb every now and then. But I think you'll see a more wide-open game than what you saw the last time. We've had two months to study each other."
The teams do have some striking similarities. Eagle Coach Dick Vermeil is very proud of the way his players go after people in the fourth quarter; Philadelphia has outscored the opposition 143-44 in that period, counting the playoffs. They have lost only one fourth quarter in 18 contests, that to Washington in a game they had already wrapped up. Since the season's sixth game, in which Jim Plunkett became Oakland's starting quarterback (the Raiders like to point to that game as the start of the resurgence, following a 2-3 start and a soul-searching, players-only meeting), Oakland has lost only one fourth quarter, and that was in the regular-season finale against the Giants, a laugher. The Raiders have allowed no fourth-quarter touchdowns in their three playoff games. The Eagles haven't been scored upon at all in playoff fourth quarters, and they've given up only one fourth-quarter TD in the last six games.
Both teams are slow starters, both were outscored in the first quarter during the regular season. Both are addicted to the old run-pass formula, the rule that says you must run more than pass in order to win, a ratio that has become somewhat obsolete these days. But the only games the Eagles lost were those in which their passes outnumbered their runs. Ditto Oakland during the Plunkett era.
Here's another statistic, take it for what it's worth: 11 Raiders played in Oakland's 32-14 win over Minnesota in Super Bowl XI four years ago. There are also nine Eagles left from 1976, when Philadelphia went 4-10 in Vermeil's first season, and that's a high number considering that in losing regimes there is generally a high turnover rate.
"The thing that got the veterans in Dick's corner right away," says Stan Walters, Philadelphia's left tackle, "is that he didn't come in here with the idea of cleaning house. He said, 'You're my players, and there's enough talent here to win with.' Maybe he said it because he knew he wouldn't have any draft choices for a couple of years."