The Philadelphia Eagles became an undisputed first-place team for the first time in 19 years today, manhandling the one-proud Green Bay Packers, 21-10.
The last time the Eagles led their division, in 1960, they went on to beat the Packers for the NFL title. The Eagles, atop the NFC East by one game with a 9-4 record, may yet play for a title this season. But all similarity between today and 1960 ends there.
"They're not a bad club," Philadelphia wide receiver Harold Carmichael said. "I mean give them credit. They tried hard."
That was about the only positive thing one could say about Bart Starr's Packers today. Even after the Eagles played a poor first half -- Coach Dick Vermeil admitted he played too conservatively -- the Eagles led, 7-3 on an 11-yard Ron Jaworski-to-Wilbert Montgomery pass.
During the first 30 minutes, Packer quarterback David Whitehurst was so bad that for the second half Starr turned to Lynn Dickey, who had taken exactly three snaps since November 1977. Dickey was a major improvement over Whtehurst, who completed nine for 26 in the first half. But his teammates made enough mistakes to leave the Eagles in control.
"The first half I played things too close to the vest," Vermeil said. "That's why the offense had trouble. But I always felt like we were in control of the game. There was never a panic situation or anything. I sort of felt like one way or the other we'd get it done."
The Eagles got it done at the start of the second half. Making it look easy, they took the kickoff and marched 68 yards to a 14-3 lead.
The touchdown came on a Jaworski pass to Carmichael. The 6-foot-8 wide receiver, who has caught passes in 109 straight games, also had a 50-yard catch to set up the first-half score.
Jaworski, booed last week in Philadelphia during a victory over the Cardinals, was not impressive statistically today -- eight completions in 18 attempts for 127 yards. But like the rest of his team, he made the big plays when he had to.
The Philadelphia defense made most of the key plays. The first came on the series after the Carmichael score. Dickey, an often-injured nine-year pro, quickly showed the accuracy Whitehurst lacked and moved the Packers to a first down at the Eagle 13, scrambling six yards to get there on third down and five.
Two plays later, Terdell Middleton fumbled on the 10 and linebacker Reggie Wilkes jumped on the ball, ending the threat. "They're a young team and they make mistakes," Wilkes said. "We were waiting for them to happen."
Dickey, who finished 14 of 22 passing for 144 yards, was not making mistakes, however. On Green Bay's next possession he had his team on the doorstep again with a first down on the five. Three times he handed the ball to halfback Eric Torkelson, the fifth running back before the team was decimated by injuries. Torkelson moved the ball to the one foot line.
Starr sent in another play, but when it became apparent the 30-second clock was going to run out, the Pack called time. Then Dickey, who has bad legs, swept left, faked a pass and was tackled inches short of the goal line by linebacker Jerry Robinson and cornerback Brenard Wilson.
"We had a play called and we changed it during the timeout," Starr said, adding that the new play "was an option, not a straight rollout. We had a man open in the end zone but Lynn ran."
Starr refused to say what play originally was called.
On the next play, Eagle fullback Leroy Harris turned a simple dive play into an 80-yard run, bursting through a huge hole and down the sideline before finally being dragged down on the 19.
"The line just opened a huge hole," said Harris of the run, the longest from scrimmage in Eagle history. "Once I got through I knew I was open all the way because they were tight, hoping for a fumble. I just ran out of gas at the end."
Harris, who finished with his biggest day in three years as a pro, 137 yards on nine carries, took considerable ribbing about his inability to reach the end zone.
"Leroy's feet move 100 miles an hour but his body only goes 30," Jaworski yelled.
Jaworski and Carmichael wrapped the game up four plays after Harris' run with a perfect four-yard alley-oop pass in the corner of the end zone. That made it 21-3 with 7:22 left and sent the crowd of 50,023 heading for the exits. Dickey's seven-yard pass to James Lofton with 55 seconds left made the score more respectable.
Starr talked about his team's "improved effort," and the Eagles tried hard to find polite things to say about the home team. But the bottom line was simple: a first place team had manhandled a 4-9 team on a cold, dreary day. It was the first time an Eagle team had won in Wisconsin. The Eagles were 0-10 there.
Amidst his happy players, Vermeil admitted he felt elated.
"This is exciting, I have to admit it. The first-place thing is only temporary. There's still three games left.
"But the fact is a lot of people knocked us last year, said we were lucky to make the playoffs, said I was too conservative.
"Well it's a year later and we're right back. We've won nine games in 13 weeks. Last year it took 16. And we're in first place for the first time in 19 years. I'll sleep pretty well tonight."