The front page headline of Wednesday's Philadelphia Daily News was a classic in this, the best sports town in the country. Above a cartoon of Eagles owner Leonard Tose sitting at a roulette wheel was a single heartfelt word:


Tose, who is known to be a heavy gambler and is said to be about $40 million in debt, is ready to reward Eagles fans for their 52 straight years of generous support and devoted loyalty by carting the team to Phoenix, the tanning capital of the Southwest.

Five weeks ago, when asked if his recent visit to Phoenix indicated he was contemplating such a move, Tose said, "The only way (the Eagles would leave Philadelphia) is over my dead body."

Today, Philadelphians might say in response: Well, you can't win them all.

The local papers have called Tose a loser and a liar, and Stan Hochman, the veteran, erudite Philadelphia Daily News columnist, compared him unfavorably to a chimpanzee -- which should put Tose in comfortable company in Phoenix, where the resident mascot of the Suns basketball team is a gorilla.

If Tose does move the Eagles, his villainy would surpass even Robert (Gas 'n' Go) Irsay's. Earlier this year, Irsay, the bird-brained owner of the Colts, trucked his team from Baltimore to Indianapolis in the dead of night, a low, despicable trick. But at least Irsay could rant about meager attendance -- which averaged slightly less than 40,000 per game for the last five years -- even though his fatuous management was its cause.

What is Tose's argument?

In a comparable period, the Eagles' attendance averaged slightly less than 70,000 per game.

The Eagles sold 55,000 season tickets this season.

Had they but won, they might have sold 65,000.

What are they going to do for Tose in Phoenix, beyond covering his markers? Give him a lifetime supply of baby oil and cocoa butter? By the time he gets to Phoenix, he'll be peeling.

In the past three seasons the NFL has seen three of its franchises abruptly and capriciously shift locale, betraying the public trust as if it were worth no more than a corn flake. The Raiders left Oakland for Los Angeles. The Colts, Baltimore for Indianapolis. And now, barring submission to corporate blackmail, the Eagles Philadelphia for Phoenix.

We are firmly in the era of franchise free agency. Unless and until Congress passes a law prohibiting teams from relocating without proving either abrogation of the tenant contract by the landlord, or sustained economic loss over a reasonable period of time, owners are going to move their teams whenever the mood strikes.

You don't like it?

You think that's high-handed?

You think that's unfair because you kept faith and in your heart you loved the team as if it was your very own?


As Gas 'n' Go Irsay so eloquently put it, "It's not your team. It's mine!"

The news for football fans in Philadelphia, however, is far better than the news for football fans in Baltimore, because Philadelphia is the fourth-largest television market in the nation; it's in the NFL's best interest to protect that market by putting a team there. Immediately, if not sooner. There already has been speculation in the Philadelphia papers that some existing teams may be available, including those in St. Louis, New Orleans, Kansas City, Atlanta and Buffalo.

How much sympathy would Philadelphians have for, say, Atlantans, should such a shift take place?

Read my lips: None.

That's life. That's what people say. You're riding high in April, shot down in May.

The quick-fix alternative for Philadelphia is the USFL. The league is going to a fall schedule in 1986, and it makes perfect sense for the best team in the league, the Stars, to stay home in Veterans Stadium, rather than play this one lame-duck season at Byrd Stadium -- where they might draw as many as 825 fans each game -- before moving on to Baltimore.

Myles Tannenbaum, the Stars' owner, said yesterday he wouldn't do that. "We gave our word to Baltimore," Tannenbaum said. "We shook the hand that shook the hand. They've embraced us, and we're not going to run out on them."

That was yesterday. Get back to him if and when Tose hits the bricks.

Tannenbaum didn't say, "Over my dead body." Everything else is negotiable.

The NFL probably could stop this cash and carrying on by changing its rules on franchise relocation. All the owners could approve the creation of objective standards and guidelines for moving, and accept a simple majority vote -- instead of the three-quarters majority now required -- as grounds for relocation.

If they did that, congressional action might not be needed.

But I don't think NFL owners will do that.

I think they're secretly pleased with what Al Davis started and what Robert Irsay did -- and what Leonard Tose might continue.

Ad-venture capital.

Have team. Will travel.

By 1994, there will be 40 teams in one big fat NFL. Twenty-five teams will be in California. Fourteen will be in the New Jersey Meadowlands. And the Redskins still will be here in Washington, keeping the politicians happy.