1980 Philadelphia Eagles: A Blazing Comet & A Surprising Fade

Expectations were sky high for the 1980 Philadelphia Eagles. The franchise had made progressive improvement since Dick Vermeil came on as head coach in 1976. The team improved in ’76 and 1977, then made the postseason for the first time in the Super Bowl era in 1978. They got back in 1979 and won a playoff game. Now it was time to take the next step.

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The defense was the heart and soul and the team and the best in the league in 1980. And it was a team where the whole was much greater than the sum of the parts. Nose tackle Charlie Johnson was the only Pro Bowler.

Other notable players included Herm Edwards, a future head coach and ESPN analyst at one corner, with a good rookie in Roynell Young at the other corner. Free safety Brenard Wilson picked off six passes.

Ron Jaworski was at quarterback and the future ESPN analyst had his best season, with a 27/12 TD-INT ratio, a 57% completion rate (pretty good for the era) and a solid 7.8 yards-per-attempt. Jaworski made the Pro Bowl, as did his favorite target Harold Carmichael. The 6’8” receiver caught 48 passes for 815 yards.

Wilbert Montgomery, the shifty little running back, missed four games with injuries, but was able to rush for nearly 800 yards and his 50 catches led the team. Wide receiver Charlie Smith, with 47 catches for 825 yards rounded out an attack that finished sixth in the NFL in points scored in spite of lacking Pro Bowl talent on the offensive line.

Philadelphia opened the season at home against Denver, a playoff team for the last three years, but one that would slip to 8-8 this year. Jaworski hit Carmichael on a 56-yard touchdown pass to start the scoring. Jaws threw three touchdowns on the day in an easy 27-6 win.

Another explosive play started a road win at Minnesota. Montgomery bolted 72 yards for a touchdown, the highlight of a 169-yard day. The Vikings, who would win a cheap division title at 9-7, only mustered 32 yards on the ground and Philly won 42-7. Another easy win came in a Monday Night home date with the lowly New York Giants. Jaworski went 18/29 for 240 yards and three touchdowns in a 35-3 romp.

Philadelphia had won its first three games by a combined score of 104-16, which made a stumble in St. Louis, then the home of the Cardinals all the more unexpected. The Eagles appeared to be off and running again when they marched into St. Louis territory in the early going. But Jaworski threw an interception that went 70 yards the other way, one of three picks he threw on the afternoon. Philly never got it going in a 24-14 loss.

The defense was locked in against Washington, holding the Redskins to 97 yards rushing and winning 24-14. In the rematch with the Giants, it was the pass coverage that shone. Philadelphia held young New York quarterback Phil Simms to 14/33 for 91 yards and picked him off twice. Despite trailing 16-3 at the half, the Eagles exploded for four second half touchdowns in a 31-16 win.

Dallas, the standard in the NFC East with four straight division titles under their belt, came to Philadelphia on October 19. The quality of play was not worthy of the stakes—neither team ran the ball well. The Eagles intercepted three passes, but also gave away three fumbles and allowed the Cowboys to score a defensive touchdown. But when Jaworski hit Carmichael on a 15-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter it was the difference in a 17-10 win. No one in Philadelphia was complaining.

Montgomery was lost early in the Cowboy game and backup Louie Giammona acquitted himself against mediocre Chicago, matching the Bears’ legendary runner Walter Payton, with each getting 79 yards. Payton was the only Chicago advantage and with that neutralized, Philadelphia churned out a 17-14 win.

A visit to a poor Seattle team nearly resulted in disaster. The running game didn’t get going and the Eagles trailed 20-17 in the fourth quarter. Jaworski stepped up. Finished 19/30 for 253 yards, with Smith being the primary target, catching five passes for 109 yards. Philadelphia won 27-20.

The Eagles again played down to their competition at awful New Orleans, clinging to a narrow 24-21 lead in the fourth quarter. Jaws again made the difference.   He went 21/32 for 323 yards, hooking up nine times with Smith and Carmichael caught three TD passes. Philadelphia pulled away to win 34-21 .

Washington was having a tough year and Philadelphia went to old RFK Stadium and made it tougher, forcing five turnovers and winning 24-0. It set the stage for a big battle in old Veterans Stadium when the Oakland Raiders came to town on the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving.

The Raiders were in the playoff hunt in the AFC and this was a physical defensive war. Philadelphia only led 3-0 after three quarters and then coughed up an 86-yard touchdown pass. But a Montgomery was back and his touchdown run pulled out a 10-7 win.

Philadelphia was 11-1 and in control of everything in the NFC. They were two games up on Dallas for the division and Atlanta for the #1 seed. The Eagles traveled to San Diego to play another AFC team with Super Bowl aspirations. But the Chargers’ Dan Fouts, leading a high-powered passing attack, carved up this good Eagle secondary, building up a 19-0 lead.

