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2024 Schedule Release

Return Game Season 2 | Episode 2 | Dick Vermil To The Rescue

Dick Vermeil to the Rescue
May 24, 2021

Return Game: Birds, 'Boys, and Bad Blood, presented by NovaCare Rehabilitation, is the sweeping story of the Eagles and Cowboys rivalry. The early 1970s was a painful time for Eagles fans, but they knew better days were ahead – how couldn't they be?!

Tom Landry was coaching the 'Boys and they were really, really good. After winning the franchise's first Super Bowl in 1972, the Eagles took their best shot in a memorable 1973 showdown.

By 1976, something needed to be done to shake up the team. A college coach from UCLA was just the change-maker the Birds had been waiting for – but it wasn't going to be easy.


VINCE PAPALE: They never perceived us as being that big rivalry. We just hated the Cowboys for some reason.

CHARLIE WATERS: Pretty much had the whole time we were with the Cowboys. Everybody hated us. Philadelphia felt exactly that. They understood that, and they fought like hell to beat us.

DICK VERMEIL: If you were going to be successful in our conference, you better find a way to be the Cowboys.

RAY DIDINGER: There was a dismissiveness about the way they treated the Eagles. They just kind of slapped the Eagles around.

RON JAWORSKI: The city was so charged up. Almost getting emotional, I think about it. It was one of those moments where you know, we're gonna do something special.

ROB ELLIS: Hello and welcome to Return Game: Birds, 'Boys, and Bad Blood presented by NovaCare Rehabilitation. We are in the 1970s now. A decade that lives in infamy for many Eagles die-hards thanks to a mix of memories, legendary football, and a Disney movie.

ROB ELLIS: As a fan, having to relive some of these years is like a gut punch! I want to fast forward to the middle of this decade when our fortunes finally and slowly started to change.

DERRICK GUNN: Not so fast. Not that I like to hit a guy when he's down, but the Cowboys beat the Eagles 11 straight times between 1967 and '72 and nine straight times between 1974 and '78.

ROB ELLIS: Ouch! History is the worst.


DERRICK GUNN: Being on a team that year in and year out was being trampled by Dallas is one of the memories that sticks with Mike Evans.

MIKE EVANS: The six years that I was there, we played the Cowboys twice a year. So (we played) 12 times in the six years that I was there. And we never beat them.

ROB ELLIS: Evans was starting center for the Eagles from 1968 to 1973.

MIKE EVANS: So that was an added upset, if you will, that we couldn't get past them. It became a big rivalry at that time and even more so after my playing days were over because they would (win) most of the time until Dick Vermeil got there.

ROB ELLIS: Yes, Coach Dick Vermeil, the man who would help turn the Eagles' fortunes around, but we have a few more years and coaches to cover first. Steve Zabel has a quick recap of the first couple of years of the decade.

STEVE ZABEL: In 1970, I was drafted by the Eagles and Jerry Williams was my coach. In '71, he got fired after three games and Eddie Khayat took over and we really had a sensational turnaround in the last nine games. We won six, lost two, and tied one. So at the end of the year, we're really excited about our season coming.

ROB ELLIS: Then things took a turn for the Birds.

STEVE ZABEL: Khayat went from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or Mr. Hyde to Dr. Jekyll and to make a long story short, we went from six, seven and one in '71 to two and 12 in '72.

DERRICK GUNN: All the way down in the Lone Star state, Bob Lilly, Roger Staubach, and John Niland were becoming legends, but new players were added to help shape the team.

STEVE ZABEL: Well, Cliff (Harris) turned out to be an All-Pro safety for the Dallas Cowboys. And he and Charlie Waters were the two safeties, and they were hard-hitters and they took advantage of every non-rule that was out there ... anything they could to get away with intimidating you.

DERRICK GUNN: That's right, Cliff Harris and Charlie Waters were drafted in 1970 to a team that just couldn't make it all the way. Here's Charlie Waters.

CHARLIE WATERS: They had lost a couple of championship games against the Cleveland Browns. And they were struggling to actually win a World Championship.

