The Philadelphia Eagles had just moved into a tie for first place in the Eastern Division of the National Football Conference with a difficult, come-from-behind win over St. Louis. They had raised their record to 8-4, and had all but clinched a playoff spot for a second straight year.

And still, there was an undercurrent of tension in the locker room. There were some smiles after the 16-13 victory. But there were some frowns, too. There had been some boos, and overall it was hardly a jubilant celebration.

"I hate to admit it," Coach Dick Vermeil said that day, "but Ronnie really tried my patience today. I almost made the move. But he showed again what kind of a competitor he is."

"The move" would have been the benching of quarterback Ron Jaworski. And across the Eagles' plush locker room, the man in question just smiled when asked if he heard the fans booing him after the Eagles had fallen behind, 9-6, in the third quarter.

"I'm not deaf. I heard them," he said. "But look. If you're going to play this position, you learn to accept that. Everyone knows that quarterbacks get too much credit and too much blame. It comes with the territory. It doesn't bother me anymore. I'm the quarterback here, I know that. I have confidence in my ability to get the job done."

At one time Jaworski had a reputation as a man who talked about getting the job done without doing it. A pre-1979 Joe Theismann, you might say. That was in Los Angeles, where he spent four unhappy seasons with the Rams.

He played out his option after the 1976 season and signed with the Eagles, mostly because Vermeil had assured him he would be No. 1. Now, three years later, he has established himself as one of the best. He is the leader of this team, which is favored to beat Tampa Bay Saturday and move into the NFC championship game.

His teammates have dubbed him "The Mad Giggler" because he punctuates most of his sentences with a giggle. These same teammates believe in him -- even when he has a bad day.

"Ron's the most valuable player on this team," said tight end Keith Krepfle, one of the most underrated players on the team. "We look to him for our leadership. We all believe in him."

Krepfle caught a 40-yard touchdown pass from Jaworski to win that St. Louis game last month and he was angered by the fans' booing of Jaworski.

"It really ticked me off," he said. "We wouldn't be where we are without Ron Jaworski. Why don't people realize that?"

Part of the reason is Vermeil's conservation -- i.e., ground-oriented -- offense. The Eagles generally throw only out of necessity, and when they do, the receiver is frequently coming out of the backfield. Still, Jaworski completed 54 percent of his passes this season, 20 for touchdowns.

"Nobody's a star of this team," fullback Leroy Harris said. "Ron's as important as the next guy. But he doesn't look to do anything spectacular."

There was a time when Jaworski specialized in attempting the spectacular -- especially with his mouth. He was first noticed by pro scouts as a junior at Youngstown State because he had a potent arm. Drafted on the second round by the Rams after he looked impressive in the Senior Bowl, he was dubbed "The Polish Rifle" soon aftr his arrival in camp.

But that wasn't enough for Jaworski, "I'd guess you'd have to say I was afraid that if I didn't do a lot of talking I'd get overlooked because I was from a small school.

"So I went around saying they already had my place reserved in the Hall of Fame, things like that. I got noticed but I also put a lot of pressure on myself."

When he joined the Rams in 1973, there were two veteran quarterbacks on the team -- John Hadl and James Harris. By 1974, Coach Chuck Knox had him sharing time with Harris. But he was still unhappy.

"I started nine games there in four years and the Rams won them all," he said. "But whenever I was in I had the feeling that one mistake and I was out. It wasn't a good feeling, especially when you're still trying to learn the game. No one comes into this league, especially at quarterback, without having a lot to learn."

Unhappy with Knox, unhappy in Los Angeles -- "I'm an East Coast person," the Lackawanna, N.Y., native said -- Jaworski played out his option and joined the Eagles in 1977.

"Dick Vermeil told me I was his quarterback, that he had confidence in me and he would work with me," said Jaworski. "That was all I wanted."

His first season with the Eagles was less than brilliant. He led the league in interceptions with 21. His team was 5-9. But Vermeil stuck with him.

"I think the offseason after my first year here was the key," he said. "Coach Vermeil and I spent hours and hours studying film, figuring out what I was doing wrong, what I had to do to improve. I mean we worked.

"And," he added, softly, "I learned."

He learned enough that he halved his interceptions the next year. He completed 50 percent of his passes and lead the Eagles into the playoffs with a 9-7 record. Vermeil's confidence and work with his quarterback were beginning to pay off.

"Ron always had the physical talent, the size (6-foot-2, 205 pounds) and the arm," Vermeil said. "It was just a matter of experience and confidence, like it is with so many players. But he deserves the credit. He worked to become the quarterback that he is today."

That quarterback still makes mistakes. He was booed again last Sunday by the never-satisfied Philadelphia fans when the Eagles fell behind the Chicago Bears in the NFC wildcard game. But, just as he had done against St. Louis, he turned the boos to cheers with two touchdown passes.

After each touchdown pass, Jaworski calmly walked off the field. The old Jaworski would have run the length of the filed to leap into his receiver's arms. The new Jaworski just does his job, enjoys the camarderie of his teammates and goes home to his wife and two young daughters.

"This team is at a point now where we expect to win whenever we take the field no matter who we play," Jaworski said. "We lost five games this season and every time we felt like we beat ourselves, that we should have won. Last year, some people said we were lucky and I'm not sure they were wrong. Not his year.

"No team works harder than this one. When we go out on that practice field we know it's going to be for three hours, but we accept it because we all do it and we do it together. I think the hard work has made us a close team. You know, (giggle) misery loves company."

In the meantime, now that he is an established star in Philadelphia, the boos notwithstanding, Jaworski is endorsing several products and has started his own company which negotiates athletes' contracts.

"I got ripped off by my agent when I graduated from college," he said. "I think I can help guys avoid that. I don't do any negotiating, but I have input. Being a player helps me understand their needs better."

Jaworski also thinks he understands his driven coach, who he has come to know well through all their hours together.

"He's like your father really," Jaworski said of Vermeil. "There are times when you just want to murder the guy. But you love him because you know he's working to make you better and because he cares about you. I can talk to him, I can drink a beer with him. What's important is that we believe in each other."

And, even when Vermeil's belief in Jaworski was shaken by that off-target performance against St. Louis -- during which he had the flu -- Vermeil resisted making a move. Jaworski, unaware that his coach was wavering, calmly pulled himself together and won.

"My coach stuck by me and my teammates didn't lose confidence in me," Jaworski said, looking back at the raw, windy afternoon. "That's all I can ask for."

And as long as he has that backing, boos won't bother Ron Jaworski. He probably won't go to the Hall of Fame, but that's all right, too.

"I'd rather go to the Super Bowl," Jaworski said.And this time he didn't giggle.