The Eagles put on a furious rally but it came up short, 22-21. The Cowboys and Falcons both won to tighten the playoff picture. And it got even tighter when Philadelphia lost to Atlanta head-to-head 20-17—in the Vet no less. In this loss, as in the San Diego game, the running game was non-existent.

The NFC East race was now tied and the season finale was in Dallas. The Eagles hosted the Cardinals, a division rival prior to 2002, and again struggled to run the football. This time the Philadelphia defense made sure the struggles went both ways and they preserved a 17-3 win. Dallas got crushed in Los Angeles on Monday Night and put Philadelphia back in control of the NFC East.

It was going to be a strange finale in Dallas. The Eagles had a one-game lead and were in good shape to win the tiebreaker…except if they lost by 25 more points. If Dallas won by that margin, they would vault Philadelphia and take the NFC East. And while this was going on, Atlanta would be in Los Angeles. The Eagles needed an outright win, along with a Falcon defeat to move up to the #1 seed.

One wonders if Philadelphia played too tight, just to avoid getting blown out because they actually fell behind 35-10 in the second half, a margin that would cost them the tiebreaker. Jaworski and the offense put on a furious “rally” to score 17 points and lose 35-27. The NFC East title was preserved and they would go to the playoffs as the 2-seed.

After a week off, Minnesota came to Philadelphia on a gray January afternoon for the game that would start the divisional round weekend on Saturday. The Eagles were a solid (-7) favorite, but dug themselves a quick hole.

Viking quarterback Tommy Kramer threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to speedy receiver Sammy White and in the second quarter a short touchdown run but Minnesota up 14-0. Just before the half, the momentum began to shift, as Jaworski finished off a touchdown drive with a nine-yard pass to Carmichael to cut the lead to 14-7.

On Philadelphia’s first possession of the second half they marched to tie the game on Montgomery’s eight-yard run. Minnesota was driving right back when Kramer threw an interception inside the 10-yard line. The Vikings still salvaged points when Jaworski was sacked in the end zone, putting the Eagles in a 16-14 hole.

The Eagles was just starting to force the turnovers though and after they recovered a fumbled punt, Montgomery scored again for a 21-16 lead. He would rush for 74 yards on the day and the 126-36 edge Philadelphia enjoyed on the ground forced Kramer to keep throwing. And Philadelphia was waiting.

Edwards and Young intercepted two passes apiece, as the Eagles picked off the Viking quarterback five times. The turnovers set up ten more points for Philadelphia in the fourth quarter and they pulled away to a 31-16 win. The following afternoon they watched Dallas rally to beat Atlanta, meaning the NFC Championship Game would be in Veterans Stadium as an NFC East grudge match.

Oddsmakers made Philadelphia a (+1) underdog on their home field, a sign of regard for Dallas and possibly concern over the way the Eagles had finished the season. On a bitter cold day, where the temperature was -3 degrees with the windchill, Montgomery took his place in the pantheon of Philadelphia sports.

The running back took off on a 42-yard jaunt for the game’s first touchdown. Even though Dallas counterpart Tony Dorsett answered with a short TD run that tied the game going into the half, Montgomery was controlling the game. He would carry the ball 26 times and gain 194 yards, while Dorsett was held to 41 yards. In a game where Jaworski and Cowboy quarterback Danny White each played poorly, Montgomery was the difference.

A turnover set up a go-ahead field goal in the third quarter and the opportunistic Young created another fumble in the fourth quarter that set up a touchdown to make it 17-7. Before it was over, Young intercepted a pass and Philadelphia’s 20-7 win sent them to the Super Bowl.

The Eagles would meet the Raiders in a rematch of that tough November battle. Philadelphia went to New Orleans as a (-3) favorite, but this game got away from them right from the outset. Jaworski threw three interceptions, all to linebacker Rod Martin. Montgomery was held to 44 rushing yards. And a defense that forced 12 turnovers in the NFC playoffs got zero against Oakland. The Eagles lost 27-10 in a game that didn’t even feel that close.

The Super Bowl loss was disappointing, but even more so was that the era of Vermeil, Jaws & Co., all but ended here The team made it back to the playoffs in 1981, but as a wild-card and suffered an upset loss to the rising New York Giants. Vermeil then stunned the football world with early retirement due to burnout.

Philadelphia briefly returned to relevance from 1988-90 under Buddy Ryan (father of current Jet head coach Rex) and then enjoyed a long run of success under Andy Reid from 2001-10, and quarterback Donovan McNabb helped them reach the Super Bowl in 2004. But the Eagles have yet to win it all and that ’04 appearance is the only time since 1980 they’ve even been back.