DERRICK GUNN: Before 1966, when the AFL and NFL merged, there was no Super Bowl. It was just a World Championship.

CHARLIE WATERS: But we were struggling. Trying our best to get established as a championship team. Green Bay was the best team in the NFL at that time.

Tom Landry ushered in an era of Cowboys dominance beyond the Eagles-Cowboys rivalry.(AP Photo/Harold Valentine)


DERRICK GUNN: But establish a championship team they sure did! So while the Eagles' coaching roster was a moveable feast, by 1970, the Cowboys had been coached by the same guy for 10 years – that guy was Tom Landry.

CHARLIE WATERS: I have one football picture up there, and it's Tom Landry ... his hat with his arms crossed, standing with his children, the somber facial expression, as your team was getting ready to be introduced and come out to play a ballgame. That is the ultimate Tom Landry and his arms crossed. And he just seemed formidable.

DERRICK GUNN: Coach Landry's fedora is iconic. So much so that Sports Illustrated even put it on a list of artifacts that define the history of the NFL. His fedora even appeared in an episode of The Simpsons. Cliff Harris says Landry didn't wear the fedora all the time.

CLIFF HARRIS: In practice, he wore a baseball cap. But if we were at a game, he would wear that hat. I was just thinking about that. I'm not sure if he wore it. That fedora in the hot weather, but I think he did. Yeah, I think that he did. He wanted to leave a good impression of a class act and the class team with the public.

DERRICK GUNN: He was probably considered one of the best, if not the best in the league, at that time. He was respected by other players and coaches, but to his team ...

CLIFF HARRIS: He was very, very intelligent. And he had a great way of taking a complex – we had, you know, 30 different defenses – and taking a very complex game plan and simplifying it into terms that were fundamentally the way to win the game. But I don't think he was a real personal guy, because, throughout my career, he would either call me Chris, or Phil, because it was Chris Harris and, and or Phil Harris, and I'd answer to him.

ROB ELLIS: But Bill Bradley, a fellow Texan and a real character from the Eagles' defense, heard a slightly different opinion of the coach.

BILL BRADLEY: Tom Landry had a receiver named Hollywood Henderson and I can remember him calling Tom Landry the Teflon man, which you can imagine nothing would stick on him and he was a little bit aloof. He was one of the neatest people in the world. You'd want your whole family or your kids to grow up be just like Tom Landry. He ran a pretty, pretty good program. They're pretty, pretty disciplined.

ROB ELLIS: But let's head back to Philadelphia.

STEVE ZABEL: So after '72, Eddie Khayat got fired and Mike McCormick came in.

RAY DIDINGER: It was the first year of a new coach, Mike McCormick had come in. He had really, dramatically changed the face of the team, made a whole bunch of trades, brought in a lot of new players. One of those new players they brought in was a quarterback named Roman Gabriel, who had been a real star in the league and MVP with the Los Angeles Rams. And McCormick swung a big trade with the Rams to bring Roman Gabriel to Philadelphia to be the Eagles' new quarterback.

ROB ELLIS: No doubt you probably recognize the voice of Ray Didinger. You'll be hearing from him a lot this season.

DERRICK GUNN: He just knows so much!

ROB ELLIS: But back to Mike Evans, he knows a thing or two about quarterbacks and Gabriel stood out.

MIKE EVANS: He was probably the best quarterback that I ever played with. I had eight starting quarterbacks in my career. They came in and went out, and he was the best of all of them. His intensity. He was like an offensive lineman as far as wanting to hit people. And you actually had to calm him down so that he wouldn't go out and hit people because quarterbacks don't hit people. And you didn't want him hurt.

ROB ELLIS: Gabriel was already 10 years into NFL career when he came to Philly. Nowadays, a trade like this might not have happened. Just how much could one player do to stop the Cowboys?

STEVE ZABEL: Well, I think quite honestly that if you looked at my five years with the Eagles, we probably lost more games than we won. We did beat them. And it was a great joy to beat them. We finally beat him. And I believe 1973!

ROB ELLIS: Excellent segue, thanks Steve Zabel!

