The question foremost in the minds of every Redskin official and fan is, or should be: Can a team rebuild and also win consistently? The foremost National Football League authority at the moment, Dick Vermeil, says no.
"We weren't able to do it," he said.
That should not be taken out of context. Vermeil was not, by implication, suggesting that just because he could not reclaw the Eagles and win grandly at the same time, no one can. Someone, in fact, has -- the Dallas Cowboys, but under circumstances entirely different from those facing Vermeil's Eagles and Jack Pardee's Redskins.
In 1976, Vermeil assumed a Pardee-like position with the Eagles.
"Except that Jack took over a team that was winning," Vermeil quickly adds. "This team was losing."
The Eagles were 4-10 the year before Vermeil arrived, and had no obvious way to improve. There was no draft choices -- no good ones -- his first, second or third years. The previous administration had traded the first four picks in '76, the first three in '77 and the first two in '78. And linebacker Bill Bergey was the only useful part of those trades as far as Vermeil was concerned.
Somehow, in four years and 10 games, Vermeil has taken the Eagles from worst to first. And in the toughest NFC division. Three days before they play the Redskins here, Philadelphia has the best record -- by two games -- in the league, although it is hard to imagine any team with Louie Giammona as its primary runner much of the season being stronger than at least three AFC powers.
What Vermeil has done should not be underestimated. Surely, no coach ever accomplished more with less. Not Lombardi. Not Landry. Not Shula. Chuck Noll had a better record his fourth year with the Steelers than Vermeil did his fourth year with the Eagles. But Noll had a full complement of draftees.
With a few exceptions, Vermeil has won with culls, either damaged goods or players everbody else rejected. It is like a man cracking the Indy 500 field in a machine built with spare parts and washline rope and actually leading in the race.
The voice on the other end of the phone seemed to take in a humble tone. This would be another last night, full of X's and Z's at the office, where he sleeps three days each week, Vermeil indicated. He can be as brash as anyone -- and was, in an indirect way, when he said:
"We have had better players than most of the teams we've beaten. I like to believe we're good coaches. But we have better players than we've been given credit for. We've been very fortunate with middle-round draft choices and free agents."
Vermeil and a personal wizard named Carl Peterson chose those players, saw the possibilities for a gourmet meal with what everyone else considered leftovers.
Let's choose two teams, not quite at random -- the Cincinnati Bengals and the New Orleans Saints -- and match them against the Eagles for a similar period. In '75, Cincinnati was 11-3, New Orleans 2-12, Philadelphia 4-10. pFrom '76 through '80, the Bengals had 22 prime draft choices, the Saints 14 and the Eagles five.
Dynasties have been built with fewer cornerstones -- and destroyed very quickly when the tools for repair were squandered. In theory, the Bengals and Saints should have soared with all those advantages; the Eagles this year should not have been considered for theTangerine Bowl, let alone the Super Bowl.
Last season and the first 10 games this year, the Bengals were 4-12 and 3-7, the Saints 8-8 and 0-10. The Eagles were 11-5 and 9-1.
The Eagles took a chance four years on a gifted runner everyone else assumed could play no more on an injured leg. Wilbert Montgomery has gained more than 3,000 yards for the Eagles. After choosing Montgomery on the sixth round of the '77 draft, the Eagles picked Charlie Johnson on the seventh. In a conventional defense, he might have been an ordinary tackle at best. In the 3-4 defense Vermeil started to use during his second season, Johnson has been an all-pro.
"We went to the 3-4," Vermeil said, "because you can get by with less personnel.It's easier to find 220-pound linebackers than it is superior defensive linemen. It's also easier to play pass defense."
Whenever possible, Vermeil drafted for defense, abiding by the NFL cliche that teams must prevent losing before they can start winning. Also, his teams were dreadfully dull those early years. If football were politics, Vermeil would have been a sharp right turn from Ronald Reagan. But he knew that too many blowouts caused by gimmicks impossible to execute regularly might blow out the minds of his young players and destroy their future.
"Lately, we've been able to expand," Vermeil said. "We've gotten into the passing game more as our quarterback has matured." (Ron Jaworski was acquired from the Rams for tight end Charley Young before the '77 season.) "And we've matures as coaches. I think we could have won a few more games in '77 (they were 5-9) if we'd played Montgomery more. But he had trouble learning the offense. He was an immature player.
"We had to have a defense first. And a running game. Then we could develop the quarterback and the fringes."
One of the fringes was place kicking. Eagle kickers were atrocious Vermeil's first few years.Before the '79 draft, he fell in love with Russell Erxleben of Texas, potentially an all-pro punter and field-goal specialist, capable of filling two roster positions for a decade at least.
But Vermeil got lucky, although it did not seem so at the time. The Saints drafted Erxleben on the first round, before the Eagles got the chance. So Vermeil took a linebacker, Jerry Robinson, who will be an all-pro some time soon. Tony Franklin still was available on the third round -- and has outkicked Erxleben from here to Austin.
Also, Vermeil was fortunate that his progress was steady, a 4-10 first year followed by 5-9, 9-7 and 11-5 seasons. There were no drastic, Pardee-like upward surges early, when the team played far above its natural level and raised all manner of unnatural pressure to win sooner than what was realistically prossible.
"There's a lot of 'ifs' all over the place in this sport," Vermeil said. "We've been very philosophical in reguard to the new people on our roster. We try to evaluate them personally, as well as players. We want ego-character people."
Then Vermeil grew philosophical.
"It takes physical talent (to win). You're right, Mike McCormack did leave the skeleton of our offensive line. But (Stan) Walters was not highly thought of when we got here. And (Keith) Krepfle wasn't playing at all. And we did have good linebackers right from the beginning."
Vermeil has used his draft picks the way a good mason uses every stone. He rarely trades, though, when it took a sixth-round choice to get an assistant coach, Jerry Wampfler, from the Giants, he gave it.Most NFL coaches are not workaholics to Vermeil's degree. But then he started quite a distance behind most of the coaches he now is passing.