The day they missed three extra points might have been the worst. Or the game the punter whiffed. Missed the ball completely. Twice. Or maybe the 62-10 loss to the Giants nine years ago was flat bottom in recent Philadelphia Eagle history.

"Know what our coach (Ed Khayat) told us at halftime?" said John Bunting, a rookie linebacker at the time. "He said: 'Do you know what the score'll be if you go out there and play like you just did?' It was 35-7 at the time. So I guess we just went out and played inspired ball.

"Held'em to 62 instead of 70."

Losing by 52 points was galling enough. But it came on the day the frustrated owner, Leonard Tose, had guaranteed victory. Two years and one coach later, a Philadelphian stopped Stan Walters on the street and asked if he was an Eagle.

Nah, said Walters, I'm a teacher.

The Eagles' five-year rise under Dick Vermeil has been as remarkable as anything in the NFL lately. Still, while their record and scattered zaniness might indicate otherwise, the early-'70s Eagles never were totally pathetic. As surely as their opponents would leave the field with a victory, they also would limp more than usual.

Naturally, those bruised opponents would give the Eagles more respect than Philadelphia's athletic ornithologists. Bunting, the former Springbrook (Md.) High standout, sometimes would duck an elbow from some tight end, relax and then be hit harder by something thrown from Section F of Veterans Stadium.

"I went into a state of shock one game (against the Bears during the final home game of the 2-11-1 embarrassment in '72)," Bunting said. "Because all of a sudden I'm dodging everything you can imagine -- tomatoes, oranges and worse. On the field. While the play's going on. It was incredible.

"But then again, I've been to a Fllylers game (after they won two Stanley Cup titles) when they're getting beat by Montreal and going to lose the playoffs and seen 16,000 people on their feet applauding the effort. And that's the difference. For me, there's something to be learned from that. If you work toward a goal, if you continue the effort, if you don't give up, something good's gonna happen."

Although the record suggests otherwise, something good began to happen to the Eagles during Vermeil's second season, when a 4-10 team went 5-9.

"That's the strongest memory I have, that 5-9 season," said Walters, the offensive left tackle acquired from the Bengals the year before Vermeil was hired. "It was the year that built this team, camaraderie, the spirit and a certain toughness.

"Out of the nine losses, we were leading in seven of them in the third quarter. We'd play our hearts out, but the other team's talent would win in the end. Dallas. Washington. I'd look around the locker room and see my teammates totally spent. Drained emotionally. Eyes sunk back in their heads. We'd lost another close one.

"Vermeil would say we'd just have to work a little bit harder. And we did. Talk about a team that could have been demoralized fast. But every game we were in it. That was a nice feeling. Players on other teams knew we were coming on, if nobody else did.

"Some wild days. You'd see our special teams running down the field. Just flying. Then the other teams, with their talent and speed, would catch up and knock 'em all over the place. And our guys would get up and go again. We'd have guys blocked three times on the same play. It might not have looked good, but we had people trying.

"And caring."

For years, the Eagles could not kick the habit of hiring lousy kickers. A Mike Michel would punt nothing but air. Or some foreigner would pass through town and placekick the ball against the center's rump instead of over and through the goalpost.

After three straight extra points were missed one game, Vermeil said to nobody in particular: "If we score another touchdown, we're gonna go for it on the ground." The chance never came to carry out that threat.

The veterans appreciated Vermeil arriving with a positive rather than a negative attitude. Although he was taking control of a team that had not had a winning season in nine years, he told everyone he would assume they could play in the NFL until they convinced him otherwise.

"Everyone -- players and fans -- had hit such a low point," Walters said, "that you were hoping Dick Vermeil could do the job he's done. Nobody even had a wait-and-see attitude. We had to hope to get out of this rut."

What Walters relished on television from the Rockville, Md., home of his wife in '72, he and the Eagles have at least partially achieved. "I remember seeing the Redskins in the locker room (after beating Dallas, 26-3, to win the NFC championship); how close they were, how excited the city was."

Because the Eagles have soared so far with players few other teams wanted, their veterans are wary of highly touted rookies.

"No. 1 draft choices come in under a tremendous amount of team pressure," Walters said. "More than most of the coaches put on 'em. That's because most of us here are underdog types, free agents. The attitude always has been: 'Show us what you can do.'"

Walters looked around the room, to see if Vermeil was nearby. He wasn't. So Walters, hoping his message either would be lost between Washington and Philadelphia or that nobody would bother to deliver it, said: "Draft choices are overrated."