DERRICK GUNN: You really couldn't have planned that better! Alright, on to 1973!

RAY DIDINGER: This was a really big game for that new regime, that new Eagles team to take on the Cowboys because the Cowboys had beaten them 11 in a row. Most of them pretty one-sided. I mean, the Eagles, usually were out of those games by halftime. The Eagles weren't even really competitive with the Cowboys at that time. I mean, the Cowboys owned the division. The Eagles had been at the bottom for a long time.

ROB ELLIS: OK, OK Ray, we get it. Things were not good for the Birds.


JERRY SISEMORE: Alright, good morning. This is Jerry Sisemore of the Philadelphia Eagles, and I think I played offensive right tackle.

ROB ELLIS: In 1973, the Eagles picked up some new talent to join Harold Carmichael, Mark Nordquist, Gary Pettigrew, Bill Bradley, and Tom Dempsey. One of those guys was Jerry Sisemore.

JERRY SISEMORE: I was drafted in 1973. My whole relative fan base was all Cowboy fans. Even my dad was a Cowboy fan. He had the two hats, his Dallas hat and an Eagles hat that I gave him after my rookie year. They would come to Dallas when we played in Dallas, and I know my dad wore his Cowboy hat. All the way to when he got right next to the Eagles' team bus and then he would switch them. You know after the game you talked to him – "OK, nice to see you, love you, bye" – then walking out towards the parking lot, the Eagles hat went back in his pocket and this Cowboy hat came back on ... so it's rough. It's rough around here with these whiny people being an Eagles fan in Dallas territory."

DERRICK GUNN: It's true, that would be tough, but being a Dallas fan in Eagles territory might be worse unless you are Cliff Harris.

CLIFF HARRIS: I liked coming into a tough situation. I like it better and sometimes even (better than) playing at Texas Stadium. And so, the tougher the stadium, the more I liked it. As I know, it may sound crazy. But it's really interesting that I can remember at the Veterans Stadium, I had a Cliff Harris fan group. They had a sign that they hang off the edge of the banister. They're playing before the game and during pregame warmups. I'd always go over there, and it is the Cliff Harris fan club, and I'd go over and wave at them and they just cheer. I know there were some guys that like me up there.

ROB ELLIS: We can neither confirm nor deny Harris' claims of a fan club.

DERRICK GUNN: You've heard it before and you'll hear it again because it's true! There is always a contagious buzz around the city when the Cowboys are in town. Even for a team that was as down on its luck as the Eagles, there was always a glimmer of hope. It was the end of October, Sunday the 28th. Kickoff was scheduled for 1 PM at Veterans Stadium.

CLIFF HARRIS: I can remember that the stadium would get cold. The benches were heated, and I remember it being a cold, cold field.

ROB ELLIS: It may not have been quite as cold as Harris remembers it, but for a guy from Arkansas, 53 degrees might be on the chilly side.

DERRICK GUNN: By 1973, the Cowboys had played in two Super Bowls and had successfully beaten the Miami Dolphins to get their first ring.

JERRY SISEMORE: They came to town cocky and we didn't get any respect from them.

DERRICK GUNN: But you know, Waters admits, you had to respect the fans.

CHARLIE WATERS: I do remember playing in that it was a great place to play. But I remember coming out of the locker room and coming down the tunnel onto the field. There was a big sign that was painted. It was like something's a big-time Philadelphia fans. And they said this year, the Philadelphia Eagles were going to win the division and had 1960 marked up there and it was crossed out. In the head, '61 crossed out, all the way up to 1970s. And every year was crossed out. That kind of epitomizes the Philadelphia fan. They kind of revel in respecting each other for being, you know, healthy losers. And we love playing in that atmosphere. Thank goodness (that) the fans couldn't get to us because they were pretty tough.

ROB ELLIS: Thanks Charlie! We always had so much hope!

"I had a motto when we played the Cowboys, 'Hit them when they're not looking.'" S Bill Bradley

RAY DIDINGER: The Eagles jumped on them early.

