The power structure of the National Football League has started to shift. No longer is the American Conference dominant, able to cuff its older brother on whim. That will become especially evident here Sunday, when the Philadelphia Eagles beat the Oakland Raiders in the Super Bowl XV.
Until the recent revelations about ticket scalping, I was prepared to suggest this would be the most unappealing Super Bowl of them all. Trench warfare in the missile age. And if fans are willing to spend up to $400 for a $40 ticket to see these two overachievers collide, what will happen when both Super Bowl teams havee exceptional quarterbacks and receivers?
This is not meant as a head slap to Jim Plunkett of the Raiders or whomever the Eagles have at wideout opposite Harold Carmichael. No one deserves more good fortune than Plunkett, who before this season seemed to be one of sport's losers after a spectacular collegiate career.
Plunkett had gone from Heisman to Hasbeen. Gunner to Gunshy. His has been as special a season as any player's since George Blanda's; it will come to a sad end soon, buried under a half-ton of Eagles.
What has been overlooked in the outpouring of sentiment of the good-guy Raider quarterback is that the Eagles have a squad full of Plunketts. No team in recent memory has gone so far with so many players everyone else considered culls. Imagine the league's stingiest defense with two regulars from, of all places, Vanderbilt. Like Raider Coach Tom Flores with Plunkett this season, Dick Vermeil used many of these Eagles in prior years simply because they were all that was available. He also was pleasantly shocked with the results. If Vermeil caps that five-year struggle with victory Sunday, his will be a coaching success of almost Lombardian proportion.
How should that happen?
Defense. The NFL's Ronald Reagan is going to give us another lesson in the old-fashioned virtures of ball control and hitting that blasts chin stras from chins. Rookie Roynell Young might be as famous as Lester Hayes before game's end, and instead of being the star Plunkett will be seeing stars. Or the underside of the Superdome's lid.
The Eagles sacked Plunkett eight times when they won a three-point decision two months ago in Philadelphia. If Oakland counters the troubles that caused that, the Eagles are capable of countering the counter. They play football chess very well.
In Jerry Robinson, they have a linebacker as quick as any in the game. And their defensive line is as solid as it is unknown, although the Eagles' cornerstones are four inventive and mobile linebackers.
Vermeil also is adept at playing mind games. He knows that the Achilles' heel with most teams is mental laziness, that others often submit to the distractions of the circus-like mood of a Super Bowl and, in effect, lose the game before they take the field. And that still others sometimes are satisfied with making the Super Bowl rather than winning it.
So the Vermeil sermon the last two weeks has been, "Play like you've been here before."
The Super Bowl dizziness is only slightly worse than what regularly happens to the Eagles during the regular season. Their press is more intense and swarming than any in the league.
"A lot of people have been asking, 'Is this going to break up your practice routine?'" said offensive tackle Stan Walters. "But if you follow the Eagles you know we've done worse than this many times, getting on a bus and not knowing when we're coming back from practice.
"When JFK Stadium was being readied once for an Army-Navy game -- and we don't like to practice in the Vet -- we took off for Widner ((college). We got there, we got ready and on the field and the bus drivers took a break. And then the girls' field hockey team threw us off the field.
"So we had to wait outside and Dick goes, 'Where are the buses?' The drivers aren't anywhere to be seen. We started practice about 4 that afternoon, three hours late."
Also, whatever pregame tension grabs players before Super Bowls has not yet struck the Eagles. Walters and others have found their beds short-sheeted. Later, having gotten that mess straightened out, they have innocently slid their hands under their pillows ready, at last, for sleep.
Suddenly came a slimy feeling, the hands yanked back out -- covered from fingernail to wrist with toothpaste.
The Eagles were expected to be good this season, and they were. Even though they lost three of their final four games, the season's pivotal point may well have been the fourth game.
"The Cardinals beat our brains out that day in St. Louis," linebacker John Bunting recalled. "From that game forward, our whole personality as a defense changed. We had wanted to stop the run, and until then we had. But that day we saw everythingg we'd set out to do blow apart. Since then the concentration has been there.
"And whatever it's taken to stop the running game has been there."
The Raiders are very much a running team. Philadelphia figures if it stops Kenny King's legs Jim Plunkett's arm will follow. Who, based on any past-performance quarterback chart, is most likely to throw an awful pass at the worst time, Plunkett or Ron Jaworski?
Both field-goal kickers, the Eagles' Tony Franklin and the Raiders' Chris Barr, have been as high and wide of the mark as Democratic strategists the last several months. Franklin seems to be recovering; Barr is said to still have been erratic in practice this week.
For this first time in years, the NFC champion has had the more difficult route to the Super Bowl.Any offense with a mind should be able to beat the Chargers. The Eagles overwhelmed a more complex team that the Raiders for the conference title. A 10-point victory, something in the order of 20-10, seems about right Sunday.