ROB ELLIS: Wide receiver Harold Carmichael was feeding Gabriel intel.

HAROLD CARMICHAEL: Scouting the first couple of plays of the game and I kind of got a good feel of the players. I've probably gone to Roman Gabriel, and said, "Hey, he's biting on this, or he's crowding me on this, or he's dropping off on this. And they're really trying to, you know, take the top off, cover me over the top."

ROB ELLIS: Looking back, Carmichael gives a sense of what the strategy might have been.

HAROLD CARMICHAEL: I was gonna just run straight up the field, your sideline, and we call it a fade pattern.

ROB ELLIS: The fade pattern worked! That Roman Gabriel pass to Harold Carmichael for a touchdown set the tone for the rest of the game.

DERRICK GUNN: Philly was on the board and Dallas wouldn't score at all during the first quarter.

ROB ELLIS: During the second quarter, the Birds increased their lead and went into halftime with a 27-13 lead.

RAY DIDINGER: The Eagles really dominated them. They think they were all over (Roger) Staubach all day.

ROB ELLIS: Randy Logan and Steve Zabel each intercepted a Roger Staubach pass.

STEVE ZABEL: It's tremendously exciting to get an interception off of somebody as iconic as Roger Staubach. It was a pretty noteworthy event in my career. In this particular play, Staubach tried to throw a curl route to the tight end, and I was reading the line of like, maybe interception, and it was very exciting anytime you could have a takeaway on defense, it was a good thing. ... The Philadelphia fans went nuts. And, you know, Monday's paper, I got a real nice spread and write-up for that interception and the fact that the Eagles finally had beaten the Dallas Cowboys, so it was amazing.

JERRY SISEMORE: Roman Gabriel had a magnificent day. The defense had a magnificent day.

ROB ELLIS: The final score was 30-16 Eagles.

BILL BRADLEY: It was a big-time game. There was a lot of animosity toward each other. And it was a bloodbath, so to speak. A body bag game, kinda. Every game in the division was a rivalry, and in particular, Dallas was a little more important for a lot of us guys that came from the state of Texas playing for the Eagles ... just vicious games. I had a motto when we played the Cowboys, "Hit them when they're not looking."

RAY DIDINGER: The Eagles really came into this game with a sense of here's a chance for us to prove to this city and to prove to these fans that we're not the same old Eagles. And the best way to prove that is to beat the Dallas Cowboys. And they did that day. That was the best game that they played all year by far. The Cowboys came in thinking it was just going to be another day in Philadelphia, an easy win. Let's take it. Let's go home. And the Eagles really ambushed them and the Eagles were really fired up really ready to play.


DERRICK GUNN: After the 1973 defeat in Philly, the Cowboys kept beating the Eagles. Well, everyone kept beating the Birds.

ROB ELLIS: Yeah, the buzz from that victory didn't last long. It was not good. Even for the most die-hard fans, those lean years probably made it tough to keep watching every week. But in 1976 something changed. Bill Bergey and Merrill Reese take it from here.

BILL BERGEY: The tide turned for the Eagles without a doubt, when a little Frenchman from the West Coast by the name of Dick Vermeil arrived.

MERRILL REESE: When he arrived, the women swooned. He came out of Los Angeles. It looked like a young Robert Redford, a young Robert Redford that just arrived to coach the Eagles. And he was tough. And he was passionate. He had all the ingredients that you would want in a great head coach. I mean, he was out of what you would say central casting, but the players believed in him. And he took this team that had been down so long, and pulled them up by the bootstraps.

ROB ELLIS: Coach Vermeil remembers landing in Philadelphia for the first time back when he was coaching the Rams.

DICK VERMEIL: I think it was '69. And driving off the airport in a limo, which I had never been in before, picked up by Leonard Tose and driving by the junkyard to the right side up there on the road that passes and I said, "Oh my God, what kind of city is this?" But as soon as I got in town and got involved and met the media, and I recognized I was in a city that really loved their football, and your Philadelphia Eagles, and they needed a lot of work. So I went to work.

ROB ELLIS: Coach Vermeil at 37 had limited experience in the NFL. Just a few years with the Los Angeles Rams. It was his time with UCLA that caught the eye of Eagles Owner Leonard Tose and General Manager Jimmy Murray. Even with the Eagles' front office pleas, leaving a winning team for a losing team was not a straightforward decision.

DICK VERMEIL: I did have second thoughts because they didn't have any draft choices. You know, and players win games, not coaches. And I was really concerned about that. But I decided in coming that I would take on the job and treat it as if they're college kids and develop my own players the best I could possibly do. And only keep those that wanted to work and handle the defeats as a step toward progress and keep building and eliminating people that really didn't want to work, people that just wanted to make a living playing football. And I surrounded myself with a group of wonderful people. And in fact, 12 of that roster went to the Super Bowl five years later.

Dick Vermeil caught the attention of the Eagles with his success at UCLA. He was carried off the field after upsetting Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. (AP Image)

RAY DIDINGER: Dick came from college, he coached at UCLA, and he had his own way of doing things. And when he came here, he had a lot of rules. He believed in putting up signs in the locker room that had all kinds of motivational expressions on them, "A quitter never wins and a winner never quits." I mean, all of those things that you would typically see in a high school locker room. Dick believed in all that stuff. And that was having how he built his program.

ROB ELLIS: That program was hard, even for seasoned NFL players like Bill Bergey and Jerry Sisemore, two players who would be with the Eagles for the long haul.

BILL BERGEY: He was a tough, tough son of a gun. We had to have our chin straps buckled all the time. He would tell us when we could have a drink of water. I'm a guy that was making All-Pro. And this guy is telling me that I have to keep my chin strap buckled.

JERRY SISEMORE: We went from a pro-style management (with) Mike McCormick and you know, "Hey, just win on Sunday night, you know, we're not going to kill you. And we're not going to stress you out, but take care of business on Sunday," to Dick Vermeil who knew zero about life in the NFL, but he was just going to work hard. He was going to figure it out. The emotion and passion from Dick Vermeil was off the charts. I mean, that guy was 24/7/365 plus. Forget vacations. He lived in this stadium. But it was nice to see that because it started to work. We started winning games, and so it was definitely worth all the effort. He had a saying the best way to kill time is to work it to death. No one in the National Football League will outwork us. And that was a fact, Jack.

ROB ELLIS: The guys had never worked harder. They started to believe in themselves on and off the field. And if there was one image that Coach Vermeil got into his players' heads.

DICK VERMEIL: If you were going to be successful in our conference, you better find a way to beat the Cowboys. And the Eagles hadn't done that in a long time. So I sort of set them up as the epitome of the NFL.

ROB ELLIS: And the players knew it. Jerry Sisemore, Bill Bergey, and Harold Carmichael knew it.

JERRY SISEMORE: Everything we did, Vermeil said, "What are you doing today? What are you doing today to get better than Dallas?" Our temperature was measured by Dallas. And he would talk about beating Dallas, playing Dallas, catching Dallas.

BILL BERGEY: We were just plugging along, and I can remember, the one thing that he really stressed to us early was, guys, Sunday, we've got to overtake the Dallas Cowboys. We're never gonna be where we need to be unless we overtake the Dallas Cowboys.

HAROLD CARMICHAEL: We knew that we're going to have to go through Dallas to win the division. And he worked as hard enough to really put that in our heads that we are winners.

ROB ELLIS: And Ron Jaworski, who was traded to the Eagles in 1977 to be their new starting quarterback, he knew it.

RON JAWORSKI: The minute the schedule came out, the Dallas Cowboys were circled on the schedule. They were our target, and rightfully so. They were a very good football team. They had a terrific quarterback in Roger Staubach and an outstanding coach in Tom Landry. They had a revered organization. And a day didn't go by where Dick Vermeil didn't talk about, we got to just keep getting better not to be the Super Bowl Champions, but to beat the Dallas Cowboys.

DICK VERMEIL: And the reason we're working like we're working is so we can one day go on the field and beat them.

DERRICK GUNN: And that day was coming.

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